Warnings of probable terrorist attacks in the United States make it clear that this is a new era for the nation and for journalism.
Vice President Dick Cheney was quoted in Time Magazine saying that, “for the first time in our history, we will probably suffer more casualties here at home in America than will our troops overseas” as a result of terrorist attacks.
It’s no time for cheap journalistic tricks or grand-standing. But it is essential for the public to understand risks – real or imagined.
This calls for a delicate balancing act.
How far should we go to uncover lapses in security without making it look like a circus? For example, both the New York Daily News and the London Daily Telegraph published stories on Oct. 7 on airport security.
The lead of the Daily News piece said: “Despite a nationwide security crackdown, two Daily News reporters were able to slip potentially deadly carry-on items such as knives, razor blades and scissors past checkpoints at 10 major airports last week as part of an investigation by the paper.”
The Telegraph reported: “An urgent investigation was ordered by the government last night after The Telegraph exposed shocking lapses in airport security which allowed a nine-inch knife to be taken on to a British Airways flight from Gatwick to America.”
The SPJ Code of Ethics says: “Seek truth and report it.” Part of our job is to test assumptions, including assumptions of public safety. The code also warns against going undercover, except when that is the only way to get information vital to the public. If we are preparing for the worst, journalists have a role to play in that preparedness. But it should be done in a serious and credible way, not as attention-getting tricks or hype for ratings boosts.
And be warned that journalists face federal charges for these kind of antics. A man who tried to board a United Airlines flight with seven knives and other weapons at O’Hare International Airport recently was charged with a felony.
Meanwhile, we’re in the midst of a debate over whether journalists have gone too far in reporting the terrorist attacks and the anthrax menace. The public’s tolerance for bad news is never great, although we must report the good and the bad. A man on a Chicago talk radio show urged the media to “do the right thing.”
A few developments in recent weeks give us reason to believe we are on the right track.
SPJ’s Chicago Headline Club sponsored a seminary recently on “Covering and Confronting Tragedy,” specifically the terrorist attacks.
“Your reputation has been elevated by the coverage we’ve seen,” said Bonnie Bucqueroux, co-director of Michigan State University’s Victims and the Media Program. “People are really beginning to understand there is a role in covering this kind of thing.”
Newsmen who covered the terrorist attack in New York City noticed a changing attitude from the one they might have expected. Cisco Cotto, of WLS-AM radio in Chicago, told the audience that he believes television coverage has changed the way people respond in a tragedy.
“People almost believe that after they become a victim, they talk to the media,” Cotto said. “I think it’s bizarre.”
But it indicates a growing public willingness to describe experiences in a major event, perhaps as a warning to others. And, in some circumstances, as a comfort to others. Good journalists should guard against taking advantage of this kind of trust.
Another encouraging note came from a World News Tonight report Oct. 17 by Peter Jennings on ABC News. In introducing a report by Dean Reynolds, Jennings said: “We are very aware that the constant reporting about anthrax and other aspects of this overall challenge for the nation can be either reassuring or alarming to the public.”
Reynolds said: “We have been bombarded with bad news. And for some Americans it is too much … . But despite these misgivings, a new ABC News poll found 62 percent of the public believes the coverage of the anthrax phenomenon, for example, is not exaggerated.
“For some, the information left them less, not more, anxious. With all the hoaxes and the evacuations recently, many said reporting must be cautious. Many people said if others are anxious, they can stop reading papers or watching television. But at a time like this, few seem willing to do that … .”
Maybe, in an unexpected way, we are earning the public’s respect. If nothing else, we have the public’s attention. We should not squander this opportunity to gain credibility through responsible, professional and ethical journalism.
In times of danger, the best thing we can do is keep the public informed.
Casey Bukro works for the Chicago Tribune.