Who, What, When — and Scary

By Steven Luxenberg

We come to work each day now, my media colleagues and I, thinking that we are more than providers of information. We fear we are agents of terror.

Not agents of terrorism. That evil business rests in the bloody hands of people who have studied our society and learned all too well how to use our freedoms as weapons against us. But in this time of civil emergency, when nervous Americans want to know how to protect their families and themselves, the mass media can easily become a weapon of mass trepidation. As we seek to educate and investigate, do we also add to the collective sense of fear and alarm? The terrorists can only hope.

So what do we report? Do we tell you that bioterrorism experts are predicting that, in the next few years, a small private plane could silently infect tens of thousands of people by releasing bacterial spores into the atmosphere? That’s what The Washington Post did in a story six days after the attack. Other news organizations have broadcast or published similar accounts. Is that the equivalent of handing a battle plan to our adversaries? If so, it is a battle plan with quite a bit of dust on it. Rick Weiss, the reporter who wrote the article, said one of his primary sources was a report by the federal government’s Office of Technology Assessment—from 1993.

The report’s description of an airborne germ attack was not written to scare the public, Weiss said. It was written to scare Congress—so that it would act to protect the public against a threat that some experts believe would be more devastating than the New York and Washington assaults.

So have I scared you, again? Or have I informed you? Or am I just engaging in media hype to sell newspapers?

If fear-mongering were the media’s primary goal, you would have read the following sentence in The Post and every other American newspaper: “States, terrorists, and other disaffected groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction and mass disruption, and some will use them. Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers.”

That sentence did not spring from the mind of a novelist or a Nostradamus. It comes from a September 1999 report—the first of three—by the U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, a 14-member group established by Congress to rethink the country’s security needs for the next 25 years. The Post did not cover the report’s release at all. Neither did most other newspapers or TV networks. The New York Times did, but its brand of fear-mongering led not to alarming Page 1 headlines but to a modestly placed story (Page 7) with a modestly worded headline: “Federal Commission Predicts Increasing Threat of Terrorism.”

The commission’s report made a bigger noise when it landed in the offices of editorial writers and commentators. They feel much more comfortable in the world of “might happen” and “will likely die.” News reporters prefer to deal in what has already happened; speculating on the possibility of an attack feels more like an excursion into, well, fear-mongering.

My point is this: We in the media don’t do well in predicting the future. We don’t know when to sound the alarm or how loudly to ring the bell. If we did, you would have read more about the report that warned of Americans dying on U.S. soil. If we did, the recent embassy bombing trial in New York—the most detailed public airing of the terrorist campaign against us—would have drawn daily attention from every serious news organization.

But now that fantasy has become reality, now that we have to contemplate the possibility of other attacks, where’s the line between distributing information that helps readers to prepare and spreading fear that helps the terrorists? Some readers want to know more than we are able to find out, while others want to know less than we have learned. Fear-mongering, as I have learned after many years in journalism and after many conversations with readers, is in the eye of the beholder.

For most people, drawing that line is a theoretical question. But not for reporters and editors. They must decide, daily and without much time, what to put in and what to leave out. The risk usually isn’t that we will provide information to the enemy: The information that Weiss reported in The Post, for example, was the subject of testimony at numerous congressional hearings and widely published before the attacks.

The most likely risk is that we will anger some readers—and undermine our credibility with them — by publishing gratuitous details that seem to benefit no one except those bent on destruction. Does anyone need to know which size nozzle might be most effective in spraying a biological agent from the air? One Post story offered that advice last week, courtesy of the president of a New Hampshire helicopter service who was interviewed after the news broke that one of the suspected hijackers had made inquiries last year about buying a crop-dusting plane. One reader e-mailed a few choice words: “I am in a state of shock that anyone who values human life would publish this information. It is not ‘news’ in any sense. . . . [This] is the clearest demonstration I have seen of how the media have lost touch, not only with their audience, but with any grasp on the real world.”

While the crop-dusting industry needs to know about the suspect’s inquiries so it can be on the alert, readers don’t need an education in nozzle technology. It wasn’t worth the chance that it might be useful to a terrorist—and cause readers to wonder about our judgment.

And for us, our credibility is the only asset that truly matters. After the attacks, readers were desperate for news and for their newspapers. They depended on us and we knew it. But is it any surprise, in this time of uncertainty, that consumers of news are uncertain about how much they want to know? Or that we aren’t always certain about what to give them?

The media’s credibility is on the line in another, somewhat unexpected way: It’s hard for us to be scarier right now than the news itself. Certainly we can increase anxiety and spread panic by broadcasting or publishing unconfirmed information; live TV did just that at times by passing along reports of new evacuations in Washington or New York, often on the skimpiest of information. (The bomb-scare pranksters must have been holding a private competition to see how many buildings they could empty.) Nor am I suggesting that now, anything goes. I mean that if we seek to reassure when no reassurance is warranted, if we soft-pedal the information that the government releases, if we don’t fulfill our twin missions of educating our readers and holding the government accountable for protecting us, then we risk more than complaints from readers. We risk scorn.

What if, several months ago, we had reported that the FBI’s counterterrorism unit had been doing a good job in the past decade? Not credible now. What if we had reported that our visa system (the one that allowed the suspected terrorists to enter the country and, in some cases, to remain even after their visas had expired) had procedures in place to detect those who would do us harm? Not credible now.

What if we had reported that experts had scoffed at the idea that terrorists could launch a coordinated attack requiring the simultaneous hijacking of four airplanes?

A colleague told me recently that when he finishes with the newspaper these days, he feels jittery. He doesn’t blame the paper for this; he just wonders whether in the rush to cover every possible angle and to make up for lost time in sounding the alarm, the major media are failing to put the events into any sort of perspective—which, as a father and a Washington resident, he desperately craves.

He’s right. Perspective is awfully hard to provide when you don’t have all the facts (neither does the government, which exacerbates the problem). We don’t know whether there are 100 other suicide terrorists or 1,000 or 10,000—or whether the terrorists just exhausted their cadre of people stationed here who are willing to die. We don’t yet know the administration’s specific military and political objectives, so we don’t know how or when the promised war will end. We don’t know which of the many security reforms under discussion will work—not that it’s our job to decide, but it is our job to ask hard questions that create even more uncertainty.

Uncertainty will be part of our lives—both journalists’ and readers’—for a good long while. So perspective may come, in part, from the gradual return to covering the many issues that demanded our attention before Sept. 11. Terrorism—and the country’s defenses against it—was always part of that landscape, but most of us had our eyes somewhere else. The media are no different; we follow better than we lead. Our obsession now is merely a reflection of the country’s collective anxiety.

© The Washington Post; printed here by permission

The Washington Post
Sunday Outlook
September 30, 2001