Terrorism and Homeland Security: Bringing the Stories Home
Journalists have a vital role to play in helping Americans set the priorities for the war against terrorism, according to prominent members of the nations scientific and intelligence community who met with news executives in Washington.
"Almost all we do today is going to have to be re-done in the future," noted Anthony Cordesman, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "How do you make value judgments so that you don’t have a vast overreaction in one area and a vast under-reaction in another?" And how do you report it?
More than 40 broadcast and print journalists considered those questions at a Washington conference on "Terrorism and Homeland Security: Bringing the Stories Home." The day-long program, sponsored by the Foundation for American Communications, the National Academy of Engineering, the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine, in association with RTNDF and the Associated Press Managing Editors, brought together experts from a wide range of disciplines to discuss the kinds of terrorist threats facing America and ways journalists might report those risks. [back to top]
Former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, the director of Homeland Security, told participants that "the communication of risk and the public dialogue about how we are responding to threats is very important" and that "news organizations are essential in this effort."
Ridge noted that the "first responders" to terrorist incidents in this country are local police, fire and public health workers.
Reporters will likely be right behind them and, as such, will give citizens their first information about an incident or threat.
"How should we react to alerts?" asked Alan Miller, assistant Managing Editor of the Columbus (Ohio) Dispatch. "How
should we play them?"
Ridge noted that his office had issued three terrorist alerts, the most recent before the Christmas holidays. "The convergence of religious holidays (Christmas and Ramadan) and the previous history of attacks led us to conclude that we should raise awareness," said Ridge, who acknowledged the latest alert is based, as much on an "intuitive feeling" as any hard evidence that an attack is imminent.
Ridge agreed it is "appropriate (for journalists) to probe and question decisions" made by his office, adding that, "if we do our jobs right, there’s a public information role we can share with you. … We are concerned about how people respond to a series of general alerts."
Ridge promised "to try to work out the language of the alerts." [back to top]
Local newsrooms could play a more prominent role in the civil defense process by actually uncovering the terrorist attack.
How? Baruch Fischhoff, the Director of the Center for Integrated Study of Human Dimensions of Global Change at Carnegie Mellon University, cited the case of an outbreak of cryptosporidium in the water supply in Milwaukee, Wis.
As a case study, Fischhoff cited an incident seven years ago in which 100,000 Milwaukee area residents became sick with flu-like symptoms; 1000 of them were hospitalized, and 100 died. But, according to Fischhoff, the public health system failed to detect the outbreak for several weeks because most of those who became ill treated themselves with over-the-counter medications. It wasn’t until pharmacists began to notice a run on products for upset stomachs and reporters began asking questions that public health department finally put two and two together.
Fischhoff said the local news media performed a similar role in the first days of the anthrax attacks.
"The press helped determine the set of issues" by "pulling together" various pieces of information from a lot of different places at a time when the Public Health Service was overwhelmed with information.
The news media, he said, "played a critical role in figuring out what was there, and the public has developed a fairly sophisticated understanding" of the risk factors associated with anthrax. [back to top]
Dr. Margaret Hamburg, the Vice President for Biological Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative and former New York City Health Commissioner, characterized the anthrax attack as "the tip of the iceberg" of potential bio-terrorism.
She said that future attacks "probably won’t come in a letter with a note attached," as the anthrax letters mailed to two United States Senators did. Rather, she said, it will likely be a "silent release" of a killer bug or toxin, with no clear indication of the presence of the disease until days or weeks later.
By that time, she feared, many people will be very ill and a public health issue will be a public safety issue.
Hamburg said it will be up to health care workers to detect the threat and then treat it, perhaps on a massive scale.
The news media can help not just by sifting through reports and passing on information, but by asking tough questions.
Hamburg suggested that reporters can ask the following questions to help determine how prepared their public health agencies are to detect and treat a bio-terrorism threat:
- How well is your laboratory equipped and staffed, and what is its capacity to do studies?
- Do you have Internet access with the ability to plug into the national Public Health System and Centers for Disease Control?
- What is your relationship with health care providers?
- What are your reporting requirements and are health care providers subject to them?
- What is your relationship to public safety agencies like the police, fire and EMS? Do you conduct drills together and are those drills more than ‘table-top’ exercises?
Hamburg said the first tip-off that a public health office is ill-equipped to handle a bio-terrorist attack is whether or not they answer their phone. Unfortunately, she said, some don’t. [back to top]
Jeremy Isenberg, the President and CEO of New York City based Weidlinger Associates and an expert on blast engineering, said reporters should not be afraid to ask architects and builders about construction and design tradeoffs necessary to protect buildings from terrorist attacks.
Isenberg said that until now, "absolute minimum cost has been the governing criteria" in high rise construction. He noted that engineers are trying to determine why older buildings adjacent to the World Trade Centers withstood the catastrophe while some newer structures collapsed. He said newer, lighter weight building materials might be a factor. [back to top]
Jeffrey Hunker, dean of the Heinz School of Public Policy and Management at Carnegie Mellon University and an expert on cyber terrorism, said the Internet may eventually replace the Emergency Broadcast System as a tool to warn of attacks.
But the Web is vulnerable. Hunker said the theft of personal information from Web sites is "happening a lot more than is being reported" and that "it’s incredibly difficult to know who’s doing it."
Most alarming is our collective failure to understand how interdependent computers have become with the rest of our infrastructure, Hunker said.
"I once visited a pipeline control center that was in a bomb shelter, but you could dial into their computers from your home," he said. And those computers controlled the pumps that moved the oil and natural gas through the pipes. This is one reason why Hunker believes we are entering an age when wars will be fought as much with software as with guns and bombs. [back to top]
For the present, those bombs, especially nuclear devices, are still a very real threat. Scientist Richard Garwin, a fellow emeritus at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown, NY, worried that a nuclear device could be made with materials from the "vast surplus" of uranium left over from the collapse of the Soviet Union and placed in one of thousands of cargo containers shipped into the United States each day.
William Wulf, President of the National Academy of Engineering, noted that since less than one-half of 1 percent of these containers are ever inspected, they pose a potentially serious hazard. The challenge for the engineering community, he said, is to find an economical way to inspect the contents of ships and trucks entering this country without destroying our ability to conduct international trade.
Said Wulf: "We can’t afford to make it impossible to be attacked. All we can do is reduce the probabilities." [back to top]