A Mutual Mission
Journalists, government officials talk crisis at RTNDF workshop
By John M. Higgins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 8/15/2004 8:00:00 PM
Journalists don't trust the government. Government officials fear that journalists would rather be first than right. That's a problem in getting critical information to the public if terrorists attack a U.S. city again.
That was one of the myriad issues probed by TV and radio journalists and government emergency-response officials at a seminar to find the best ways to inform the public.
The seminar, "News and Terrorism: Communicating in a Crisis," was organized by the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation, with support from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the National Academies, to focus journalists on the next crisis.
More important, the groups hope to break through the mistrust and adversarial nature of the relationships between the media and government.
Department of Homeland Security Chief Tom Ridge told the group of about 100 journalists, government officials and professors in Chicago that, at a moment of crisis, the media and government's mission is the same.
"We share a common goal to inform, whether that is threat intelligence or critical life-saving information during or after an attack," Ridge said. But he cautioned that the process requires "coordination, partnership and mutual respect" among government officials, their PR managers and the reporters.
"The media makes their plans, the government makes their plans, but they don't necessarily talk to each other," says RTNDF President Barbara Cochran.
RTNDF plans to stage the workshop in nine different cities over the next year.
Unlike weather hazards that can usually be seen coming well ahead of time, a terrorist attack comes in a flash—and can catch even experienced journalists off guard. Moreover, after-effects could last well beyond the explosion of a conventional bomb, complicating rescue—and news coverage.
Both sides emphasized that plans—and relationships—need attention well in advance. TV journalists agreed that they need to prepare by opening lines with federal and local officials. Stations need to emulate national networks, lining up experts on such topics as chemical or biological attacks well so that they can get instant guidance about the level of threat of an attack.
Just knowing the right questions to ask can present the biggest challenge. In a role-play exercise, told that a nuclear expert was on the phone after a blast, Camille Edwards, news director of NBC O&O WMAQ, said she would ask what precise questions she should pose to local officials.
More important, both sides need to deal with the natural suspicion between government and the media. Government officials expressed concern that reporters would go to air with panic-inducing mistakes. Journalists countered that government officials are inclined to withhold sensitive information.
"It is an adversarial relationship, but in the best sense, where we get the best out of each other," says Cate Cahan, interim news director of Chicago public radio station WBEZ(FM).
Constant updating of coverage tactics is key. Cochran believes that, after 9/11, many stations made elaborate preparations—from backup power to bottled water—but too often, such crisis plans have gone stale.
Jim Scott, assignment director for Indianapolis CBS affiliate WISH, gives his station's planning a low grade. But he and another manager attended the workshop to help draft a new plan, one that will include having critical information available outside the station's main offices in case access is cut off in a crisis.
At the main session, ABC chief national security correspondent John McWethy led a group of government officials and Chicago journalists through a "ticking-clock" scenario: An explosion rocks the Chicago Board of Trade. Thousands of panicky downtown workers rush to nearby TVs for news. What newscasters tell them may determine if they flee downtown. Rumors sizzle that the bomb was "dirty" with radioactive material. Workers' safest haven may be their offices.
The journalists insisted they wouldn't go on the air with a rumor unless it was confirmed by government officials. But government officials were hesitant to alarm the public until they learned more.
As the scenario turned out, the bomb was dirty with relatively harmless radioactive cesium. TV stations would have to explain to viewers that the hazard level was fairly low.
Says Cahan, "It was thought-provoking on both sides."
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