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Last Updated

22 Mar 2003

Source: New York Times, March 22, 2003

Papers Debate Use of Teams to React Quickly to Terror


As the war with Iraq heightens concern about the possibility of terrorist strikes in the United States, news organizations are debating how they would cover the aftermath of a chemical, biological or radioactive-bomb attack.

Several news organizations, including USA Today, The Washington Post, Newsday and The Los Angeles Times, are putting together groups of reporters, all volunteers, to act as the journalistic equivalent of first responders. The reporters are receiving special training and protective gear, or soon will, to prepare for the aftermath of such an attack.

But other news organizations, like The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The New York Times, have decided against such an approach, saying the potential danger to the staff is too great.

It is in Washington and New York, with an abundance of symbolic landmarks and experience with terrorist attacks, that much of the debate is playing out.

"This presents a real dilemma for us because we have not had to cover this type of thing before," said Milton Coleman, deputy managing editor of The Washington Post. "We know we are not going to send reporters into a dangerous situation. We are not going to send people against their will."

Still, The Post is asking for volunteers, who are to receive special training and equipment. Deployment, Mr. Coleman said, would come only after editors and the reporters had assessed the risks and whether there would be any journalistic value to entering a hazardous zone.

For television stations, the question is complicated by the need for pictures. Some news directors said they would hesitate to send people in. Bill Lord, news director at WJLA-TV in Washington, said his station might have to rely on aerial or other cameras that were not its own because he would decline to assemble a special team.

"We already have a considerable number of gas masks, of various degrees of quality," Mr. Lord said. "But I don't think they are anything more than an emergency escape tool. I don't think we will be donning masks and suits and wandering in."

Some reporters said, however, that even if managers asserted that they did not want them in harm's way, a sense of pressure to get a story and avoid disappointing those managers would make it hard to stay away from a hazardous scene, particularly if the nature of the dangers was not immediately evident.

A reporter at Newsday who works in New York City said she could foresee an assignment editor's request to "just go by" the scene of an unexplained explosion.

"It's not like it's going to come over that there has been a radiological or bio attack," she said. "You would have to think about it. I don't think I would go."

Robert E. Keane, a managing editor at Newsday, said he would not expect her to go if an explosion seemed suspicious. But Mr. Keane speculated that some reporters would head out with or without an assignment, so the newspaper is organizing a team of 20 or so willing journalists to serve on a special disaster team.

"We know a number of reporters will be chafing to be involved in a story like that firsthand," he said.

The Journal-Constitution, which is based in the same city as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has reporters assigned to bioterrorism coverage. But the paper's editor, Julia Wallace, said she had no plans to buy masks and suits and outfit her team. She said she could envision a situation, however, in which the disease control agency provided gear for her reporters and escorted them to the scene of an attack. "Generally we would work with the experts," she said.

"We would be very careful," she added. "You want to be safe."

At The Times, editors said they had considered but rejected forming a first-response team. They concluded that such an action would conflict with the newspaper's policy as expressed by Gerald M. Boyd, the managing editor that "the only acceptable casualty rate is zero."

"I question how practical it would be to have a first-response team because I think the more important thing for us is to be prudent in making our decision," Mr. Boyd added. "If having such a team minimizes risk but still allows risk to take place, I think we're better off not using it."

Jonathan Landman, the metropolitan editor, said editors would rely on good judgment and common sense in deciding how to cover suspicious occurrences.

"You can't simply follow the instinct all the time the way we have before the instinct, of course, to get as many people to something as fast as you can and worry about what happens later," Mr. Landman said.