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.