Media Relations, National Academy of Engineering
Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has repeatedly warned its citizens that a similar (or even more deadly) attack within its borders is not a matter of if, but when. Far-reaching efforts have been made to prevent and prepare for such a crisis. Officials are working to harden every conceivable critical infrastructure target, but at first, one was overlooked: the news media.
Maybe that is because few people think of the news media as a part of their nation’s critical infrastructure, and in the United States, it is (thankfully) outside government regulation. When we think of infrastructure, we usually think of tangible things like energy pipelines, transportation systems, and computer networks. With the advent of modern terrorism, the news media also belong in this category. They are the main communication conduit to any nation’s most important infrastructure: its citizens.
While the connectedness of modern infrastructures means greater efficiency, it also creates new types of interdependencies that expose new vulnerabilities. The news media may in fact be the weakest link in the system. We need to protect the media as zealously as we protect the electric power grid and nuclear reactors, and not just their printing plants and broadcast towers.
The agencies and officials working to bolster homeland defense need to work more closely with journalists and with organizations like the U.S. National Academies. Journalists need to be armed with the knowledge to work effectively as part of the nation’s response to terrorism. To do that, they need the help of the engineering, science, and medical communities.
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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop News and Terrorism: Communicating in a Crisis Randy Atkins Media Relations, National Academy of Engineering THE NEWS MEDIA AS A CRITICAL INFRASTRUCTURE Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has repeatedly warned its citizens that a similar (or even more deadly) attack within its borders is not a matter of if, but when. Far-reaching efforts have been made to prevent and prepare for such a crisis. Officials are working to harden every conceivable critical infrastructure target, but at first, one was overlooked: the news media. Maybe that is because few people think of the news media as a part of their nation’s critical infrastructure, and in the United States, it is (thankfully) outside government regulation. When we think of infrastructure, we usually think of tangible things like energy pipelines, transportation systems, and computer networks. With the advent of modern terrorism, the news media also belong in this category. They are the main communication conduit to any nation’s most important infrastructure: its citizens. While the connectedness of modern infrastructures means greater efficiency, it also creates new types of interdependencies that expose new vulnerabilities. The news media may in fact be the weakest link in the system. We need to protect the media as zealously as we protect the electric power grid and nuclear reactors, and not just their printing plants and broadcast towers. The agencies and officials working to bolster homeland defense need to work more closely with journalists and with organizations like the U.S. National Academies. Journalists need to be armed with the knowledge to work effectively as part of the nation’s response to terrorism. To do that, they need the help of the engineering, science, and medical communities.
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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop At the National Academy of Engineering (NAE), we wrestled with the question of how to help the media become better informed and more conscious of their importance during a terrorist attack. Journalists in the United States are constitutionally protected and vigorously independent. No one can dictate what stories they choose or how they are reported. Many in the U.S. government (probably in all governments) think of journalists as pests, even as threats to national security. The feeling is often that reporters should be avoided as much as possible and told as little as possible. Especially in current times, the opposite is true. A study by the New York Academy of Medicine1 says that “far fewer people than needed would follow protective instructions” during terrorist attacks involving smallpox or a radiological bomb. People will not blindly do as the government tells them; they need to understand the reasons for actions being taken. In the midst of a terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction, effectively communicating potentially complex information will be a difficult challenge that will fall largely upon the news media. Getting good information to the public in the midst of a crisis can actually be more vital than the actions of first responders. In fact, journalists are first responders. Not only do they sometimes arrive at the scene first but they are the only ones focused on and able to communicate risk to people in real time. They can save lives through efficient delivery of accurate information. Yet, with today’s competitive 24-hour news coverage, journalists are under tremendous pressure to fill airtime and print space and to get the story first. Of course, this can lead to speculation, and it is not always harmless. Sometimes it can cost lives. This is not just the media’s problem; it is not just the government’s problem. It is the engineering and science communities’ problem, too. The NAE decided to conduct a tabletop terrorism scenario exercise that would, for the first time, focus on communication issues. The goals would include simply bringing together groups that do not often work together—journalists, scientists, government officials—to meet and begin to understand each other’s needs during the chaos of a terrorist attack. Situations can look much different when viewed from another perspective, and the time to start a relationship is not during a crisis. Government officials must understand the pressures journalists face when trying to report relevant information under the pressure of continuous coverage during a crisis. Journalists, in turn, must better realize the need of government spokespeople to be cautious. Scientists should be prepared to deviate from their ultraprecise tendencies and convey their expertise in ways that laypeople understand. 1 Lasker, R. D. 2004. Redefining Readiness: Terrorism Planning Through the Eyes of the Public. New York: The New York Academy of Medicine.
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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop Journalists, in particular, have few precedents for this new type of warfare— it is different from traditional war reporting. They need a strategy to deal with it and an instant pool of trusted experts who are good communicators. On June 20, 2003, the National Academies hosted, in association with the Greater Washington, D.C., Board of Trade and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a terrorism scenario simulation, entitled Media and the First Response, which engaged all of the above groups.2 The event was so successful that the DHS provided funding for the National Academies to conduct similar workshops in 10 cities across the United States.3 The National Academies worked closely with both DHS and the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation (RTNDF) to create this series, called News and Terrorism: Communicating in a Crisis. HELPING THE PIECES WORK TOGETHER The nationwide News and Terrorism: Communicating in a Crisis workshops began in August 2004. Approximately 100 invitees attend in each city, mainly journalists; government officials; science, engineering, and medical experts; and emergency responders. The workshops include a background presentation on the science and technology behind potential terrorism threats and information on self-protection when near various terrorist incidents. The centerpiece is an exercise in which seven to eight people (journalists, government officials, and a technical expert) react to an unfolding terrorism scenario. Scenario simulations are powerful tools for vividly illustrating problems and uncovering system weaknesses. Commonly used by the military for many years, such exercises are being used more and more frequently by emergency officials and even private industries. It is difficult to prepare for events that have not happened before. Thinking through the communication flow in a crisis, before it actually occurs, is vital in this information age. The public expects to be informed right away, and they will be. The main questions are: by whom, and how well? Examples of dialog from our scenario exercises cannot be shared, because the ground rules require that the comments of participants not be for attribution in any public forum. This allows the players in our war games to be open and honest, knowing that their candid remarks will not appear in the newspaper the next day. While much of the dialog might actually increase public confidence in the preparedness of those tasked with keeping us informed, too much of it would certainly cause unease. 2 See http://www.nae.edu/nae/naehome.nsf/weblinks/CGOZ-5NWKDB?OpenDocument. 3 See http://www.nae.edu/NAE/naehome.nsf/weblinks/CGOZ-642NPX?OpenDocument.
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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop A demonstration of the kind of interactions revealed during these workshops need not come from the exercises themselves, however. Real life provides very good examples. On September 30, 2001, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson appeared on the CBS television network program 60 Minutes and said, “We’re prepared to take care of any contingency, any consequence that develops for any kind of bioterrorism attack.” He did not know that such an attack was already under way, and his remarks would soon be severely tested. On October 4, 2001, Florida officials announced that tabloid magazine editor Bob Stevens had been diagnosed with inhalation anthrax. Later that day, Secretary Thompson made a rare appearance at a White House press briefing. He was joined by an expert in biological threats, Dr. Scott Lillibridge. After making a brief statement about the situation involving Mr. Stevens, Secretary Thompson was peppered with questions from journalists. The second one asked whether Mr. Stevens had come in contact with raw wool or if he might be a gardener, to which Secretary Thompson responded:4 SECRETARY THOMPSON: We have the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation] and we have dispatched, … as soon as we heard anything suspicious, we have our CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] officials there, on the ground. And they are going to go through—the last couple weeks, go to the restaurants. He traveled to North Carolina. We’ve also dispatched people from CDC to North Carolina, to the communities that he was there. We’re checking with his neighbors. We’re investigating with the FBI all known places and all the things that he might have ingested. JOURNALIST: Mr. Secretary, what are some of the sources that could cause such an infection? SECRETARY THOMPSON: That’s why the doctor is here. And do you want to answer that? DR. LILLIBRIDGE: Sure. Sporadic cases may occur from contact with wool, animal products, hides, that sort of thing. And occasionally we don’t know the context of these. These are sporadic, episodic things that happen from time to time. JOURNALIST: But how sporadic? You just named two cases last year in Texas and then Florida in 1974. That’s two … SECRETARY THOMPSON: They’re very rare. It’s very rare. JOURNALIST: So this is the third since 1974? SECRETARY THOMPSON: We don’t know that, but this is a confirmed, and at this point in time, it’s an isolated case. And there is no other indications anybody else has got anthrax. 4 Thompson, T., and S. Lillibridge. 2001. White House Press Briefing, Washington, D.C., October 4. See http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/10/20011004-12.html.
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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop JOURNALIST: Do you know if he happened to work around wool or any of the products that might have … SECRETARY THOMPSON: We don’t know that at this point in time. That’s entirely possible. We do know that he drank water out of a stream when he was traveling to North Carolina last week … Biological disease expert Dr. Lillibridge continued to be ignored during the next 13 questions, though many of them involved technical issues and questions about symptoms. Finally, Secretary Thompson turned to Dr. Lillibridge when a questioner probed about how likely it was that there had been other anthrax cases in the past year that had gone undiagnosed. SECRETARY THOMPSON: It’s entirely possible. JOURNALIST: Possible or likely or… ? SECRETARY THOMPSON: Would you say it’s probable? DR. LILLIBRIDGE: It’s possible. As you heighten surveillance, you’ll get more. That response was the last heard from Dr. Lillibridge. The news media seemed more interested in getting a good quote from a high-profile cabinet secretary than in understanding what they need to report to the U.S. public. It did not help that Secretary Thompson was trying his best to dismiss the possibility of terrorism while making statements uninformed by science. Either he should have been better briefed on the facts, or he was shading the truth. Either way, the public was not served well. There were five more questions, all directed at Secretary Thompson, before White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer wrapped up the subject of anthrax and turned the press conference to other matters, saying: “Any additional information will be made available by either the CDC or the HHS [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services].” The White House obviously commands center stage in the middle of such crises. Are they equipped to effectively communicate the science and risks? These sorts of issues are dramatically brought to light, just as in this example, through our mock scenarios. In the real-life case, as Mr. Fleischer tried to move on to another subject, the journalists’ questions continued, asking for verification of Dr. Lillibridge’s name and then following up by asking: “Is he an M.D. or a Ph.D?” Mr. Fleischer responded, “I’d have to look that up. I couldn’t tell you. You may want to just check with HHS.” The scientist, who is best equipped to inform the public about potential dangers or lack thereof, was not even important enough for a White House follow-up. The journalists, too, missed many opportunities to get solid facts from him. These are lessons that should have been learned in postanalysis of the 2001 anthrax attacks, but that is not yet evident. Similar mistakes during our scenario-based workshops are sometimes frightening. Hopefully those in attendance are now doing something about it.
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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop Let us return to the real-life events. On October 15, 2001, less than two weeks after the Stevens diagnosis and just a few days after it was announced that an NBC News employee in New York had also been infected with anthrax, an intern in U.S. Senator Thomas Daschle’s office opened an envelope containing white powder that tests confirm contained anthrax. The next day, Senator Daschle stepped before the media’s microphones and began talking about a foreign operations bill. Of course, the first question from journalists was about anthrax:5 JOURNALIST: Senator, there are a dozen Senate offices closed today. There is no mail. People are being tested for anthrax. How is the Senate functioning? SENATOR DASCHLE: I think the Senate is functioning as we could hope it would. Obviously, these are difficult times, and we are going to have logistic and administrative challenges that we’re going to have to face. But I think understand [sic] the circumstances, the Senate is functioning quite well. We’ll be back in business in all respects within the next several days. Although Senator Daschle lacks scientific expertise, the journalists went on to question him about technical issues: JOURNALIST: If today it was so important to close the Hart Building partially as a precaution, why wasn’t it important to do that yesterday? And do you think that people might have been put at risk by that? SENATOR DASCHLE: I am confident that there was really no risk involved. This was simply an effort to determine whether there is even a modicum of anthrax that could be found in one of the vents or one of the air ducts that would give us some indication that there was dissemination. Keep in mind that even if there is some trace, it wouldn’t be of sufficient force or strength to be of health risk to those who are exposed. Should Senator Daschle be the spokesperson to the American public about such issues? Does he have scientific credibility? The next day, leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives held a widely broadcast news conference in which they, too, were asked about the technical nature of the anthrax.6 JOURNALIST: Who briefed you on the anthrax? Who told you that it was sophisticated? Because the senators are now saying that it was garden variety anthrax. CONGRESSMAN [J. DENNIS] HASTERT: You know, we’re just saying that the way that it was distributed, with a flume, was unlike anything that we’ve seen up to this point. Of course, we weren’t in contact or saw what happened in 5 FDCH Political Transcripts. 2001. U.S. Senator Thomas Daschle (D-SD) holds news conference. October 16. 6 FDCH Political Transcripts. 2001. Representatives Hastert and Gephardt hold news conference. October 17.
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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop the building in Florida or any of those buildings in New York. But this was different from the anthrax that was just out there in an envelope on a white, powdery substance. It actually had a flume and, you know, infected a lot of people. JOURNALIST: Is there something that propelled it? CONGRESSMAN [RICHARD] GEPHARDT: No, it was the same as the other situations. But you had now 29 or 30 people who have tested positive. That’s a new development. Obviously, that’s more than we’ve seen in these other instances. And it led the people who have looked at this to believe that it is a higher grade, weapon-grade kind of anthrax. Journalists too often turn toward congressional people and other high-profile celebrities with little expertise in the science at the heart of issues involving potential weapons of mass destruction. In this case, conflicting statements between public officials certainly did not reassure the public. Why were members of Congress the lead spokespeople in the midst of such a technologically complex situation? Why were not those at the forefront of the issue scientists with expertise in anthrax bacteria or airflow physics, engineers who could discuss ventilation systems, and medical professionals who could talk about patient symptoms? Our News and Terrorism workshops are designed to help such issues bubble to the surface and create a discussion among key players about how to do it better in real life. We have also produced four-page fact sheets on radiological, chemical, biological, and nuclear threats.7 The purpose is mainly to help journalists (though others would find them useful, too) become knowledgeable enough not only to report accurate information to the public but also to simply ask the right questions. EFFECTIVELY SERVING THE PUBLIC Most journalists are not engaged enough on the underlying issues, the substance and context behind breaking news, which often involve science and technology. So their questions are at a superficial level. The News and Terrorism scenarios are a dynamic way of pulling people into important discussions. Getting the interest of journalists when there is not an immediate threat is a challenge, but a vitally important one. Too often the news media takes the easiest path, which often means the political angle. In part, this is because politics is a form of theater, and entertainment trumps substance in the economically driven media. Politics is also about people and personalities. The news audience, unfortunately, has been trained to have a limited and shallow attention span. 7 See http://www.nae.edu/NAE/pubundcom.nsf/weblinks/CGOZ-642P3W?OpenDocument.
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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop If journalists are going to report in sensational and inaccurate ways, then some might argue that journalists should simply be barred from reporting about terrorist incidents. That way, the terrorists would not have a stage. But fear of the unknown fuels terror too, and distrust in government stems from such withholding of information. People will get their news, if not from the media, then through the rumor mill. When it works correctly, independent professional journalism is the best way to inform the public. That is why the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution8 is so important. We need the media not only to become a stronger part of our infrastructure but to keep challenging the government, because that exercise makes us all stronger. However, uninformed journalists cannot effectively question authority. For example, some well-meaning government efforts to classify or withhold information could end up actually harming national security by slowing the delivery of scientific research results beneficial to society. Journalists need to be equipped to effectively question such policies, and even the work of scientists. To that end, we should help journalists become better informed. Even without direct government interference in news reporting, new technologies are now cutting out the journalistic middleman. For example, officials can send emergency instructions directly to personal devices like cellular phones (through which person-to-person reporting, including rumors, would also be conveyed). The public should not rely on such sources alone. Unless people are well informed, through independent professional sources, they will not know how to analyze the issues and how to assess the information being provided by their leaders. The public will not automatically follow orders from authorities. Citizens need to understand the reasons for actions they are being asked to take, and they can deal with bad news. Those who seek to calm for the sole sake of maintaining order will ultimately create the opposite effect, and the public will begin to lose trust in its government. This is the ultimate goal of terrorists. The public must understand the truth about real dangers. People will respond well, if the conveyor of information is perceived as trustworthy. Unfortunately, right now neither the government nor journalists are held in very high regard. We must work to change that. Firefighters, police, and government officials are not always (maybe not even usually) the most important first responders. Often that role falls on such citizens as school teachers or even the media. They all need to understand, and can handle, the truth. Authority figures should not have an information mo- 8 “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The Constitution of the United States. Amendment I.
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Countering Urban Terrorism in Russia and the United States: Proceedings of a Workshop nopoly. The more people are empowered to respond appropriately, the more secure we all will be. As a local police chief once said: “You can’t build a fence around a community, but you can arm your citizens with knowledge.” Scientists, engineers, and the government must work to get good information into the hands of the media quickly during a cyber-, radiological, nuclear, chemical, or biological attack. We must all work together to determine the best way of doing that. It is at our own risk that the technical community thinks of its homeland security responsibility as simply creating the latest counterterrorism technologies. They should also help empower the media, and thus the public, with knowledge. Ignorance and misinformation can be as damaging to the information infrastructure of a nation as a break in an oil pipeline. It can cause paralysis among citizens who are often the best first responders, confuse professionals trying to respond to a crisis, and help generate the fear that is the terrorists’ goal.