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U.S.: Attack Warning, Anthrax Placing New Pressures On Media

Recent U.S. government warnings of possible terrorist attacks and the growing number of anthrax reports have put U.S. newspapers and television stations in a difficult position. On the one hand, they need to convey accurate and timely information to the general public. On the other, they must be careful not to incite or unduly frighten an already nervous public. RFE/RL correspondent Mark Baker spoke to analysts about how the leading media organizations are balancing their responsibilities and whether they're succeeding.

Prague, 31 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The announcement this week by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft warning of possible terrorist attacks was certainly news, but was it worthy of front-page treatment? That was the question facing editors and news directors at newspapers and television stations across the United States.

Ashcroft told reporters on 29 October the U.S. government had obtained what he called "credible" information that terrorists may be planning new attacks inside the U.S. or against U.S. interests abroad. But he said the government did not know where or when these attacks might take place.

"The administration views this information as credible, but unfortunately it does not contain specific information as to the type of attack or specific targets."

The dilemma for editors and news directors was that, without specific information on how citizens can protect themselves, do such warnings simply cause more harm than good by frightening the general public?

"The New York Times" and most other newspapers across the country chose to give the Ashcroft story front-page treatment. Yesterday's (30 October) headline in the paper read in large letters: "Ashcroft Warns of Terror Attacks Soon Against U.S."

Alex Jones, the director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy, understands the dilemma facing newspapers and other media. He says newspapers have an obligation to carry such warnings as part of their duty to keep the public informed.

"I'm assuming that [the government has] some very good reasons for issuing those kinds of warnings. I don't think they want to issue those warnings if they can help it. But I think that there is a sense that leaving people unwarned -- if they have ample reason to believe that something serious and broad and imminent is coming -- would be worse. It's a choice. It's a lesser of evils -- there's no doubt about it."

Jones says that before the 11 September terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, there was what he calls "enormous complacency" in the news media. He says that if people are frightened now by what they read, maybe it's because they should be frightened: "[Such warnings are] frightening to read, but I would rather be frightened than unaware."

But Andy Glass, a U.S. media critic and syndicated columnist for "The New York Times," disagrees. He says the Ashcroft warning -- and a similar unspecified government warning a week earlier -- lacked the crucial details necessary for good journalistic reporting.

Glass says the editors at the NYT and other papers risk giving the warning more credence than it may deserve by displaying it so prominently.

"The problem with that is that if you read the ['New York Times'] story, [the] 'where, when, how' -- none of the basic questions of journalism -- is answered. And yet it's the lead story in the 'Times.' The 'Times' feels that it needs to play that story prominently because the government is playing the story prominently. But having said that, I don't see where a reader is helped at all with that kind of information because it just raises anxiety levels -- whether it's bio-terrorism or another form of terrorism -- without any surcease about how one should change one's life patterns to deal with the threat."

Glass says there's a real danger that the terrorists themselves, by raising threats through third parties, are using the media to manipulate and frighten the public. When newspapers and television stations carry unsourced or anonymously sourced news, they risk serving the needs of their sources over the needs of their readers or viewers.

He says a better decision would have been for the newspaper to have printed the warning but not to have made it the lead story. He also suggests editors add a disclaimer saying Ashcroft did not offer any evidence to support his assertion that more attacks may be coming.

"I'm never in favor of repressing news. If the government has something to share, that information should be shared with the public. But there's also a question of nuance. Do you make it the lead story of the day? Do you make the second paragraph a disclaimer -- if you will -- that the competent authorities were not able to offer any evidence to back up the threat?"

Analysts say a similar dilemma is posed by the recent spate of anthrax attacks that have targeted some U.S. government offices and media organizations, including "The New York Times" and the leading nationwide television networks. As of today, four people have died from anthrax and 16 people have confirmed infections.

The public's appetite for anthrax information is seen as almost insatiable, and the media is coming under enormous pressure not to sensationalize the story in order to attract more readers and viewers.

Some papers have clearly caved into the pressures.

Citizens of New York yesterday could have been forgiven for believing their city was poised on the brink of a full-scale anthrax attack.

The headline in the city's second-biggest newspaper, the tabloid "New York Daily News," was large and ominous: "Inhaled Anthrax Feared in City!" It covered the entire page from banner to bottom.

Above the banner, another line read: "Feds: Threat of Attacks This Week." The casual reader was led to believe that crippling anthrax attacks were just days away.

Upon closer reading, however, the headline was based on one isolated incident: a hospital worker who had contracted the infection and later died of the disease. It was, in fact, the city's first and only confirmed case of the inhaled form of the disease.

The paper's warning of the "threat of attacks" potentially has nothing to do with anthrax. It referred to Ashcroft's general warning the day before. That detail was buried on page three.

This pressure is especially evident among the three national television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC), whose nightly newscasts are watched by a majority of Americans and are a leading source of national and international news.

The three are intense competitors, a situation that analysts say occasionally pushes them to sensationalize stories -- like anthrax -- that would be better handled with calm reporting and perspective.

Dan Rather, the news anchor for CBS, opened his national newscast last night using words such as "mystery" and "fights for her life" that are clearly meant to engage, as well as inform.

"A new anthrax mystery tonight. A woman in New York fights for her life. But how did she get the disease? Plus, the big anthrax problem that might have been on Capitol Hill. The nation on alert. The government now says a threat from bin Laden is behind the new warning to Americans."

Both Jones and Glass say that part of the problem is that the terrorist attacks, the warnings, and the anthrax cases are unprecedented. They say members of the media, like the rest of us, are learning as they go along.

"Bioterrorism is a new phenomenon in the world and pretty much totally unknown in the United States. There are no guide rules, there are no precedents here. Obviously, the press is in a new situation and feeling its way. One thing that needs to be done, I think, quite clearly, is to strike a balance between the traditional role of the press as a messenger telling all that we know and not, at the same time, acting as an amplifier -- another role of the press -- of rumor and fear that would set the society on edge beyond the point that it is already fearful."

Jones says he already sees an improvement this week from last week's reporting on anthrax.

"Probably the coverage and the understanding of anthrax is dramatically better this week than it was this time last week. And it has a lot to do with the maturing, both of our government and our media."

Glass agrees coverage is improving, but he says the members of the media must take another step and become more critical of the government. He blames what he calls the missteps in early reports on anthrax -- both the initial press reaction to play down the exposures and then some of the exaggeration and hype that followed -- on the U.S. government's own contradictory statements.

These ambiguities, he said, were blindly echoed in the media.

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.