Self-Study Unit: Covering Terrorism

For the first time, many media companies have begun systematically to plan for emergency coverage of traumatic events.

Some were already doing so. With its global network of bureaus and continuous crisis coverage, CNN had contingency plans in place well before Sept. 11. After all, it had made its name with coverage of the Persian Gulf War.

On 9/11, Edith Chapin, deputy bureau chief managing editor of CNN, first focused on ascertaining the safety of her staff. “Instantly I knew I had to account for the whereabouts and safety of all of them. Many began phoning in with information; I put a check mark next to each name once someone had spoken to him or her.” (Covering Catastrophe) Consider how to contact staff at home, submit stories using multiple technologies in case one is inoperable, and provide access to cameras when people are not in the office.

CNN was hardly alone. Many news outlets had alternative plans on how to print a paper. The Wall Street Journal, for instance, put out a paper although its offices near the WTC had been evacuated. In order to prepare for contingencies in the age of the Internet, technology must be considered. Websites should up dated frequently.

Hit by attacks in its own backyard, followed closely by the anthrax scare, even CNN had its resources stretched to the breaking point. Smaller media outlets were generally less well versed in covering catastrophe. With little or no organizational support system, freelancers faced a special burden. Moreover, journalists often lack even the minimal security protection utilized by police, rescue workers, military personnel or diplomats.

"Not only are [journalists] soft targets, you are attractive targets because terrorism is about changing opinions," Robert Klamser, executive director of Crisis Consulting International, which helps aid groups and religious organizations cope with hostage situations, told a National Press Club audience in April 2002. Journalists require safety training to understand risk.

Chris Cramer, president of CNN International Networks, has taken a leading role in journalistic preparedness. He urges news organizations to create a culture in which discussing physical safety and emotional stress is as routine as deadlines. "This profession is really stupid when it comes to certain things — safety, stress," Cramer has said. "There are an army of news organizations in this country who do not get it."

There is no way to eliminate danger altogether. Terry Anderson, honorary co-chairman of the Committee to Protect Journalists, noted that while some stories require taking reasonable risks, no story is worth death. "We are journalists. We do take risks," said Anderson, a former Beirut bureau chief for the Associated Press who spent nearly seven years as a hostage in Lebanon. "The point is not to encourage risk-taking beyond the line." In preparing guidelines for journalists, news organizations are grappling with many complicated problems. Questions include whether journalists in violence-torn regions should carry weapons, wear bulletproof vests or use armed guards, and how news agencies should respond to ransom demands.

After managing the bombing coverage at the Oklahoman, Joe Hight suggests:

  • Educating an executive-level editor in trauma to coordinate response
  • Making counseling available to all
  • Emailing tips on stress management, positive letters to the editor, and other encouraging messages
  • Encouraging staff and freelances to look after themselves