Inside Move: Cablers bug auds with orange warning

Public service or sensationalism?

NEW YORK — On the afternoon before the 9/11 anni, the Office of Homeland Security raised its terrorist-threat assessment from a yellow, or elevated, to a orange, or high, for the first time since the system was instituted last March. Paralleling the government’s decision, news cablers also placed Americans on alert by posting a “bug,” or a permanent screen display, that, in emblazoned orange, reads: “Terror alert: high.”

As a move that will inevitably intensify the public’s fear of an attack, however, it’s difficult to figure out where the bug’s public service ends and its sensationalism begins.

“As citizens, we’ve been struggling with these kinds of alerts for almost a year,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director for the media watchdog Project for Excellence in Journalism. “If it’s not telling me anything new, then I think it’s hard to justify this journalistically.”

Although the OHS has not given any further indication of the nature of the threat, an orange alert relates to a specific time and date of an attack that has been corroborated and is credible. Networks figure, however, that they would be irresponsible if they didn’t run the news of the upgrade. “It’s our obligation to inform viewers,” said one cabler’s programming veepee. “It’s the same thing when local stations run a notice about storm warnings.”

One contradiction in their mission, however, is that if, indeed, the bugs are part of a pure public service effort, then why not run the bug beyond the broadcasts, at least for the channel-flippers who habitually jump in and out of cable news?

“If there is this concern about alerting the American people, why not also put it on a commercial?” asked CNN co-founder Reese Schonfeld.

Another problem is the wording of the bug that CNN, Fox News and MSNBC are running. While the military and the government qualify the alerts as a “threat assessment condition,” nets have gone for the more dramatic but paradoxical “terror alert.”

“It’s a pretty hot way of putting it,” Rosenstiel said. “The word ‘terror’ and ‘threat’ aren’t really the same. One word suggests horror and panic, the other vigilance.”

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