The Anthrax Enigma: As They Struggled to Cover the Bioterror Scare, the News Media Had No Precedents, No Blueprints. Neither Did Their Often-Disagreeing Sources. Did News Outlets Keep Their Audiences Informed without Unduly Heightening the Fear?

By Ricchiardi, Sherry | American Journalism Review, December 2001 | Go to article overview

The Anthrax Enigma: As They Struggled to Cover the Bioterror Scare, the News Media Had No Precedents, No Blueprints. Neither Did Their Often-Disagreeing Sources. Did News Outlets Keep Their Audiences Informed without Unduly Heightening the Fear?


Ricchiardi, Sherry, American Journalism Review


When a second wave of horror rocked a shell-shocked and grieving nation in early October, the terrorists behind it appeared to be operating on the axiom: If you want to scare the wits out of America, scare journalists first.

In what could be considered a stroke of evil genius, superstar TV anchors and other newsroom personnel became targets of anthrax, a lethal germ weapon that health officials say never before has been unleashed on a civilian population. The media were in the thick of the story as messenger and as victim.

Overnight, the Fourth Estate faced the challenge of reporting an outbreak of bioterrorism on the home front. Journalists had no precedent, no strategy to deal with rapid-fire breaking news of infection by killer germs, no ready-made poor of experts.

Hoaxes, false alarms and conflicting information mushroomed as reporters scoured the nation in search of elusive facts and informed advice on who might be unleashing the lethal spores. In October, David Brown, a physician who writes for the Washington Post, offered a sobering assessment: "The perpetrators are in control of all the important variables." Editors agonized to reach the delicate balance of providing useful information the public needed to know in order to guard against anthrax infection without scare-mongering. Experts warned that, in these trying times, the media could create--or help to control--panic and fear by the content and tone of their reporting.

As the bioterrorism frenzy took hold, factual information was the first casualty. A myriad of contradictions and misinformation emanated from the White House and other official channels. Mixed messages clouded news conferences and government briefings. As the Bush administration urged Americans to go about their business, the FBI warned that there was evidence of impending new terrorist attacks.

The unanswered questions, disputes, lack of verifiable information and sheer mystery of it all created a perplexing dilemma for the news media. By mid-November, the only letters that had tested positive for anthrax spore contamination in the United States were those sent to journalists and government officials in Washington, D.C. The perpetrators scored a major victory as reports of bioterrorism dominated 24-hour news cycles.

The media were being held hostage by an unfolding drama over which they had no control.

Journalists are receiving mixed reviews on the question of how well they are handling the challenge. Opinions range from charges that the media had slipped into a "Conditization" of a story that needed to be handled sensitively to high praise for an evenhanded approach to an emotion-charged and terrifying series of events.

Some of the toughest criticism came from high-profile insiders like CBS' Dan Rather, who scolded the media, including CBS, for overreacting to the anthrax story at the expense of the war in Afghanistan and repercussions from the September 11 attacks. Rather told the Associated Press, "My own sense of it is that it's been overcovered, and I worry about that creating exactly what the people who spread this terrible stuff want, which is spreading fear that they hope will result in panic."

Political pundit Ariana Huffington cited breathless reporting, rampant rumors, baseless speculation and twitchy, nerve-racking crawls on TV screens for providing "enough toxic filler to feed the 24-hour news beast." Marvin Kitman of Newsday called the anthrax story "a bonanza for scareologists" in news departments.

Others, like Robert Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation, praised the overall coverage. "I think the press has been prudently cautious in reporting the [anthrax] story and therefore helped the country understand that there is no need to be panic-stricken about this," he says.

In particular, he praised the media for not pointing an immediate finger of blame at Osama bin Laden as the likely perpetrator and noted that what some might describe as the "incomplete nature of the journalism" reflects the fact that officials who are responsible for investigating anthrax don't know as much as they need to at this point.

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