Where’s the Line Between Giving Threatmongers What They Want…And Citizens What They Need?

| December 16, 2015

By Howard B. Price
ABC Television Network
Director, Business Continuity

 

pricehowardbwriterNEW YORK — The nation’s second largest school district was shut down Tuesday by a terroristic threat.  Several other school districts, most notably New York City’s (the largest in the country) also received similar threats – but did not close schools, take buses off the road, or tell staff and students to stay home.

Why the different responses? Simply put, specificity and credibility as judged by local law enforcement and other officials.  The proverbial “abundance of caution.”  Important because all of these concepts also guide broadcasters as to how, when – or even IF – threats should be reported.

Los Angeles is just over an hour or so west of San Bernardino, the recent scene of the worst terror attack on US soil since 9/11.  Those tragic events, still all too fresh in our collective consciousness and even more so for Southern Californians, surely factored into the decision to shut the schools.  Nearly 650,000 children were affected; closed schools turned family schedules upside down; it’s likely a fair number of parents stayed home from work to care for their school-aged kids.  Not to mention the financial impact of this kind of event for taxpayers. There’s a lot of real news here – and you have to report it, locally AND nationally.

But what of the threats made elsewhere – threats that provoked the required investigation, but no other response? This is where threat reporting gets complicated.

Critical to the discussion is the hard reality that those who make these threats are banking on a response from both authorities AND the media.  Thankfully, even in these troubled times, most threats are hoaxes made to seize on public fear.  The hoaxers find out about that response the same way the rest of us do – through the media.

SO what to do?

As with most professional challenges, the process begins with an internal conversation, specific to your station and market.  For example, do you have a policy document to guide your decision making in such dynamic breaking news situations?

If not, the RTDNA has on its website a thoughtful checklist of standards and procedures every broadcaster should consider when drafting policies on the reporting of threats. Here are some of the highlights:

  • What are the potential impacts of these threats and the official response to them?  Will our reporting relieve or exacerbate public fear?  What does the public really need to know?
  • Are there consequences of our decision to report or not report?
  • How and when do we report – and how do we explain our decisions to our audience?  What do we do “live” – and what do we hold for later reporting?
  • What tone do we use to report, so as to focus on facts and prevent hysteria?
  • The process guiding public response is key.  How are these threats investigated and dealt with?  What are institutions doing to preemptively ferret out and trace hoaxes?  Are the punishments for convicted hoaxers severe enough to deter copycats?  Where can we take our reporting beyond the “instant” event?

With experienced news departments absent now from so many radio stations – and with this kind of thing happening in so many places all too often – program directors, hosts and producers must have a response plan for serving their communities thoughtfully and effectively, when seconds count – and the right decisions count even more.

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Howard B. Price, CBCP/MBCI is director, business continuity for the ABC Television Network.  The opinions expressed in his articles are his alone, and are not necessarily those of his employer.  He can be emailed at Howard.B.Price@abc.com or phoned at 212-456-1073.

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Category: Advice