Media Try to Avoid Anthrax Alarmism

Article excerpt

Byline: Joyce Howard Price

Television networks, scrambling to report U.S. cases of anthrax, say they are trying to strike a proper balance between reporting the news and not alarming the public.

"The upgraded level of hysteria, now that [anthrax] has hit a large media outlet [NBC television in New York], in addition to the offices of a company [in Florida] that publishes supermarket tabloids, has people in an uproar," said Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"The problem for the media now is walking a fine enough line without panicking the public. In order to do that, it's incumbent on news organizations to use proper, intelligent and authoritative sourcing and to deliver the news in a measured way," he said.

But Mr. Gottlieb and other media analysts say that the cable news networks, which reported the newly discovered New York anthrax case all day Friday, as well as the other major broadcast networks, did not always meet those criteria in their coverage of this scare.

The analysts say they believe the networks could have done a better job in decreasing public fears and anxiety about these anthrax incidents by providing better and earlier information on how the bacillus is spread, by making it clearer that the type of anthrax involved in the New York case is different from that in the Florida cases and is less severe, and by stressing that law enforcement and medical authorities have no evidence the New York and Florida cases are connected.

"They ran with the story. When they had the opportunity to take a breath, they filled in the gaps," said Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs.

"It's incumbent on the viewer to stay tuned to get the vital information, but the viewer is not always in a position to do this," he said.

Marty Ryan, executive producer for political coverage at the Fox News Channel, says, "We've been really trying to explain" how the NBC employee was infected with anthrax that was contained in a powder in an envelope. He said Fox reporters repeatedly pointed out that microscopic anthrax spores can enter the body through a cut in the skin, but that they cannot be spread directly from person to person. …