Planning for Disaster

Broadcasters grapple with security
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Broadcasters grapple with security

WASHINGTON

Round 2 of the Media Security and Reliability Council (MSRC II) began last month when the group held its first meeting since the FCC rechartered the consortium of broadcasters, manufacturers and government officials for an additional two years.

The meeting began and ended with a number of vague but ominous observations.

"I don't want to fuel the rumor mill, but it is important that we have a high sense of urgency to all this," Hearst-Argyle Television CEO David Barrett said in opening remarks in a meeting that lasted only about 45 minutes.

Barrett, who gave no further details regarding the rumors to which he alluded, was appointed to chair the councilin March by FCC Chairman Michael Powell.

The 41-member council met at FCC headquarters, preceding a public forum co-sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), where some panel members expressed continuing frustration with federal officials who appeared to make contradictory statements regarding homeland security that often lack specificity but not urgency. Panel moderator Sam Donaldson of ABC News underscored a situation that occurred in late May, when Attorney General John Ashcroft and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge appeared to have been competing for attention over jurisdiction of security-warning protocol, as well as the severity of the warnings.

"Clearly," Donaldson said to panelist Susan Neely, DHS public affairs assistant secretary, "the government did not speak with one voice ...which can present a real problem for us, the media, who have to report on all this."

While not responding directly to the question of overlapping jurisdictions, Neely said effective homeland security also includes what the media does not report-such as erroneous information in a rush to be first on the air-and is vastly helped by broadcasters who do their homework.

"Last November, some white powder shows up in an envelope in the Washington suburbs and the initial tests are positive for anthrax," Neely said. "But having gone through this before, a lot of us already knew that this often shows up as a 'false positive,' which thankfully and wisely was included in how this [incident] was widely reported by the media. We all do a reasonably good job of alerting the public that there could be a threat out there, but reporting the field tests alone may not be conclusive. And it turns out that [in this instance] it is a false positive. So the public is told there could be a threat out there, but not to worry about it needlessly."

EDITORIAL CONTEXT

Powell, for his part, said he believed the tangible act of providing information, alone, is a useful service.

"Giving out information itself is part of the solution. The mere [relaying] of facts... to people serves a worthy purpose."

Playing devil's advocate, Donaldson asked Powell if the media should simply consider passing on homeland security information to the public verbatim, as it is disseminated by government sources? Powell quickly said no.

"I think editorial context here matters significantly," he said.

The MSRC issued a series of "best practices" in December 2003 for electronic media to adopt in dealing with an array of emergency scenarios, ranging from dirty bombs and other terrorist acts to the upheaval wreaked on local communities from weather disasters. The situations would require fundamentally different reactions from media and government. For example, a bio-terror attack typically would unfold gradually, rather than come as a single cataclysmic event; a chemical or radiological attack could require the public to seek adequate shelter in place rather than attempt to evacuate the danger zone. The Best Practices, among other things, cautions media outlets to be fully prepared for anything that may affect their respective markets in the foreseeable future.

"The key objective now is to have a disaster plan in place, and to rehearse it," Barrett told those attending the June gathering.

Rehearsal is a key to any successful plan, the MSRC has said repeatedly since it was first chartered by the FCC following the events of Sept. 11, 2001. But so far, the warning is falling on deaf ears within the broadcast industry. Barrett said only 17 percent of TV stations and a miniscule 7 percent of radio outlets have actually conducted rehearsals of their own plans. Cable appears to be doing much better, according to MSRC findings, with a 58-percent plan rehearsal rate. Powell has said in past meetings that a plan that is not rehearsed is not yet a plan at all.

RTNDF WORKSHOPS

But some help may be on the way to nearly a dozen major markets in the months ahead, according to MSRC II member Barbara Cochran, head of the Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA). She told the council her group's educational foundation (RTNDF) will conduct 10 workshops starting this month-featuring simulated incidents tailored to each market that will call upon local media, government officials and experts to work in tandem. The fictional scenarios could include chemical, biological, nuclear or radiological events. The workshops will use the resources of the DHS and the National Academies, with some input from MSRC II.

"Too often, emergency planners leave media out of their planning, when, in fact, the public turns to the media for information in an emergency," Cochran said later. "A good and timely flow of information from public health and safety officials to the media can prevent the spread of panic and keep a crisis from turning into a catastrophe."

At press time, the workshops were scheduled for this month in Chicago, in Portland, Ore., in August; Kansas City in September; Philadelphia in October; Miami in December; Austin in January; Atlanta in March; San Francisco in April; Denver in June; and Boston in July 2005. (Check www.rtnda.org for specific dates.)

The RTNDA did not mention at the MSRC meeting that it is calling on the DHS to revise some rules mandated by the Homeland Security Act, which encourage people to submit sensitive information directly to DHS about what it calls "critical infrastructure." The direct submission is to ensure that it will not be disclosed to the general public.

"RTNDA's concern is that government is sweeping vast amounts of public safety and security information behind a curtain of secrecy and it will be much more difficult for the public to hold government and businesses accountable," Cochran said.

Similar to Barrett's opening, Powell chose to end the MRSC II meeting with a vague hint of urgency as he noted the second half of 2004-a time frame that includes two political national conventions, Fourth of July celebrations on the Washington Mall and elsewhere, the Summer Olympics in Athens, and the pending presidential campaign and general election in November, among other high-profile events.

"Things are progressing, but they are always too slow. When I look out over this year, I am certainly hopeful, but I plan for the worst," Powell said. "I see some major events that could be trouble."