- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 18, 2001

All spores, all the time: For days, the press has been infected with anthrax frenzy, spreading the ultimate cooties story with big headlines and purple prose, spooking the public and vexing officials who must cope with the newest national anxiety.

There is a right way and a wrong way to do it, however.

"This is not a time for misinformation, rumor or exaggeration," said Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center yesterday. "The media must strike a balance between informing the public and scaring them. This is a time for careful news judgment and accuracy, because there are no real directions in place on how to walk that fine line."

It can often boil down to simple abuse of military or medical terms amid the fancy packaging and false urgency of a 24-hour media.

Print and broadcast accounts have indiscriminately bandied about alarming qualifiers for anthrax itself, billing it "weapon grade," "finely milled," "virulent," "professional quality" and "potent." Some reports did not distinguish the profound difference between anthrax exposure and actual anthrax infection, emphasizing disturbing symptoms rather than the condition's treatability.

In many cases, comments were attributed to anonymous sources, a dubious journalistic habit. The Boston Herald, for example, referred to "congressional sources with knowledge of the case" when describing anthrax incidents on Capitol Hill.

Reporters who had boned up on bacterial behavior pestered lawmakers and health officials with questions during an afternoon press conference yesterday, exasperating an Army bioterrorism expert and prompting Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and surgeon, to talk about anthrax size, according to "microns."

"Are we scared yet, talking heads want to know? Yes, we're scared, but mostly of anchors doubling as science teachers," ranted Chicago Tribune columnist Kathleen Parker, who accused the media of providing "bioterrorism for dummies."

Plain facts should be paramount.

"This is a perfect opportunity for sidebar journalism to calm the story, to give facts and put it in context. Old-fashioned news sense applies here, but it's not being applied," said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "We have the big headlines, we've been battered with anxious text without medical expertise. We have allowed reactionary pundits to explain how nervous we should be."

There are actually three stories here, Mr. Felling explained: "The first is that anthrax is out there. The second is how one gets exposed. The third explains how serious the threat is. We seem to have missed that whole second story."

Indeed, comprehensive explanations of exposure risks from qualified experts have been jumbled with spore-counting tales of compromised ventilation systems, mysterious powders and nasal swab tests.

Some alarmist coverage was more subtle. A Reuters story quoted an emergency physician's warning that a biological attack would put ill-prepared America "over the brink." But the story buried the fact that the comment was made at a medical convention briefing which also addressed the group's lobbying efforts in Congress for more hospital funding.

Still, there were a few telling moments.

"The broad public health impact has been relatively minor. The terror is what this is all about," Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health told MSNBC.

"Take reasonable precautions. Don't be a Pollyanna don't let yourself become paralyzed," advised Georgetown University psychologist Alan Lipman on the Fox News Channel.

"We have a chance to offer perspective," said ABC's "Good Morning America" producer Shelly Ross, which split coverage between Washington and New York today. "We are not throwing around medical language willy-nilly. We emphasize there has been only one unfortunate death at this time, and that normally healthy people can be treated successfully for exposure. We try to inform and reassure."

The story is not without its political shadings. Broadcasters made much of differences between House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's account of the anthrax alert at Congress yesterday and that of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. Should the Capitol close? Mr. Hastert, Illinois Republican, opted for a five-day shutdown for safety reasons. Mr. Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, wanted business as usual.

A New York Times analysis, meanwhile, cited a Harvard University theory of who sent anthrax to news outlets: The media, said Juliette N. Kayyem, "has not been a particular target of Islamic fundamentalist groups or groups we associate with Sept. 11. It has been a target of right-wing groups in America."

On the sinister side, many have wondered if media coverage since Sept. 11 has fed the terrorist cause by upping the public anxiety level. Politicians and pundits alike are calling for Americans to remain vigilant news consumers.

While the media continue to gain credible footing in anthrax coverage, the Pew Center's Mr. Kohut sees it as an opportunity. "This is a war over America's confidence, and the press must be mindful that this is an issue," he said. For the first time in years the public is regaining its trust in the press, he said.

Media analyst Mr. Felling is not so sure. "The media is reporting that the sky is falling," he said. "The reality is that it might just be the roof over their own heads which is coming down."

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