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Editorial: First Informers A First Priority

September 11, 2001. A day that still lives in infamy. It is not overstating it to say that it was this generation’s Pearl Harbor. And like the living room radios families gathered around back in 1941, the electronic media brought us together, or more accurately, riveted us for days to the unfolding horror and its aftermath, which is still being felt in ongoing overseas wars, the way we travel, and the access we have to our government and its information.

There was some irony in the fact that the 9/11 anniversary has been overshadowed, at least briefly, by the focus on the two latest examples of big breaking news stories that had many media dropping business as usual to take on the role of what the National Association of Broadcasters has come to call “first informers.” Fortunately, neither was of a similar magnitude.

But as we pause to remember those terrible days 10 years ago—can it really be a decade since?—we also pay tribute to those in our own industry family who lost their lives. There was Don DiFranco, a transmitter engineer at WABC New York, who was working on the 110th floor of the World Trade Center North Tower; WPIX engineer Steve Jacobson, who, according to the station, had earlier remained at his post through heavy smoke during the 1993 World Trade Center bombings to make sure that the station got back on the air when power was restored; David Angell, the Emmy awardwinning executive producer of Frasier, who was on one of the ill-fated flights; and so many more.

We also remember those who helped us follow and desperately try to come to grips with what was happening.

Broadcast and cable journalists were everywhere, from the documentary producers plunged into darkness in the basement of the World Trade Center towers as they followed first responders into harm’s way, to President Bush’s plane as it flew the suddenly unfriendly skies rather than risk an immediate return to the nation’s capital.

Those of us who had lived through the aftermath of the JFK assassination could relate to a breaking story that unfolded over days, not hours, and by the sense of being both numbed and disoriented by the unfolding drama yet unable to turn away.

The media have to negotiate something of a minefield with big stories that can draw big audiences, resisting the temptation to over-hype them in the interests of building the brand or keeping the audience, but not underplaying a story that needs to be told or disseminating information that could save lives.

News outlets were catching flak last week for overhyping Hurricane (turned Tropical Storm) Irene. But hindsight is a lot clearer than staring into the eye of a hurricane that forecasters are telling you could be huge, and was huge for many. One Washington Post reader summed it up in a letter to the editor last week. “Amid continued finger-pointing in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, let’s remember: The only thing predictable about this storm was the post-incident emergence of hypercritical armchair meteorologists with 20/20 hindsight. Faulting the media and the federal government for overplaying events is easy now, but when Irene was pushing north of Florida, it packed winds of 115 mph and its path was unpredictable.”

And broadcasters, in particular, have that “first informer” public interest charter—which means they will likely err toward over-coverage than under. A few stations have been chastised and even fined by the Federal Communications Commission for what the agency saw as not providing sufficiently accessible news and information on storms and natural disasters. So, even if broadcasters didn’t provide coverage out of a sense of commitment to their own communities, which they do, they are expected to do so by the FCC as part of that public interest compact.

We certainly could not blame broadcasters for putting a spotlight on their coverage of the East Coast earthquake and Irene, and their role as emergency communicators. They are fighting for their future in Washington, relying heavily on their value as “first informers” to make the case for leaving them enough spectrum and flexibility to respond to the next crisis.