A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Avoiding public panic

By Quill

This is the 13th in a series of case studies exploring how top media managers make difficult decisions.

Self-censorship is as old as journalism itself. At one time or another, almost all journalists have held back, not pursued a story, not included a relevant fact, or softened a story’s angle.

In 2000, the Pew Research Center for the People and The Press polled journalists and found that 25 percent of them had avoided legitimate stories. Pressure from advertisers or management was the most likely cause cited.

But journalists who censor themselves are not always as overt as media managers directly telling editors and writers what they can and cannot report. Self-censorship is more pervasive and subtle – an exercise in reading between the lines. These preemptive decisions, often made in silence, are far more common and potentially more important.

In some cases, self-censorship is important – even expected. Rape victims and juveniles are usually not named in stories. Television stations often avoid showing graphic scenes of death and gore while covering accident scenes.

In the period since Sept. 11, Americans have lived in fear of additional terrorist attacks. Throughout repeated perceived threats – anthrax mailings, airline safety and threats to infrastructure, to name a few – the media has struggled to walk the line between informing the public about valid concerns and creating an unnecessary panic.

As the war with Iraq goes on and international hatred toward Americans increases, journalists likely will have to face similar challenges in upcoming months and years. This case study reflects some of the difficult questions that journalists face while covering unknown public threats.

Read the hypothetical scenario and the Media Leaders’ comments and see where you agree and disagree.


Avoiding public panic

It was an annual problem when the weather turned cold. Classrooms and office buildings turned into prime breeding grounds for the flu and a variety of other illnesses. This year, the city of Springfield was hit harder than in the past. Entire schools in this mid-sized city seemed to be affected by the wintertime bug.

Kirby Macintyre, the principal of Westside middle school, was forced to close the school because of student and teacher absences. On a usual wintertime day, approximately 20 Westside students might miss classes. This year, more than 80 of Westside’s 136 students were out before Macintyre called off school. Teachers at the middle school were also calling in sick. Those that were not sick themselves were forced to stay home watching sick children. Across the city, the school board noted a shortage of substitute teachers due to illness.

The intensity of the illness had also increased this year. Students were usually able to return after a day or two of high fevers, but some students were out for more than a week with severe vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration.

While the flu story usually merited some attention, The Springfield Observer editor Tyrone Fields rarely devoted his best resources to covering the story. “It writes itself,” he noted as he assigned the story to Steve Bell. Bell’s first stop was Westside to interview Macintyre. The school was closed, but janitorial staffers were working diligently to clean and disinfect the school before it reopened.

While Bell waited for Macintyre, he spotted Joshua Driver, an old friend from Adams University. Bell learned that Driver was now working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a field investigator. The investigation of the school was one of Driver’s first assignments.

Before Bell could ask more questions, Macintyre emerged from his office. True to his editor’s words, the quotes came easily from the principal. Bell inquired about the presence of CDC investigators at the school. The principal seemed surprised to find out about the investigators. Macintyre was another victim of the wintertime bug, and had spent most of the morning in his office.

When Bell emerged from the principal’s office, an agitated Driver was waiting for him. “Steve, I did not realize you were a reporter when we talked. Please don’t mention our conversation in your story. I could lose my job. I am not authorized to talk to the press, and I don’t want people to get the wrong idea about the investigation.” Bell asked more questions about the investigation, but Driver refused to discuss the matter further.

When Bell returned to the paper, he told Fields about his conversation with Driver. News of the CDC investigation at the school piqued Field’s interest. He ordered Bell back to the school to find out more. When Bell returned, however, there was no sign of any investigation at the school. Bell called the school board to find out about the situation, but no one at the school board seemed to know anything about the CDC’s presence at the school. The Public Information Officer with the CDC in Atlanta would neither confirm nor deny the presence of an investigation anywhere in Springfield.

Bell continued to track information for the standard flu story. He went to the Kids Klinic – a pediatric practice not far from Westside. As expected, the physicians were flooded with patients. Dr. Dawn Payne said that she didn’t have time for a sit-down interview, but would allow Bell to follow her as she treated some patients. After following the doctor through several patient visits, Bell noticed a pattern in Dr. Payne’s treatment. The doctor did not prescribe any medication, but advised her patients to remain hydrated until the body’s natural defenses could overcome the bug. Dr. Payne ordered a throat culture for each patient.

After watching Dr. Payne treat several patients the same way, Bell broke away from the physician to speak with the nurse taking the throat cultures. Bell discovered that each culture was being tested at a lab for brucellosis, an infectious disease usually affecting animal populations. Humans may be infected by coming into contact with animals or animal products contaminated with the Brucella bacteria. Researchers would take at least one week to positively identify the presence of the bacteria.

Unfamiliar with brucellosis, Bell reviewed a number of Web sites to educate himself about the bacteria. While brucellosis is rare in the United States, it can be very common in countries where animal disease control programs have not reduced the disease in animals. Brucellosis is also identified as a potential biological agent by a number of bioterrorism specialists. The CDC Web site lists brucellosis as one of six agents easily manufactured by bioterrorists.

Bell called the CDC PIO to ask specific questions about brucellosis. The PIO confirmed that brucellosis was a concern for the CDC, and said that the center was investigating the presence of the bacteria at several locations around the country. Off the record, the PIO said that the CDC was investigating the bacteria’s use by terrorists. The PIO could not confirm the use of the bacteria as a bioterrorism agent until testing was complete, and he expected complete results in one week. The PIO asked Bell to hold off on the story until the presence of the bacteria was confirmed. The CDC feared widespread panic if the public found out about the possibility of a biological agent.


How the leaders handled the case

Would your story about school illness include information on the brucellosis bacteria?

Doug Clifton: Yes. It is factually accurate information learned in on-the-record interviews with health processionals. It is information that the public has a right to know and the newspaper has an obligation to report.

Arlene Morgan: Yes. I think that the reporter produced enough information on his own to confirm this. This is a serious public health problem. The reporter has a social responsibility to the community to inform it about this possibility so that they can decide on the precautionary methods that could prevent more infections.

Bill McCloskey: There is an on-the-record comment from the nurse that brucellosis is being tested for, and research shows that this is a rare disease and thus unlikely to be part of routine tests. The school janitors are scrubbing the school – unusual for a flu situation. Yes, of course it should be mentioned. However, the story should go into detail about the way that the disease is spread, noting in particular that human-to-human spread is very unlikely.

James E. Shelledy: The initial story would stick to the flu theory, but would mention that doctors were testing for brucellosis and the unexplained presence of a CDC investigator. The newspaper would continue to investigate the matter aggressively.

Keith Woods: The information would likely be in the story, possibly as the lead, possibly as the last sentence, depending upon what the reporter discovers upon asking one or two important questions: Why was the doctor at the clinic testing for the bacteria? Was it because there had been a case locally? Had the CDC sent out an advisory warning communities to be on the lookout? Were they just reacting to the latest color-coded advisory from the Justice Department? Answer those questions one way and the bacteria is the lead. Answer another way, and it’s a footnote.

Would the presence of Centers for Disease Control Investigators be a part of your story?

DC: Yes. Although the CDC investigator was an old friend of the reporter and the inspector unwittingly revealed his mission, the reporter used no subterfuge. The inspector’s concern was not that some public harm would be done if the presence of a CDC inspector were known but that his career would be jeopardized. In any case, the information itself has no ethical taint and it is a significant revelation to the public.

AM: Yes, I think it would have to be included to lend credibility to this story. The reporter witnessed the person in a public place and has the right to report what he saw. I would detail in the story all that I did to confirm the presence of the investigator and the circumstances involving the dean. I would let the story speak for itself.

BM: If a government agent is on a “secret mission,” then he or she should keep it secret, from everybody. The investigator blew his cover when he spoke to a member of the general public who happened to be a reporter. Reporters are not required to wear special blinders and not see or hear what the public hears. There do not seem to be any comments from the investigator to report other than the fact that this is one of his first assignments, so there is no need to quote him. The reporter needs to work harder to confirm that he actually works for CDC, since he’s got no confirmation for that other than a school chum’s statement.

JS: It would be part of the story. Driver’s request would not affect a decision to include his presence, nor would the lack of confirmation from officials. It would be noted that some officials did not know the CDC was onsite and that no one could say why Driver was there. It would be unfair to quote Driver specifically, since he did not know he was talking to a reporter.

KW: Yes. Absolutely. It’s unusual, to say the least, for CDC personnel to be onsite at such a school.

Does Driver’s request affect your decision? Does the apparent lack of confirmation from the principal, school board, and CDC affect your decision? Can Bell use Driver’s comments as part of his story?

DC: No. No. No, and, out of courtesy, probably not. The lack of confirmation by the principal and the school board speaks only to the CDC’s secretive approach. The CDC’s refusal to confirm its interest in the case is immaterial since it, again, seems to be working hard to conceal its interest from the public and – perhaps – even from the local authorities. Quoting the long-lost friend by name seems not to be material. The account of the discussion between reporter and CDC inspector seems to be nothing more than confirmation that the CDC is on the job, so his quotes don’t add anything. In short, if nothing is gained by compromising an innocent, why do it?

AM: I would certainly take it into consideration. But in the end, Bell has to weigh the public’s right to know against what could happen if it is not revealed. This is a tough call, I agree. But in making this decision, I would report all that I knew and try not to compromise the name of the investigator. I would also work harder to get independent confirmation from the CDC.

JS: Not really. These officials and institutions have reputations for not being forthcoming. Bell has plenty of confirmation just by going to the hospital.

KW: (First question) A little. I don’t know what Driver told the reporter beyond the fact that he was with the CDC and on an investigation. That much information is important to the public and could be obtained by simply watching the investigator do his job, so I have no trouble with the reporter using that fact. If Driver told him more, unaware that the details of his visit would wind up in the newspaper, then the reporter has a responsibility to the source to honor his assumption – the one any reasonable person would make – that his thoughts were not for public consumption. (Second question) Not at all. I think we knew all we needed to know after the first exchange between the reporter and Driver. (Third question) If it’s true that Driver didn’t know he was talking to a reporter, I’d say no, he shouldn’t use his comments. That said, if what Driver said was of profound importance to the public, and if no other responsible official was willing to go on the record with that information, I would strongly consider using it over Driver’s objections. Public good trumps relationships in this case.

Does brucellosis’ potential use as a biological agent merit discussion in the article?

DC: It deserves some discussion as part of the broader background on the bacteria but only as background. So little is known about the possibility of a terrorist threat that extensive discussion would be disproportionate and dubious.

AM: Of course it does. That is the whole point of going with the story.

BC: Absolutely.

KW: If brucellosis becomes the focus of the story, then its potential as a chemical weapon is part of the story. It would be hard to reconcile putting it anywhere but in the lead if it’s deemed worthy of going into the story at all.

Is there a duty to withhold information on the bacteria until after its presence has been confirmed?

DC: No. I believe the duty is to share the information.

AM: No, though I think the story has to be very careful to spell out the difference between a confirmation and what is suspect. But in the end, I would go with the route that gives the public the information it needs to take the proper precautions. If it turns out to be a false alarm, at least the public was prepared. If this is a biological attack, then the press will be the heroes of the hour.

JS: There is no duty to withhold information from the public. In fact, just the opposite is the case. A newspaper can avert panic in the way it presents the story. It also can warn residents of the city the best way of avoiding the disease under the circumstances. Such stories could help in isolating the outbreak if it is, in fact, brucellosis. The story could prevent panic.

KW: There’s more than one issue here. If the CDC is on the lookout for the bacteria because of a specific fear, then that’s one story. If the testing was being done out of a sense of national caution with no real reason to think it was present in the community, that’s another story. The former is a story with or without confirmation. The latter might wait until after testing’s done or, at the least, be couched sufficiently enough to convey to the public the proper level of concern.

Does the potential for widespread panic outweigh the informative quality of the information?

DC: If the information is handled deftly, the potential is much reduced. The duty of the newspaper is to provide the information and the context so that the reading public can govern itself accordingly and, perhaps, assist in the investigation.

AM: No. While the story is clearly sensational , it does not have to be handled sensationally. Done correctly, the press could help save thousands of lives. The press, especially radio and TV, need to understand their role in this and work hard to prepare the public, not panic it.

BM:If the story is well written and well researched, there would be no reason that it would lead to any more panic than might actually be warranted. It is not the job of the press to protect citizens from information, it is the job of the press to report the facts, place them in context and let an informed public act accordingly.

JS: Full disclosure of situational facts is the hallmark of journalistic coverage, although it may take more than one story to confirm reports. Publishing confirmed possibilities of a situation in context hardly is irresponsible journalism. If a newspaper holds back on disclosing facts in one case, how can it be trusted to deliver stories in the future? The paternalistic attitude of “father knows best,” so favored by bureaucrats and politicians, is a philosophy to which newspapers worthy of the name ought not be subscribing.

KW: The threat of panic is profound enough here to cause editors to take in as much information as possible before making a decision. But if there is a real threat of great harm – an outbreak of a deadly virus brought on by an act of terrorism, for example – then a responsible news organization would get the information to the public as quickly and in as measured a way as possible.