- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 14, 2001

Television networks, scrambling to report U.S. cases of anthrax, say they are trying to strike a proper balance between reporting the news and not alarming the public.
"The upgraded level of hysteria, now that it [anthrax] has hit a large media outlet [NBC television in New York], in addition to the offices of a company [in Florida] that publishes supermarket tabloids, has people in an uproar," said Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
"The problem for the media now is walking a fine enough line without panicking the public. In order to do that, it's incumbent on news organizations to use proper, intelligent and authoritative sourcing and to deliver the news in a measured way," he said.
But Mr. Gottlieb and other media analysts say that the cable news networks, which reported the newly discovered New York anthrax case all day Friday, as well as the other major broadcast networks, did not always meet those criteria in their coverage of this scare.
The analysts say they believe the networks could have done a better job in decreasing public fears and anxiety about these anthrax incidents by providing better and earlier information on how the bacillus is spread, by making it clearer that the type of anthrax involved in the New York case is different from that in the Florida cases and is less severe, and by stressing that law enforcement and medical authorities have no evidence the New York and Florida cases are connected.
"They ran with the story. When they had the opportunity to take a breath, they filled in the gaps," said Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs.
"It's incumbent on the viewer to stay tuned to get the vital information, but the viewer is not always in a position to do this," he said.
Marty Ryan, executive producer for political coverage at the Fox News Channel, says, "We've been really trying to explain" how the NBC employee was infected with anthrax that was contained in a powder in an envelope. He said Fox reporters repeatedly pointed out that microscopic anthrax spores can enter the body through a cut in the skin, but that they cannot be spread directly from person to person.
The anthrax cases in Florida involved spores that were inhaled. One man died of pulmonary anthrax, which is more dangerous than anthrax on the skin.
"Our job is to report the news in a fair, balanced way and not to report speculation," said Fox's Mr. Ryan. "The need for accuracy is at a premium right now. We don't report all the rumors going around. It's a disservice to oversensationalize things. Just reporting the facts is enough."
Mr. Gottlieb, a former news director at Washington's Channel 5, said he recognizes "fear is one of the best motivators" for winning television viewership, "but right now, it's important to be credible and authoritative. I believe viewers will gravitate to those that give them the best information, not necessarily the most exciting, " he said. "Spreading unsubstantiated news is the same as rumor-mongering."
Todd Polkes, a spokesman for ABC-TV, says he has no quarrels with that opinion. "There has been information that we have not reported, because there was not enough information" to back it up, he said. "We work very hard to determine what information is accurate, and we work to air it in a timely manner."
ABC's "Nightline" has been criticized for airing what has been called a "doomsday scenario" as part of a report on bioterrorism broadcast on Oct. 3. It portrayed a fictitious terrorist attack, in which anthrax was released in a subway system, killing 42,000 people in a week.
Four days later, a station in Washington's Metro subway system was shut down for four hours after a disturbed man sprayed a substance that police later determined was a cleaning agent. Some have wondered whether he got the idea from the "Nightline" broadcast.
Tom Bettag, executive producer for "Nightline," could not be reached for comment, but in an interview Wednesday with the Associated Press, he defended the hypothetical bioterrorism scene. Mr. Bettag said the show performed a public service by raising a difficult issue so government will deal with it.
"It's the role of journalists to make society itch in places that it prefers not to," he told the Associated Press.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide