Spores, Hype, Hysteria

By Harper, Jennifer | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), October 18, 2001 | Go to article overview

Spores, Hype, Hysteria


Harper, Jennifer, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Byline: Jennifer Harper

All spores, all the time: For days, the press has been infected with anthrax frenzy, spreading the ultimate cooties story with big headlines and purple prose, spooking the public and vexing officials who must cope with the newest national anxiety.

There is a right way and a wrong way to do it, however.

"This is not a time for misinformation, rumor or exaggeration," said Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center yesterday. "The media must strike a balance between informing the public and scaring them. This is a time for careful news judgment and accuracy, because there are no real directions in place on how to walk that fine line."

It can often boil down to simple abuse of military or medical terms amid the fancy packaging and false urgency of a 24-hour media.

Print and broadcast accounts have indiscriminately bandied about alarming qualifiers for anthrax itself, billing it "weapon grade," "finely milled," "virulent," "professional quality" and "potent." Some reports did not distinguish the profound difference between anthrax exposure and actual anthrax infection, emphasizing disturbing symptoms rather than the condition's treatability.

In many cases, comments were attributed to anonymous sources, a dubious journalistic habit. The Boston Herald, for example, referred to "congressional sources with knowledge of the case" when describing anthrax incidents on Capitol Hill.

Reporters who had boned up on bacterial behavior pestered lawmakers and health officials with questions during an afternoon press conference yesterday, exasperating an Army bioterrorism expert and prompting Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican and surgeon, to talk about anthrax size, according to "microns."

"Are we scared yet, talking heads want to know? Yes, we're scared, but mostly of anchors doubling as science teachers," ranted Chicago Tribune columnist Kathleen Parker, who accused the media of providing "bioterrorism for dummies."

Plain facts should be paramount.

"This is a perfect opportunity for sidebar journalism to calm the story, to give facts and put it in context. Old-fashioned news sense applies here, but it's not being applied," said Matthew Felling of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "We have the big headlines, we've been battered with anxious text without medical expertise. We have allowed reactionary pundits to explain how nervous we should be."

There are actually three stories here, Mr. Felling explained: "The first is that anthrax is out there. The second is how one gets exposed. The third explains how serious the threat is. We seem to have missed that whole second story."

Indeed, comprehensive explanations of exposure risks from qualified experts have been jumbled with spore-counting tales of compromised ventilation systems, mysterious powders and nasal swab tests.

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