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Fictional terrorism scenario has lessons for reporters and authorities

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 29, 2010 - At 11:15 a.m., a television reporter conducting live interviews outside the downtown YMCA suddenly falls to the ground as viewers hear a loud boom. "A major explosion has occurred in downtown St. Louis and it appears to be in front of the Federal Reserve building," the reporter shouts.

This was the hypothetical scenario that a panel of 10 representatives from the media, government, health care and business grappled with Thursday at a workshop titled "News and Terrorism: Communicating in a Crisis."

Organizers say the workshop, which has been held in several other cities, is designed to foster understanding, communication and cooperation among sometimes contentious stakeholders -- ahead of a disaster -- so that they can avoid making a bad situation even worse.

Twitter Takes The Lead

Word of the "explosion" begins to spread, the more than 100 audience members were told. By 11:21 a.m., city police officers have cordoned off nine square blocks. Would that keep journalists away from the scene?

"By that time, we're sending in the helicopter," said KTVI/KPLR news director Audrey Prywitch. Others agreed they'd also stay as close as possible.

At 11:31 a.m., Twitter breaks the news of a second explosion. From WF_Info of Wells Fargo: "OMG. Massive explosion @ 1 Jeff Ave in STL. Knocked me off my feet."

Emergency officials activate operations centers in St. Louis and Jefferson City. Barnes-Jewish Hospital springs into action. According to Debbie Mays, director of BJC Healthcare emergency preparedness, the hospital would be setting up triage locations outside the emergency department to prevent anyone who might be contaminated by any chemical exposure from entering the building.

All the while Mays' mind is busy trying to make the most of the sketchy information on the explosions.

"The fact that there are two of them, it might be terrorists -- there's the 'T' word," Mays said.

Another tweet at 11:39 a.m. from WF_CIO: "Huge cloud over WF ... looks like big mushroom. No answer from my friends!!!"

Chaos And Confusion

At 11:44 a.m., an incident commander issues a shelter-in-place order, meaning everyone should remain indoors and cut off any source of outside air. By 12:19 p.m., there are reports of mass casualties. A presidential news conference is planned for 12:30 p.m. in Washington. But St. Louisans are more interested in local media reports.

"'When can I go check on my wife' is not something we're going to address from the White House," said panelist Wayne Parent, an acting deputy director with U.S. Homeland Security.

But how much do the local media really know at this point -- and who's telling them? As the clock ticks, city emergency management officials are trying to make sure public information officers are all giving out the same facts. The FBI and Homeland Security are working to separate fact from rumor.

During this time -- much of the day -- journalists must rely on cryptic news updates, eyewitness accounts and experts they can get on the phone or pull onto their news sets to speculate about such things as radiation.

"We'll tell them [the listeners] what we know and what we don't know," explained KMOX news director John Butler.

At 12:45 a.m., a YouTube video begins to circulate in which two men talk about how the Federal Reserve and Wells Fargo "deserve" what they got. "And there's more where that came from," the pair warns. Would the media run it or not? With the exception of Prywitch, the answer is yes.

"Absolutely -- get it out there," Butler said. Others agreed that anyone with an Internet connection can see it anyway. If news organizations run it, they can at least help put it into context by finding out, for example, if the FBI is taking the video seriously.

Emergency officials would prefer the video stay off the air.

"It's going to add to the chaos," warned Gary Christman, emergency management commissioner for St. Louis city. "People are thinking, if this is credible enough to be on the media, maybe their kids aren't safe at school."

Are Facts Withheld Or Simply Unavailable?

Two days later, the death toll stands at 226. It's learned that the weapons were dirty bombs consisting of ammonium nitrate. In short order, two people are arrested.

But among the audience and panelists, the real debate had just begun. After the floor is opened for questions and comments, words flew about how much information the media should get from government sources -- and when.

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"The need to tell people what's going on is held captive by political and bureaucratic needs," charged audience member Kent Collins, of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

"I hear from news media that we in law enforcement have this big nugget of information we're hiding from you," retorted Maxwell Marker, with the FBI. "But it doesn't work that way. We want to give you information, but we're constrained by maybe the fact that we don't have the information to give."

Moderator-turned-referee Aaron Brown, formerly of CNN, acknowledged both sides and explained that the media are under a tremendous strain in this age of instantaneous news through social media and blogging: "The pressure to compete and have your stuff stand out as good and accurate is enormous. And this is not going to slow down."

These kinds of conversations, while sometimes contentious, are also invaluable, Christman, the city's emergency management commissioner, said in an interview. Having them beforehand, he added, fosters understanding between entities that often see each other as natural enemies.

"We're building networks and building partnerships to be able to get that information to the public in the time of a disaster as rapidly as possible and accurately as possible to better support them in response and recovery," Christman said.

The workshop, at the Sheraton City Center Hotel, was sponsored by The Radio and Television Digital News Foundation, the National Academies and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Nancy Fowler Larson is a freelance writer who has covered emergency preparedness.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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