Justified or not, many Americans are living in fear. Since Sept. 11, 2001, too many of us, especially in urban areas, jump at the sound of every explosion or wailing siren. Suddenly, there's the fearful need of reassurance from some authoritative source that all is well in the community.
The authoritative source of choice is usually local television. A recent survey found that 57 percent of Americans said they would turn to television first to get information in the event of another terror attack. Another 15 percent would turn to radio, and nine percent would consult news organization or government Web sites.
Even Internet users would turn to television first and radio second. Only 34 percent would use Web sites as their primary or secondary source of news. Perhaps it's no surprise, but young people ages 18-29 are the most likely to say that the Internet would be a key news source for them in an emergency situation. More than half those in that age bracket would go to Web sites as one of their primary or secondary sources of information.
Of course, most TV sets need electrical power to function at all. As in the case of the recent power blackout in the Northeast, TV wasn't always available for emergency information. In such cases, backup media like radio and other communications devices assume vital importance. In an age of terrorism, Americans now understand they need more than one way to receive information.
Everything we've seen in our research suggests that Americans want every channel of communication fired up when there are emergencies, said Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the organization that conducted the survey with "Federal Computer Week" magazine. They want horns sounding, radios blaring, TV screens alight with the latest information, pagers buzzing, e-mails sent, and Web pages updated on the fly, Rainie said. They don't want to have to rely on just one communications method, and they don't want one channel to have special privileges over others. They want each one of them used when all hell is breaking loose.
Communications-savvy Americans gave the researchers a wish list for how they would like to access emergency communications information. Among the findings is that 22 percent of all American adults (including 36 percent of those ages 18-29) want a warning system created for cellphones and pagers. Twenty-one percent of Internet users said they would also like to get alerts through e-mail.
'I'M FROM THEGOVERNMENT'
Down the line of priority for emergency information sources are newspapers and government. In fact, government Web sites are about the last place Americans turn to get information -- about 3 percent. However, about one in six Internet users (16 percent) say they have been to government Web sites for information about how to protect themselves in case of another terrorist attack. Of those who have been to sites such as www.ready.gov, the Dept. of Homeland Security's citizen-oriented site, most are women, parents and those in their early 20's.
The usefulness of such sites was great for only 13 percent of those surveyed. Fifty-seven percent said they found some information, 21 percent said they found a little information, and eight percent said they found not much information at all.
The government's much-touted, new color-coded warning system has proved only moderately helpful for most; 57 percent of all Americans said the system provides useful information, while 36 percent said it does not provide information of much value.
The color-coded system has been criticized by some local officials and law enforcement personnel as too vague to be very effective. Again, women and young Americans are the most likely to follow the system.
The data gathered in this new survey on emergency information reflects an opportunity for local broadcasters who see their future as the premiere provider of local information to their home audiences. Not only do most Americans prefer television in the time of emergencies, but broadcasters have the opportunity to use new digital communications technologies to expand the wireless distribution of essential local information.
Instantly updated Web sites and emergency alerts to cellphones, pagers and e-mail addresses are all low-cost, highly effective ways for broadcasters to expand their emergency service reach to viewers. It represents the kind of public service people want from their over-the-air broadcasters. One wonders why more stations aren't taking advantage of such opportunities.
The full report on emergency information is available at: www.pewinternet.org/.
Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.
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