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Journalists and public health experts discuss war and terrorism coverage

During past wars and international conflicts, CNN's Christiane Amanpour found it difficult to get information from the U.S. government.

In the Afghan campaign, "we got zip," she said. "There was no access of any meaning whatsoever."
McKenna and Banfield talk about access to information and bioterroriesm ad war at the journalism forum. (Photo by Marcia Ledford, U-M Photo Services)

Amanpour said she understands the need to balance national security interests with what media need to report, but that relationship has been "completely out of whack." She has heard that the government plans more openness as the country moves toward a war with Iraq, but she isn't convinced.

"I would like to be optimistic," said Amanpour, CNN's chief international correspondent, during a Jan. 27 panel discussion, at which she appeared via satellite from Tel Aviv.

That tension between security interests and media perception of what the public should know was one of the themes of the panel discussion, presented by the Knight-Wallace Fellows at Michigan program, sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and moderated by Charles Eisendrath, director of the fellows program. Panelists also discussed the best way to get correct information about bioterrorism to the public and the safety of international correspondents.

Ashleigh Banfield, an NBC anchor and correspondent, also has had a difficult time getting information from U.S. leaders when covering international conflicts.

"The warlords will readily tell you what they're up to," she said. "You don't really hear much from the Americans when you're abroad."

There is a difference between publishing during peacetime and during wars, said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and professor of journalism at Columbia University. During wars, he said, journalists must decide whether a story will endanger anyone's safety before publishing it.

Even so, he said, it is important to remember that "journalists are not soldiers. Our commitment is to telling the truth."

The possibility of being taken hostage or exposed to chemical or biological warfare has led many journalists to a course by Centurion Risk Assessment Services, which teaches reporters and others how to survive in hostile environments. Its director, Paul Rees, said some 10,000 journalists have participated in the program in recent years.

In spite of the training they received, some who participated later died on assignment, he said. "The course does not make you bulletproof," Rees said.

Two leaders of news organizationsKevin Klose, president and CEO of National Public Radio, and Eason Jordan, chief news executive of CNNsaid it is important to tell interesting stories but not if it endangers correspondents and crews.

"In the end, my rule to our news staff is what comes first is the safety and security of our reporters, our personnel in the field," Klose said. "When that is assured, go for the story."

Panelists who work in public health and scientific fields noted the importance of getting accurate information to the public, and the difficulty of explaining complex information on tight deadlines.

"I do believe that aggressive reporting is important, but I believe informed reporting is even more important," said Dr. Arnold Monto, director of the Bioterrorism Preparedness Initiative, School of Public Health.

Judith Miller, a reporter for the New York Times and co-author of "GERMS: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War," said the challenge of presenting accurate information to the public is made more difficult when experts aren't allowed to talk to the media. During the anthrax scare, she said, the FBI wouldn't allow some scientists to talk to reporters.

The government is working to become more open about such issues, said Dr. Ed Thompson, deputy director, Public Health Programs and Services at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC has added more press officers and has a goal of responding to media inquiries within an hour, he said.

It is important to understand that there always will be a tension between scientists and the media because "scientists never want to give you something quick," he said. But he also acknowledged the importance of releasing information as fast as it is safe to do so.

Dr. James Baker Jr., director of the Center for Biologic Nanotechnology at U-M, noted that the tools developed to improve health care are the same as those used to make weapons more deadly. He also said it is important for people to receive accurate information; during the anthrax scare, he said, many people were put on Cipro when they were misinformed that it was the best drug for them.

"We need to be careful what we tell people," Baker said.

Maryn McKenna, a science and medicine writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, agreed that it is important for the public to understand scientific and medical information. "I think we should be extraordinarily careful not to scare-monger," she said. "When people are alarmed or anxious, they don't process information well."

Other panelists included Ismael Ahmed, executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn; Janet Odeshoo, regional deputy director at the Federal Emergency Management Agency; and Monica Schoch-Spana, medical anthropologist at the Center for Civilian Biodefense Strategies, Johns Hopkins University. Several hundred people attended the event at the Alumni Center.

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