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Fall 2005 Vol. 5 No. 3



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Final workshop in the National Academies’ News and Terrorism: Communicating in a Crisis series, held in San Francisco, August 2005, photos by Jessica Brandi Lifland News and Terrorism:
Communicating
in a Crisis

The National Academies, in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation, just completed a nationwide series of 10 interactive workshops called "News and Terrorism: Communicating in a Crisis."

The one-day workshops brought together, on the local level, groups that seldom share experiences -- government officials, journalists, scientists, engineers, and health professionals. Each event included a discussion of science and technology related to terrorism led by a prominent expert. They also included a presentation on how journalists can safely cover an incident involving potential weapons of mass destruction.

The workshops featured a unique two-hour "tabletop" terrorism scenario that focused on communication issues. Through this dynamic exercise, participants began to better understand each other's needs and concerns during a crisis. National broadcast journalists moderated the quickly unfolding events of a terrorist attack and forced participants to make on-the-spot decisions with limited information, time, and resources. Here are examples of how three of the scenarios began:

A large explosion rips through a downtown Atlanta convention center next to CNN. It's obviously a mass casualty situation, but it turns out there's more -- radioactivity.

In Kansas City, a flour processing plant is contaminated with a biological toxin. It sickens several workers who display dramatic symptoms. Thousands of nearby residents, who are following unfolding events through the media, are wondering what they should do.

Sportscasters announcing a live Major League baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston notice groups of fans throughout the stadium collapsing. Cameras zoom in on people convulsing, vomiting, or not moving at all.

The "News and Terrorism" scenarios were powerful experiences. For example, besides grappling with scientific questions and risk communication, participants often had to determine how their priorities might shift if a VIP, or maybe their own child, was near the site of an attack.

Final workshop in the National Academies’ News and Terrorism: Communicating in a Crisis series, held in San Francisco, August 2005, photos by Jessica Brandi Lifland
Final workshop in the National Academies’ News and Terrorism: Communicating in a Crisis series, held in San Francisco, August 2005, photos by Jessica Brandi Lifland
Final workshop in the National Academies’ News and Terrorism: Communicating in a Crisis series, held in San Francisco, August 2005, photos by Jessica Brandi Lifland

The news media will be at the forefront, should any terrorist crisis involving weapons of mass destruction take place. Journalists must react quickly, even instinctively, as they attempt to guide public understanding of and response to unfolding events. It's a responsibility that's as vital as those of traditional "first responders," because the media can save lives through efficient delivery of accurate information.

Effectively communicating complex information in the midst of a crisis will be a difficult challenge. While that duty falls largely upon the news media, it isn't only their responsibility. And it is not just the government's responsibility. It's the engineering, science, and medical communities' responsibility as well.

The National Academies have produced fact sheets on different types of terrorist attacks to answer basic questions, dispel common misperceptions, and provide reputable sources for more information. Fact sheets on biological, chemical, nuclear, and radiological attacks are available at <www.nae.edu>.

Journalists have few precedents for reporting on this new type of warfare, which is vastly different from traditional war. They need a strategy to deal with it, and a ready pool of trusted experts who are good communicators. It is difficult to prepare for things that haven't happened before. Thinking through the information flow before a disaster occurs is vital in this fast-moving information age. The public expects to be informed right away, and they will be. The questions are: By whom? And how well?

The science and engineering communities have a much bigger role in homeland security than simply creating the latest technologies to counter terrorism. They must also work to get good information into the hands of the media quickly in the event of a cyber, radiological, nuclear, chemical, or biological attack. Scientists, engineers, and medical experts must work with journalists -- before a crisis -- to figure out the best ways of doing that.   -- Randy Atkins

Oversight for "News and Terrorism" was provided by a steering committee chaired by Lewis M. Branscomb, professor emeritus of public policy and corporate management, John F. Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University. The project was funded by the U.S. Army/U.S. Department of Homeland Security and by the Gannett Foundation. Workshops were held in Chicago; Kansas City, Mo.; Portland, Ore.; Philadelphia; Miami; Austin, Texas; Atlanta; Denver; Boston; and San Francisco.



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Copyright 2005 by the National Academy of Sciences