News Articles

A Mutual Mission

Journalists, government officials talk crisis at RTNDF workshop 8/15/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

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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