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Meeting in the Middle

-first posted at RTDNA.org on February 2, 2010

I was lucky enough to take part in RTDNF’s News and Terrorism workshop in my hometown of St. Louis last week.  The event was the 18th in a series of gatherings that bring together journalists, emergency personnel, and policy makers to discuss how to react in the event of a terrorist attack in a U. S. city.  This is the second of the workshops I’ve been able to attend.  The first was on the other side of my state about six years ago in Kansas City.  Both times I was struck with the workshops’ ability to bring people together who are essential to public safety—but who seldom talk unless an emergency is already taking place.  The RTDNF events have been crucial to getting those who respond to emergencies—either to cover them or to respond to them—to talk about what they could do better for their common customer, the public.

This meeting in the middle (of the country and the topic) was healthy all around.  Broadcast news directors John Butler of KMOX and Audrey Prywitch of KTVI/KPLR, along with Pat Gauen from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, schooled the first responders and political emergency planners on just what newsrooms want and need in a time of crisis.  And every journalist in the room, yours truly included, learned how those who run toward emergencies rank the importance of giving the media what they want.  Much to our dismay, that part of the job is not very high on most emergency workers’ crisis to-do list.  There is a gulf between us that the workshops help, but cannot eliminate altogether.  And there’s great risk it will get bigger.

That threat comes from the most striking difference between the 2004 Kansas City workshop and the event last week in St. Louis—the speed with which we must gather and distribute information.  In 2004, there was no Twitter, our websites often waited to post news until after it was on the air, and smartphones weren’t all that smart.  So while a terror attack was still a huge story then, our best way to get it out quickly was through breaking into on-air programming.  The pressure is much greater now.  We actually compete with amateurs who are tweeting or facebooking breaking news as they see it.  Still, our brands mean something to our audiences.  They trust that the information we provide is more accurate than what eyewitnesses spread electronically.  But they also expect we’ll deliver what we know as fast as the amateurs do.  On the other side, emergency responders are not always interested in getting out information as quickly as possible.  They often want to withhold information for fear of causing a panic.  But that does not sit well with our mission.

Kent Collins, my colleague at the Missouri School of Journalism, summed up this conflict when he asked the assembled group in St. Louis how we could close this gulf between the media and their push for the public’s right to know and the government and its desire to withhold information.  No one in the room had the answer to his question.  The gulf remains.

It seems that closing the information gulf is the direction our efforts should go now.   I can’t help but be a bit biased here, falling in with the journalists’ side, but the public does need to know when disaster strikes and it has never been equipped so well to receive news quickly. The question is just what will pass for “news” when disaster strikes.  Tweets from the area with all manner of exaggeration and error will not be what is best for the people.  What people will need in a crisis is experienced reporting from journalists they can trust—and they’ll need it immediately.  Based on what I saw in St. Louis last week, that will take access, information, and cooperation.

Access to the scene will be critical.  Our amateur competitors will already be there.  In the St. Louis scenarios, two downtown buildings were the scenes of bomb attacks.  Should such a tragedy truly strike, those buildings and the ones in the area will be filled with people tweeting, texting, and blogging about what happened.  Our reporters need the same access.  We must work to have the right to get in close to the scene when something important happens.  There was a light moment at the event when, after revealing there were elevated radiation readings around the blast sites, moderator Aaron Brown asked Audrey Prywitch if her reporters had radiation suits.  Everyone laughed, but the point was made.  Access brings with it the necessity to protect our crews in what could be some very dangerous situations.  If we plan to be a close to the scene as the Tweeters, we need to start on our preparedness now.

Once the crews do make it into the affected area, we’ll need information.  This is at the heart of the question asked at the event.  We must continue to work to get government and other emergency officials to see the value of providing as much information to the public as possible.  Our best way to win them over is to show how responsible we can be with accurate information and how we can separate that from rumors and other false information.  Acting as a trusted conduit for official information will be part of our reporting task.  That will not eliminate our need to work independently and dig for information from other sources.  But I hope the officials can see we are the best way to reach the public with as much accurate information as possible.

Finally, cooperation will be key to making this all work.  I’m not talking about giving up our arm’s length approach to government agencies.  Our watchdog role will continue.  We cannot team up with the people we will cover during a crisis time.  But we can cooperate with them to deliver coverage that serves that common customer.  That cooperation won’t be easy, but it will be necessary.  Otherwise, we’re going to lose out to the Twittersphere and that means our customers will lose out, too.

The scenarios in St. Lous were chilling, just as they have been in all the other workshop cities.  They spelled out a possible future where thousands are dead from terror attacks and the eyes and ears of the survivors turn to us to find out what’s happening and what to do next.  I’m proud to be part of a profession that can meet those expectations. But that won’t happen if we sit back and just wait for it.  Be proactive now.  Start talking to the officials in your area about this.  Team up with other journalists to give your arguments more weight.  Meet in the middle now so that when disaster strikes, you can bring the public what it needs to know.

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