Has the media gone too far with the anthrax story?

By on November 8, 2001

With new information developing every day, the media have kept themselves busy with the anthrax story.
But have they kept themselves a little too busy?
According to Paul Janensch, associate professor of mass communications at Quinnipiac, some of the media have.
Janensch said that the reason for this is because the news media were among the targets.
“The story would not have gotten as much attention if the anthrax had been sent to ordinary citizens in the northwest,” Janensch said.
Janensch said that whoever sent anthrax to the news media knew exactly what they were doing, because they knew it would generate a great deal of coverage.
So far, it has.
In his article that appeared in the Connecticut Post of Bridgeport on Oct. 25, Janensch quoted Howard Fineman, chief political writer for Newsweek magazine.
“If you want to worry the country,’ he said, ‘then worry the media.'”
So how should the news media cover this issue?
“Every news organization has to walk a fine line,” said Janensch. “It would be a mistake to overplay the story with unverified rumors, but it would also be a mistake to minimize the story and not keep the public informed.”
“With the news of the fourth death, I think it has become a pretty big story,” said Janensch. “No one knows who the next victim will be.”
Janensch said that there are plenty of facts to report, and it is important for the media not to report rumors and idle speculation.
Instead, he said, the media should report facts about the investigation, facts about illnesses, and the responses of the government and the postal service.
“Anthrax scares are like bomb scares,” said Janensch. He said that the media have to take two important precautions.
First, Janensch said that the media should be very careful not to report scares, but instead verify the threat before reporting it.
Second, Janensch said that news reporters and their guests should make sure they know what they are talking about.
Information such as who sent the anthrax and how widely it will spread should not be reported, according to Janensch, because they simply do not know.
Janensch also said that television anchors should not take the anthrax mailings personally.
In his article in the Connecticut Post of Bridgeport, Janensch gave an example of NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, whose assistant opened a letter addressed to him, and came down with skin anthrax.
According to the article, Brokaw began his report by saying “‘This is so unfair and so outrageous and so maddening, it’s beyond my ability to express it in socially acceptable terms.'”
Janensch said that it is news anchors’ jobs to remain objective, and they should be careful not to become personally involved in a story, even if it affects them personally.


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