A panel of speakers, including nationally-recognized journalists and experts, traveled from different corners of the country, to discuss their opinions and concerns on the impending war and biological warfare yesterday at the University Alumni Center. Despite their differing views, all panelists agreed on the importance of public understanding and awareness of the current political climate.
The Knight-Wallace Fellows and W.K. Kellogg Foundation created an opportunity for the guests to speak with each other and also to address some concerns and questions from the audience. The main theme, however, revolved around one major issue: How well is the public being informed during this time of crisis and are the media and experts prepared to inform it?
“A journalist is a member of society who commits to his or her role as an observer,” said Tom Rosenstiel, a journalism professor at Columbia University. “Our commitment is to tell the truth.” He added it is the media’s responsibility to explain their job and create a stronger partnership and relationship with the public.
In order to do this effectively, journalists and experts have to work together. However, Ed Thompson, Deputy Director for Public Health Programs and Services for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not believe this is necessarily the case. He said most people in the public health sector view the media as an “interruption” rather than an integral part to public health and an entity that has contact and access to the population.
Thompson credits this dichotomy to the different goals of journalists and experts. He said that the desire of scientists to confirm and present only accurate information, regardless of the amount of time it takes, does not correspond to the media’s desire to report the story quickly. He stresses the importance to bridge the communication gap he feels is present.
Ashleigh Banfield, NBC anchor and correspondent, said that experts and journalists must work together. “Experts are difficult to come by. You should really put yourself out there,” she said. If experts share their knowledge with reporters, Banfield added, the public can benefit by learning about the situation and how to deal with it.
“People around the world are much better informed about the United States than the United States is about the rest of the world,” said Christiane Amanpour, chief international correspondent for CNN. She feels many issues that have arisen between cultures and countries after Sept. 11 are due to a lack of knowledge looming across the globe. She explained that people are “talking across each other and through each other,” and information is being reported through a “political prism.”
Charles Eisendrath, director of Knight-Wallace Fellows at the University, said, “the United States is in a totally new position. We have never before been in open-ended warfare with an enemy not well-defined and with no specific objective.”
So the question is how prepared are the media and health experts to address their respective issues.
The consensus is that the media and the experts are taking precautions and learning new methods to deal with current crises. But as Kevin Klose, president of National Public Radio said, “What we are and what we must do is understand our vulnerabilities.” He added it is crucial to understand and accept flaws because only then can they learn how to improve disseminating information.
James Baker, director of the University Center for Biologic Nanotechnology, said it is important to be honest with the information. “We need to be careful what we say and tell people.” He said reporters should not be aggressive on the wrong points and be sure not to scare the public by exaggerating information.