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Making the Nation Safer: The Role of Science and Technology in Countering Terrorism
Recommendation 9.3: Representatives of the major media should consider developing—voluntarily—a code of norms that they would observe in reporting events related to terrorism.
Such efforts are not without precedent. For example, most newspapers and other media exercise great care in protecting the privacy of child crime victims. The media usually refrain from identifying the victim or giving away personal particulars. A similar code could be developed for terrorism-related incidents that while only slightly restricting the amount of information being reported, would not compromise the investigation of the incident or oversensationalize it. For the media to address these issues voluntarily would keep them from government control and recognize the special responsibilities that they bear.
While the media have an obligation to the public and to the government to try to disseminate information as efficiently and accurately as possible, the government has the responsibility to provide such information to the media and the public as efficiently and accurately as possible. In the same ways that federal agencies are preparing technological responses to possible attacks (e.g., stockpiling vaccines), the government must also be preparing the informational response. Who will be able to speak with authority when a terrorist attack occurs, i.e., who will be a trusted spokesperson for the public? The answer of course depends on what sort of attack takes place and the type of information to be communicated. For example, in a radiological event (a dirty bomb), the Surgeon General might be the right person to speak on how to minimize radiation exposure,2 while in a biological attack, someone from the Centers for Disease Control or perhaps the Surgeon General might be the right person to describe steps people can take for self-protection (e.g., the use of simple breathing masks to filter the air, whether to stay inside).3 In many types of attack, someone from FEMA might be the right person to announce evacuation plans and routes if necessary. In all cases, identification and training of these potential spokespeople should occur before an attack takes place, so the government can respond not only by providing emergency services but also by providing important, accurate, and trustworthy information clearly, quickly, and authoritatively.
First-Line Responders to Attacks
The differentiation and mutual dependence, or “systemness,” in contemporary society, mentioned earlier in this chapter, apply as well to the numerous agencies responsible for maintaining law and order, protecting the society from
The need for a trusted spokesperson is especially important for events relating to nuclear and radioactive materials; see discussion in Chapter 2.
One factor that must be considered is the perception of political motivation: Will the spokesperson be distrusted because he is perceived as having political authority rather than technical expertise?