By: William Kates, Associated Press Writer
(AP) Law enforcement officials at a seminar said they would be willing to include journalists in preparedness planning for terrorist attacks. They would be reluctant, however, to allow them to join those first sent to the scene.
The flow of news and access to information were the focus of discussion among journalists, law enforcement authorities, and medical and health officials during a two-day symposium on terrorist attack coverage that ended Tuesday at Syracuse University.
Participants took part in two imaginary scenarios as they explored how to improve the dissemination of information from both the media and government agencies.
In the first scenario, a small plane flies over two suburban Syracuse communities, dumping an unknown poison on the residents below. Authorities ponder whether to evacuate people or tell them to stay indoors as reporters press them for details.
In the second, a man walks into a Long Island hospital and is diagnosed with smallpox, a virus long eradicated in the world but considered a possible terrorist weapon. Law enforcement and health authorities balk at confirming it to journalists until they know the extent of the man’s contact with others.
Journalists contended that the early release of information could help save lives, avert widespread panic, and assist authorities in getting out vital information to the public.
“The media is often looked at as a nuisance. But with today’s 24-7 news cycles, they can be a blessing if we use them wisely,” said Joan Deppa, a Syracuse University communications professor and symposium director.
The idea of having media representatives involved in preparedness planning drew broad agreement; training reporters to go in with first responders was coolly received.
Among concerns were that journalists could quickly become a burden to emergency personnel, said Onondaga County Sheriff Kevin Walsh.
“It would certainly be productive to have journalists involved in the planning and we should be doing that,” Walsh said. “As far as going along with first responders, though, an untrained third party would only distract them from their job.”
Law enforcement and health officials, who would be the first to respond to such incidents, were keen on managing information in an effort to ensure that it came out in an orderly fashion.
Thomas Kent, a deputy managing editor of The Associated Press, said journalists would act responsibly with the information they had and not report rumors, but that no local agency would be able to completely control information on a major disaster.
Journalists noted that in the World Trade Center attack victims told their stories by cell phone. Reporters also received information from politicians and individual agencies leaking information and through nonofficial sources, such as witnesses, ambulance drivers, and firefighters.
Bob Meyers, president of the National Press Foundation and another participant, said the meeting was helpful in letting journalists and public safety officials know each other’s needs.
“Anytime you bring people together who have a different approach to the same subject, you are accomplishing something positive. It is saying, ‘I’ll learn your language. You’ll learn my language,'” he said.