The Spread of Dread

If a war on terrorism is really an attempt to stop people from spreading fear across the land, what is the role of the news media?

Journalists see a need to warn people about threats and dangers. But at what point does such information do more than just alert people and actually alarm them - perhaps even harm them?

That's a fine line too easily crossed, one that needs to be drawn ever so carefully. A whole new way of thinking may be required of the media during this conflict.

In recent conventional wars, the US knew where the enemy was - not on American soil. The first rule for journalists was not to jeopardize US soldiers by releasing war secrets. But with terrorists hiding among the population with the sole purpose to evoke fear, journalists are much more involved - like it or not. They can either prepare people, or panic them.

Even the media itself can be a target of terrorism, specifically a bioterror attack with anthrax, as happened last week to NBC News and American Media Inc.

And TV news shows are complying with a Bush administration request not to air video statements from Al Qaeda terrorists that promise new attacks on Americans. Such measures not only help prevent such videos from being used to send signals to hidden terrorists, but also show journalists can take responsibility for the effects of information on people's emotions.

Much of the media is also offering solutions to potential threats as well as just reporting them.

Reason and accurate information are the best antidote to fear and to regaining a sense of security. Both government leaders and journalists need to be on high alert against doing the terrorists' dirty work for them.

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