The Anthrax Attacks: A Journalist Assesses What Went Wrong in Coverage of This Story. (Reporting on Health)

By Thomas, Patricia | Nieman Reports, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

The Anthrax Attacks: A Journalist Assesses What Went Wrong in Coverage of This Story. (Reporting on Health)


Thomas, Patricia, Nieman Reports


Following September 11th, The Century Foundation began its Homeland Security Project to help inform the public and policymakers about complex challenges related to terrorism. One facet of this project is a series of case studies examining the public's need to know. What follows are edited excerpts from a paper in this series entitled "The Anthrax Attacks, "which explores how and why the press encountered difficulties in reporting essential public health information during the anthrax crisis.

Anthrax bioterrorism was the third most closely followed news story of 2001, topped only by the September 11th attacks and the war in Afghanistan. Some 24-hour news channels were "all anthrax, all the time" for several weeks; Tom Brokaw uttered the memorable phrase "in Cipro we trust" as a sign-off after the NBC newsroom was targeted, and print coverage reached blizzard proportions. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was mentioned in more than 12,000 newspaper and magazine articles during the final three months of the year.

Meanwhile, a behind-the-scenes struggle was developing between government agencies, which held a near monopoly on information about the attacks, and journalists clamoring for access to what government scientists and investigators knew. This situation came to light in late October, about three weeks into the crisis, when prominent journalists began venting their frustrations in print: Usually helpful press officers were stonewalling, government scientific experts were not being made available for interviews, and public officials were generally failing to make accurate health information available fast enough. This mismanagement of news harmed the public good, reporters said. Some writers blamed Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Tommy Thompson, speculating that his devotion to the Bush administration's credo of "speaking with one voice" led him to silence experts, damage his own credibility, and wound the reputation of the CDC in the midst of a national emergency. Other critics attributed disruptions in news flow to structural deficiencies and incompetence at the CDC itself.

Regardless of whom these influential reporters held responsible, all expressed concern that an information shortfall left the American people susceptible to panic, vulnerable to hucksters, and confused about how best to safeguard the health of their families. More than one year after the last anthrax victim died on November 21, 2001, one might expect reporters to have lost interest in these issues and moved on. But that has not happened. In fact, more recent actions of the Bush administration have made thoughtful journalists increasingly worried that tight government control of health and science news might disrupt the flow of timely, accurate information about scientific research and personal health to readers and viewers....

When the attacks began, "All the government agencies, including NIH [National Institutes of Health] and CDC, were told not to talk. They were trying to develop a model where all the information came from a central source," NBC's Robert Bazell said. He cuts the Bush administration some slack because they were newly in power, there is always a learning curve, and no one had any practice with bioterrorism. Washington Post reporter Rick Weiss is less forgiving about how the administration's "speaking with one voice" policy hampered journalists' effort to keep the public informed about breaking science. "One department, one voice. But that one voice is busy right now, so please leave a message," he said wryly....

Calling the CDC

Every reporter covering the anthrax story called the CDC at least once, but not many actually managed to interview a CDC scientist. Understaffing was an obvious problem in the first phase of the crisis. From October 4th through 12th, the single media relations specialist assigned to bioterrorism documented 137 anthrax calls received during business hours. …

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