RTNDA's Cochran Speaks Out

Jill Geisler of The Poynter Institute recently spoke to RTNDA president Barbara Cochran. In the following interview, Cochran expresses her views on broadcast coverage of the terrorist attacks and the cancellation of RTNDA2001:
Geisler: Broadcast journalism is getting high marks for its early coverage of the terrorist attacks. What advice do you have to keep the coverage at its best?

Cochran: [The] coverage truly brought out the best in television and radio journalism. Television and radio brought the story to the public with immediacy, vividness, and humanity. They served the crucial function of relaying information that protected public safety, that addressed rumors, and provided calm. Government leaders were able to reach [out] and reassure the public immediately through television and radio. The networks showed their vast reach. The anchors, all with many years of experience in covering crises, were factual and calm, doing everything possible to assure their audiences that they were seeking accurate information and providing important context. There was no fear-mongering, no exploitation of emotions. Local stations provided important news about and links to the immediate community. Unselfishly, networks and affiliated stations dropped advertising and provided information non-stop without regard to the impact on the bottom line.

As the flood of information slows down, it will be important to follow the pattern established in the past week of resisting speculation, hype, and emotionalism. Our economy, our civil liberties, our tolerance, are all at risk and it is vital for broadcasters to continue to act responsibly. That does not mean journalists should become cheerleaders and put aside all questioning of government and other powerful institutions. Journalists should be respectful, but they must not fail to probe and push for information. By asking the necessary questions and shedding light on all sides of the difficult choices that lie ahead, journalists will be performing their most important public service.

Geisler: You covered Washington yourself for many years. What challenges do you envision for journalists in this new wartime environment? What advice do you have?

Cochran: We're in the early stages of preparing for [a] military action that has yet to be defined or described. There will be a tug-of-war over information between military planners and journalists covering the story. During the Gulf War, too many restrictions were imposed on reporters and the result was a war that was only fully reported months after it was over. Pentagon planners admitted they had been too restrictive, but there's no reason to believe the restrictions will be any less this time. It is crucial for the leading news organizations to keep pushing the Pentagon, and all federal agencies, for openness and access. At the time of the Gulf War, I served as the broadcast member of a five-person ad hoc committee of Washington bureau chiefs that negotiated for more access from the Pentagon. Such a committee might be a good idea again. Another fear for journalists is that the current situation will serve as a pretext to revive anti-leak legislation. Journalists just a month ago had won a delay in the introduction of new legislation that would set criminal penalties for anyone found to be leaking classified material. Now, that legislation may take on new life.

Geisler: This story is happening at a time when print and broadcast newsrooms have experienced significant cutbacks. How will this affect the quality and sustainability of coverage?

Cochran: The willingness of the networks and stations to provide the news no matter what the cost in revenue and expense was admirable. Wall-to-wall coverage will probably subside until there is some kind of military activity, but every news organization will have to stay alert. Just as our government is warning that the struggle with terrorists will not be resolved quickly or easily, news organizations will be watching this story for a long time to come.

Given the response of the public and the critics to the kind of coverage we have seen, I hope companies will consider it a good investment to make sure their news organizations have the resources they need to do an outstanding job.

Geisler: Finally, RTNDA's board understandably canceled its convention last month. How will RTNDA recover from the loss of this important revenue source, in order to maintain your work on behalf of broadcast journalism issues?

Cochran: The cancellation was the right thing to do, but it could have a severe financial impact on RTNDA. Right now, we face a potential loss of as much as $2 million. We are working to assemble the figures and deal with the company that insured the event, but there is no guarantee of how much of the loss can be recovered. Furthermore, the association depends on the convention for half of its annual revenue, so any loss in net revenue could cut deeply into our year-round activities, principally our Freedom of Information activities.

As word of the situation has spread, we have received some kind offers of support. We hope all of our registrants, exhibitors, and sponsors will be patient as we work things out, and we hope we can count on our members and the industry to ensure that the future of the only association that exclusively represents electronic journalists is secure.