Media must act responsibly

When Peter Jennings speaks does your home fall silent like the aisles in a church service? In the wake of the tragedy that has befallen America, I commend anyone who is paying more attention to the news now.

But how much of the news disseminated by the media accurately portrays real-life events? It is our civic duty to observe the news we are presented and to be critical of the information that is pumped into our living rooms.

The television has demonstrated an unprecedented reach into our homes, businesses and even our bedrooms with millions tuning in daily.

This saturation can lead news media to present ideas as if they are “”common sense”” and should be unquestionably accepted. I suggest that Americans filter the headlines closely and scrutinize each news story with a careful eye, rejecting this notion of “”common sense”” because even when tragedy is on our doorstop, the media is still in the business to make a buck.

The talking heads tell us with furrowed brows that America has reason to fear a new threat: biological warfare. The death of a photo editor at American Media, a division of The Sun newspaper, after inhaling anthrax, has spawned a new panic among American citizens and the media have done nothing to assuage unwarranted hysteria.

And why should they? Due to the continuous coverage of the terrorist attacks by all three of the major networks, a lot of advertising revenue was lost. If the networks can pull us back in after the immediate threat has passed, by constantly introducing new ones, then that is exactly what we can expect them to do. They need to recover their losses from the Sept. 11 attacks.

This isn’t to say that the threat of biological assault is a figment of news executives’ imagination. It is only an assertion that their coverage of the anthrax threat, which usually includes pictures of men donning airtight space suit protection and gas masks with huge circular eye shields, is sensational at worst and incomplete at best.

What they aren’t telling us is the optimistic outlook of germ and chemical weapons. For an actual gauge of the threat, Americans must do a little homework.

Anthrax, which is now in the spotlight, is caused by a readily available pathogen that can be found in infected livestock and soil. It does not have to be obtained from a secret laboratory by scientists with special hazardous material licenses. Therefore, if Osama bin Laden or any other terrorist organization wanted it they probably already have it and have for years.

It is a deadly infection, but treatable when found early. It is difficult to spread and even more difficult to contract, even after exposure. Simply touching the anthrax spores or even breathing them in does not precipitate sudden death.

The media have conveniently underplayed the fact that even though the three anthrax victims, besides the one who died, had spores in their nasal passages they are currently doing well. I had to flip all the way to page 20 of the Los Angeles Times Oct. 12 issue to find a mere two-inch article stating, “”Third Anthrax Victim Is Back at Work.””

Within that article, the Times reported that the victim said, “”I just want everyone to know that I’m fine,”” as she smiled and headed back to work. Of course, we didn’t find this article on the front page because calming the masses doesn’t make for good headlines (or good business).

Similarly, it isn’t popularly addressed that no connection has been made between the terrorist attacks and the outbreak of anthrax on the East Coast. The FBI is investigating the incidents as criminal acts, but no solid conclusions can be drawn tying the tragedy in New York and Washington D.C. to the discovery of anthrax exposures or the isolated anthrax death.

Obviously, the likelihood that the two events are connected is worthy of investigation, but when the newspapers publish stories about anthrax under their “”U.S. Strikes Back”” headline, they are conducting blatantly interpretive news reporting and most readers are unaware of that. The papers do not allow readers to form their own conclusions, but instead present the occurrences inextricably as one.

So do we need to run, not walk, to our nearest Army surplus store? Well, if you do, news cameras will surely follow you in. They will snap pictures as you pull your chemical suits off the shelf, your gas mask from the rack and throw bottled water into your cart. Congratulations! You have just created more news.

As Americans are already on edge, we are susceptible to being frightened into doing irrational things based on the emphasis news coverage places on certain topics. This trepidation can be seen as the cause of the closure of a subway line in Washington, an IRS center in Kentucky and countless other establishments, sending workers home when any unidentified liquid, powder or smell has been detected.

The nation’s pharmacists have reported almost double the usual request for Cipro, the antibiotic used for anthrax treatment. Despite the medicine’s $5 per pill price tag, Americans have been flocking to their physicians to obtain prescriptions for their loved ones. The Los Angeles Times reported that one Southern California family purchased Cipro for its entire six-child family, totaling a whopping $3,500 — the Times did not say how responsible it felt for contributing to this purchase.

The American news media, for the most part, adheres to rather rigid guidelines, regulating their conduct through federally implemented stipulations. The rules see to it that broadcast and radio stations and newspapers maintain a level of professionalism and integrity in the production of our news.

However, these regulatory bodies can only control the industry to a certain extent. While they can ensure that the news stations will not tell outright lies for their own capitalist gain, they cannot oversee how sensationalized a story is to increase the network’s bottom line, if the details are correct. The American people must make this analysis.

Anthrax, like nuclear war and terrorism, is an imperative topic that deserves careful consideration by the media and the American people.

But as the TV stations and newspapers relentlessly deliver images that may or may not represent the whole truth, we should be extremely careful not to unquestioningly accept every story. The news industry has a business to run, and we help them to capitalize at our expense if we watch with our eyes wide shut.

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