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What Role Does Free Press Play in Crisis? - 2001-10-09

Since September 11, U.S. media have devoted much of their coverage to the battle against terrorism. VOA's Joe De Capua spoke with several experts about the role of a free press during this time of crisis.

Analysts generally agree the media should continue to be independent brokers of information. But they warn the media will eventually confront national security issues in reporting on U.S. operations against terrorism.

Richard Kapler is the Vice President of the Media Institute in Washington.

"When we have national security concerns here on our home shores, we have to remember that back in World War II there were various types of restraints on the media that they lived with," Mr. Kapler said. "In fact, for the most part, went along with. Since then, I think the role of the press has changed somewhat, and journalists have become so used to unfettered freedom that any kind of restraint now just leaves them chaffing at the bit. But we have to have this balance between informing the public and maintaining national security."

Mr. Kapler says the media have an ethical responsibility when reporting on terrorism. He says that means they face some challenges on what to tell the public.

"I think it should be a tough decision. I am afraid that for some journalists it may not be a tough enough decision," he said. " What I mean by that is that what happens if a journalist comes upon confidential information something that might threaten national security might endanger military personnel or American civilians abroad? What is the ethical responsibility there to try to bring information to the public, yet at the same time not endanger American people?"

Warren Watson director of extended learning at the American Press Institute in Reston, Virginia, expects the U.S. media to have confrontations with the government.

"Well, I think you are going to have the same kind of problems that popped up during the Persian Gulf War and that is access to information," Mr. Watson said. "We may not know what is going on and may never get the complete story because the information can be held that closely. And then you wrap-up in that the whole patriotic fervor that goes along that the media are not being patriotic if they are asking tough questions. But this is the time more than ever for the media to be vigilant and to try to get that information."

Mr. Watson says some of the best reporting on the Persian Gulf War occurred after the war was over. He says he hopes that does not happen again.

Aly Colon agrees. Mr. Colon is a member of the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Florida.

"All of us have a job to do. The government has its job. The military has its job. And I think the news media have their job," he says. "And they at times will be at odds and there will be tension. And I think that we need to respect what they are doing but we also need to remember why we exist, which again is to provide information that the public can trust is independent and geared toward informing them."

But Mr. Colon says media outlets must not rush to print or broadcast rumors out of fear of being beaten by their competition.

"Well, I think the media, in general, have been trying as hard as they can to be as accurate and comprehensive and as fast as possible," Mr. Colon said. "Doing this, there is always the possibility and the outcome that some of the information will be incorrect. And I do think that the news media need to be very careful in the way that they asses information, evaluate it and then decide what it is they are going to put out for the public."

Warren Watson of the American Press Institute says that not all media play by the same rules when it comes to fairness and truth. He says, in some cases, integrity could lose out to competition.

"When people look at the credibility of the media, they basically lump television, they lump gossip sheets, they lump newspapers all together in one big kettle," he said. "So the more people that are basically in the pool, the more that could happen. And that would be unfortunate."

Richard Kapler of the Media Institute says it is also the job of the media to report news that some may view as critical of the U.S. government.

"Very often there are botched military efforts," Mr. Kapler said. "There are inefficiencies, maybe bad decisions, things that should be brought to light and clarified, cleared-up and set right. And that can be a primary job of the media."

All three analysts give the U.S. media high marks for their coverage of the September 11 terrorist attacks. They say in the long run, the media may cover the terrorism story the way they did the Cold War which had occasional flare-ups and espionage. But they also say journalists have much to learn in reporting the story of terrorism.