Project Distributes Guide to Newsrooms on Responsible Reporting of Terrorism Threats

Studying the media's response to terrorism and bioterrorism

In 2002–03, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, Philadelphia, analyzed media coverage of terrorism threats.

Many press reports in the months following the September 11th attacks on New York and the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., magnified fears by describing horrific but highly unlikely scenarios against which there is no reasonable defense, according to Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the director of the Annenberg Center.

Key Results

  • On July 12, 2002, the Annenberg Center, the American Society of Newspapers Editors and the Radio and Television News Directors Foundation held a closed-door meeting in Washington with 20 editors and producers to discuss the complexities of covering terrorism, security risks and preparedness.

  • Researchers compiled a set of examples of troublesome stories in "Reporting on Terrorism: Case Studies." The case studies provided background for the July 2002 meeting.

  • The Annenberg Center commissioned a white paper, "Sensitive Homeland Security Information: Appropriate Protection or Overreaction," by former CIA general counsel Jeffrey Smith and former Washington Post reporter Scott Armstrong that examines how legislation about homeland security may affect the ability of government agencies to share security information with the media.

    Researchers held a closed-door meeting for government officials and media representatives on June 11, 2003, in Washington and a public conference the next day to discuss the issue.

  • The center published Reporting on Terrorism: A Newsroom Guide, which discusses, among other issues:

    • The appropriate level of detail about threats, both to help readers understand them and to hold government accountable to address them.
    • The responsible use of hypothetical cases in reporting on terrorism.
    • How to raise the level of awareness of a threat without causing panic.
    • How to determine whether a story may contain information useful to terrorists.
  • The center also published a brochure, "Six Rules for Government and Press on Terrorism," which offers rules of thumb for reporters covering terrorism issues.