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Tv fuels fear { February 13 2003 }

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Hysteria runs riot; networks fuel the fear
Jennifer Harper

Published February 13, 2003

Where is our citizen war footing?
Sixty years ago, enterprising and patriotic Americans saved tinfoil and bacon grease to help defeat Hitler during World War II, heeding the old Office of War Information motto, "Use it up. Wear it out. Make it last."
Some pockets of panic in California did develop immediately after the Pearl Harbor attack of December 7, 1941. However, when Japanese balloon bombs drifted near the West Coast or Nazi U-boats were spotted off New Jersey, Americans learned how to extinguish an incendiary bomb or spot the silhouettes of enemy submarines.
They were not making a run on the local supplies of bottled water and duct tape in a hysteria somewhere between snowstorm panic and the last shopping day before Christmas.
But then, the good folks on the home front were not pummeled by a 24-hour media with time to fill.
"Are you ready?" asked ABC News yesterday, trotting out a "Good Morning America" home-improvement editor to demonstrate how to turn a laundry room into a fallout shelter with duct tape and plastic dropcloths.
"Duct tape sales rise amid terror fears," noted CNN.
MSNBC offered mixed messages, saying that "jittery Americans were stocking up for disaster" while offering an online poll that said 71 percent of the respondents were "doing nothing" to ready themselves for terrorist attacks.
Some were already weary of the fear-mongering.
"I'm not afraid of these jerks," said one Westwood One Radio Network host yesterday. His listeners concurred, many saying they would not join the race to hoard duct tape.
Others used the stuff to shore up their agendas.
"Washington is urging people to prepare for chemical attack by purchasing duct tape, while it fails to provide fire departments with funds for protective suits or bioterror detectors," a New York Times editorial said yesterday.
Though the Federal Emergency Management Agency revamped its "Are You Ready?" citizen-preparedness guide after the September 11 attacks, the media pounced upon the same information rereleased Friday as "breaking news."
TV reports were immediately emblazoned with orange "high alert" banners and rife with talk about poison gas, microbes and imminent threats. Even pet owners were advised to pack an emergency kit for their dogs, complete with "bottled water and food supply."
Syracuse University broadcast analyst Robert Thompson says news organizations have slipped into the instant "bunker mentality" they adopt during bad weather.
"Americans are subjected to split-screen broadcasts which show the terrorist alert symbol on one side and weather and fashion on the other," Mr. Thompson said yesterday. "What do they focus on? Many buy into fearful hype."
Indeed, some news coverage has centered on consumer panic and the sudden appearance of "homeland security" sections in local hardware stores.
"The trouble is, if we connect the dots between some of the really serious news events the possible dissolution of NATO or divisiveness within the United Nations then that gets scary," Mr. Thompson said.
"We have reached a new era which requires us to go on living life knowing the 'big event' may be just around the corner," he said. "That's what people do in other countries."
News coverage in dire national moments is still a work in progress, however.
"There is a massive difference between a crisis and a catastrophe, and in the case of a bioterror attack, the effect of media coverage on public perception could be the deciding factor between the two," notes Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio Television News Directors Association.
The group issued its own practical guidelines on bioterrorism, terrorism and war coverage two months ago, urging members to "present the facts as clearly, objectively and dispassionately as possible."
Charles Figley, a Florida State University trauma psychologist who has studied media disaster coverage for two decades, faults federal offices for issuing guidelines open to interpretation by both the media and the public.
"Ideally, you want the vast majority of people to be on alert, but not dramatically alter their daily routines," Mr. Figley said yesterday. "People should already have an emergency plan in place anyway for bad weather, industrial accidents or the like."
Changing disaster scenarios requires flexibility, he said.
"We learned there's no magic bullet, no one way to modulate public information to prompt people to do the right thing, at the right time," Mr. Figley said. "But if unsubstantiated warnings go out, people don't pay attention after a while."

Copyright 2003 News World Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.


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