- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 16, 2003

The Radio and Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF) has issued "A Journalists Guide to Covering Bioterrorism," and not a moment too soon.
The topic is complex, unnerving and easy to sensationalize. The stakes are high: A responsible news media, the organization says, can actually "make or break a response," and plays a critical role in the nation's recovery from the unthinkable.
"There is a massive difference between a crisis and a catastrophe," said RTNDF President Barbara Cochran. "And in the case of bioterrorism, the effect of media coverage on public perception could be the deciding difference between the two."
Faulty information and a hysterical tone are the key enemies, the 50-page guide notes.
"Even accurate information relayed in an overblown manner could undermine even the best response and cause unnecessary deaths, chaos, panic and instability," the guide states.
The challenge to journalists is the insidious nature of a biological attack, which can take days or even weeks to unfold. According to the guide, there is no big explosion, no heroic rescues and no convenient story line. But too little information, rather than too much, prompts public alarm.
But can journalists get the right information? There is no guarantee.
"As news organizations seek answers from experts and government officials, inexperience, limited knowledge or a reluctance to share information on the part of some of these sources could create confusion, and possibly even panic," the guide warns.
CNN picked its way through the situation yesterday, stressing that vials of plague virus "may" be missing from a lab at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. A local councilman catagorized it as "a major situation" and called for Americans not to "let this terrorize them."
Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota countered, "But I don't think there is anything imminent that would suggest that anyone who might have these vials could actually perpetrate a bioterrorism event."
Within minutes, Texas officials sheepishly announced that the vials had been found and they were "sorry we had to test the system."
The crisis response "system" is a work in progress.
"Once the outbreak is reported to the public," the RTNDF guide states, "how media outlets handle the reporting of the unfolding story can make a big difference in the course of the outbreak and the success of efforts to contain or treat it."
The guide urges journalists to get a working knowledge of a biological attack, and how it differs from nuclear or chemical warfare. Is it a short-acting toxin or contagious virus, aerosal dissemination or human carrier?
The press should prepare its own journalistic countermeasures.
The guide urges news organizations to prescreen credible experts and understand public health plans "ahead of time," to dispel rumors and even expose profiteers out to make a buck off terrorism.
"Media coverage following the anthrax attacks in 2001 showed there's no certification or license to be an 'expert,' and the scramble to find sources yielded a surprising array of people, regardless of experience and education, who got their words on their air, or in print," the guide states.
It also offers a few pertinent questions for authorities, and advises journalists to stay focused. Civic authorities can no longer "afford to take a 'wait and see' attitude," the guide states. "Neither should the media."
The guide is available at the Foundation's Web site (www.rtndf.org).
Contact Jennifer Harper at [email protected] or 202/636-3085.


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