Oklahoma Disaster Coverage: A Look Back p. 24

By: Debra Gersh Hernandez Daily Oklahoman assistant managing editor recalls how her paper
responded during last April's bombing of the federal building;
two journalism school professors assess the coverage sp.

MANY NEWSPAPERS HAVE contingency plans in the event of a man-made or natural disaster, but the Daily Oklahoman could never have foreseen what would be needed last April when a bomb destroyed the federal building downtown.
Staffers there were faced with more than the physical acts of getting to the story and reporting back. There was a tremendous emotional, human factor that they all felt, some sooner, others later, said assistant managing editor Sue Hale.
Hale, who was driving to work when she heard the explosion, thought there might have been a plane crash.
"There wasn't anybody within 20 or 30 miles who didn't know something had happened," Hale said.
Speaking during a panel discussion of media coverage of the bombing, at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Washington, D.C., Hale noted that the Daily Oklahoman reporter who would normally have been in the building was in Dallas on assignment.
Another reporter in the post office across the street was badly cut by flying glass. In the aftermath, her citizenship papers were left on the counter. When they were returned to her, they were covered with blood.
A photographer and veteran reporter who had rushed to the scene immediately, were walking toward the building and had just parted when a gas line exploded.
"There were a lot of close calls. It was scary," Hale said.
A grand jury reporter saw two badly burned bodies in a car near the scene, and people at the scene were grabbing anyone, including reporters, to help them.
For journalists at the scene, there was a tremendous dilemma between helping injured people and doing their reporting jobs, Hale said.
When she got to the office, Hale saw the paper's editorial cartoonist holding two bloody children. One was his and the other was one he had rescued and carried away from the scene.
As the staff collected itself ? many had not yet arrived at work when the explosion occurred ? it was determined that the paper's old building about a block and a half away from the federal building, would be used as a command center.
Cellular phones were useless because the airwaves were jammed, so as reporters went in, they carried messages for others already on the scene, Hale explained.
Editors ruled out producing an extra edition of the newspaper, opting instead to get as much good information as they could into the next morning's paper, Hale continued.
Because the event was much more than the news staff could handle alone, reporters from all over the paper were pressed into service covering hard news stories ? some for the first time.
Although they also thought the bombing might be the work of Middle Eastern-based terrorists, Hale said an ad delivered to the paper the day before commemorating the anniversary of the Waco inferno led them to have second thoughts.
The ad featured a picture of a bombed building with the words to the effect of: "It could be you next."
The paper rejected the ad, and after the bombing, immediately turned it over to the FBI, Hale said, but its producer was found to have no connection to the case.
Editors meetings were held throughout the day instead of just once in the late afternoon, Hale said, to be sure there was no overlap in what people were working on.
The day after, an additional 60,000 papers hit the streets, and they were all gone by 8 a.m., she said. During the first three weeks, the paper ran an additional 72 open pages, averaging about six open pages during the first four or five days and dropping down to four pages after that.
In addition to its regular news, the Daily Oklahoman provided a "How to Help" column and went on the Internet thanks to a local provider, who put the material online.
A few weeks later, in a letter to employees, the managing editor recognized their need to cope with the bombing, and that it is hard enough to deal with friends and family being killed even if you're not covering the story.
Hale said the Daily Oklahoman provided counselors for any staffers who felt the need, and as of the time she addressed AEJMC in early August, they still were available.
"This has changed us," she said. "We came together as a team and as a family."
Calling terrorism an "act of communication" ? and this act "very successful" as such ? professor Robert G. Picard of the Department of Communication at California State University, Fullerton, warned that "if we keep marginalizing groups and do not cover them, do not give them a voice, we leave them only with violence" as a means to be heard.
"In our society, there are a lot of myths about violence," Picard said.
One myth is that violence is unusual, but Picard noted that it has been used throughout history.
Another is that people who use violence, such as terrorists, are insane or crazy, but, again, Picard dispelled that myth by pointing out that while their viewpoints may be very different, they rarely are crazy.
Charges that the media cause terrorism are equally baseless, he asserted.
"I've never seen a study show that's the case," Picard said, adding that terrorism "does occur regularly where the media is not involved."
"The biggest problem is that media coverage can make things worse," he said, citing things such as how the story is covered, the context, interpretation, and perceptions of terrorism that emerge. The initial coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing was "straightforward, event-oriented, reporting with a lot of visuals, which television is very good at," Picard said.
With this particular story, more graphic images appeared on screen than normally would be seen, which made the event doubly shocking, he explained, commenting, "On television news, we normally do not see blood dribbling down people's faces."
Even though the TV and print coverage was "more like what is found in other nations," Picard said it was "very jarring to many Americans."
Within a few hours after the bombing, "the frustration of journalists trying to find out what was going on was evident," he said.
With the scene spread out over a few blocks, "it was hard to focus on any one thing" and "information was not available. All of this, ultimately, led to the question of who did it and why?
"There was a great deal of speculation about who," namely radical Muslims, Picard said, especially since this type of act is typical in the Middle East. Another factor was the type of experts being called upon for comment ? most were specialists in Middle East terrorism ? and their views were shaped by their experience and speculation from the little information available.
"We saw the media fueling this fervor," Picard said, singling out columnists who called for retaliatory attacks against the Middle East.
There was a willingness nationwide to believe this speculation, and the media were reticent to accept anything otherwise. Those early accounts that did point to another cause usually did so near the end of the story, Picard said.
"If you consider the overall perception, the coverage emphasized restoration of the social order," he explained.
"Officials were asserting a strong and appropriate response," such as establishing security nets, reassuring people they would be safe, gaining control.
There also were stories of good emerging from bad, such as tales of heroism and of survivors.
"The stories were designed to reduce fear. From the second day on, officials talked about how they were on the trail of the perpetrators. It was all quickly done," Picard explained.
"As the immediacy of the rescue operation died down, we saw coverage help the national audience engage in group healing and mourning," he continued. Not only was there a rush by networks to get talent to the scene, but also the rush was on to get local angles to the story.
"Anyone who had ever seen a bombing on TV was interviewed," he said.
There also was a lot of packaging of stories, with special logos and graphics and selling of the story.
In addition, the Oklahoma City bombing was "one of the first news events where a Web site was immediately established and received a great deal of use," Picard added.
The Internet also was used by University of Maryland College of Journalism professor emeritus L. John Martin to collect information about how news of the bombing was played in other countries. In nations overseas, much of the coverage of the Oklahoma City bombing was simply picked up from U.S. media and wire services, according to Martin.
"We became very much a global village," he said. "We read each other's newspapers, watched CNN."
Those who responded to Martin's online message showed that the bombing received "extensive coverage. All of the respondents depended heavily on American coverage . . . . Most foreign media quoted the speculations of the American press and officials."
The Russian and British press speculated that Iranian terrorists might be involved, a theory Martin said he did not see in the American press.
Media in Israel, Australia and elsewhere, however, warned against rushing to judgment and played up President Clinton's admonitions against jumping to conclusions.
"Many media around the world were concerned about America's loss of innocence," Martin reported. "They focused on the fact that no country is safe anymore. The British press expressed surprise that it could happen in the United States."
The British media also gave extensive coverage to the arrest of a suspect at Heathrow airport.
Media in countries that have been subjected to terrorist violence drew from their own experiences.
Most media assumed the perpetrator was foreign, Martin said, because: "When faced with a problem, we search our memories for a similar experience. Who do we blame but the people most frequently accused of engaging in such terrorist activities?" Looking for an Arab/Islamic suspect at first made as much sense as suspecting a spouse or partner in someone's murder, Martin said. "Statistically, that is the most common perpetrator. The assumption was a natural conclusion."
In attempting to draw up some kind of database, Martin said he was frustrated by the different definitions of what makes up a terrorist action.
"Terrorism is too vague and complex a term for meaningful scientific research," he said. "We'll have to leave it to the reporters and editors to write about it."
For journalists at the scene, there was a tremendous dilemma between helping injured
people and doing their reporting jobs, Hale said.


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