Spores in the media
TV stations and newspapers guard against anthrax in their newsrooms
”So you’re delivering us nice, clean, anthrax-free mail, right?”
“I sure hope so.”
The mail guy chuckled and left a stack of stuff for the RN&R.
Like millions of mail recipients planet-wide, we all know what to look for. Our boss sent out a company-wide e-mail message Friday with the U.S. Postal Service guidelines on suspicious packages. As noted in this e-mail, the task of tagging suspicious mail is complex, given that most of our mail has at least one or more of these scary attributes:
• It’s unexpected or from someone unfamiliar to you.
• It’s addressed to someone no longer with your organization or is otherwise outdated. (“This won’t be that helpful for us, since it describes 90 percent of our editorial mail,” the boss wrote.)
• It has no return address or has one that can’t be verified as legitimate.
• It’s of an unusual weight, given its size, or it’s lopsided or oddly shaped.
• It’s marked with restrictive endorsements, such as “Personal” or “Confidential.”
• It has protruding wires, strange odors or stains.
• The city or state shown on the postmark doesn’t match the return address.
If we do get suspicious, though, we know what to do: Don’t open the package; isolate the area; leave the building; call the appropriate authorities.
We’ve memorized the diverse forms of anthrax infection. And though I was pretty paranoid last week, given one death in Florida, I’m feeling strangely reassured these days. After all, we’re not exactly dropping like flies over this.
But, say others in the local media, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Here’s what’s going on in other area newsrooms.
KOLO-TV Channel 8
It’s handy to have someone on staff who has been inoculated with the anthrax vaccine. At Reno’s Channel 8, a person who’s in the National Guard is available to open those suspicious envelopes or packages.
That’s just one of several new security measures—or old security measures that have been reinstated since Friday’s anthrax scare at the Reno office of Microsoft Licensing Inc.
“We’ve taken security procedures up a notch,” said Tim Perry, KOLO general manager. “Before, we were pretty relaxed and open about visitors to the building. Now, we’re issuing guest passes. If you see someone you don’t recognize, you ask to see a guest pass.”
And new procedures are also in place to handle all incoming mail. Once upon a time, like just last week, a trusting receptionist would open the KOLO mail at the front desk.
Now, all the mail that comes in the building is taken to a secure room and spread out over a table. Workers wearing disposable latex gloves sort the mail from known vendors and unknown vendors.
“Isn’t it just a pity?” Perry asked. “It’s a weird, weird time right now. If someone got sick, you’d feel negligent knowing you should have done something and didn’t. … We’d like to conduct our business and live our lives in the manner we’re accustomed to, but at the same time, we would rather be safe than sorry.”
To help calm potentially panicked viewers, Perry said it’s important that news broadcasts contain as much information as possible about the disease.
“We’re trying to address some of the questions we get,” Perry said. “People call the newsroom like they call 9-1-1. They want to know, ‘How do I handle this?’ “
The news broadcasts over the weekend repeatedly addressed the 10 most common questions regarding anthrax. The information is also available on the KOLO Web site, www.kolotv.com.
“People need to know that [anthrax] is difficult to get, and it’s not communicable,” Perry said. “What separates panic from confidence? The division comes from information. People think [anthrax] is a plague, that someone gets it and then this horrible disease ravages your family. But it’s not like that.”
Because many Nevadans are used to dealing with anthrax with livestock on ranches, Perry said that folks here are a bit less likely to panic.
“We’ve got ranchers saying they’ve dealt with it all their lives,” Perry said. “They’ve had cattle die from it and have never known any humans that got it. It’s not quite the ‘gonna get you’ threat that some thought it was. At first you think, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to jump through the wall and get me.’ “
KTVN-TV Channel 2
Knowledge is power. That’s why Reno’s Channel 2 carried live broadcasts of both Gov. Guinn’s anthrax statement and conferences from the Washoe County Health Department after Reno’s anthrax episode (in which no one was infected with the disease).
“We threw a lot of resources into it,” general manager Lawson Fox said. “We did these live broadcasts so that people here could get the needed information from authorities, so they could hear what was said as it was being said.”
The station also ran “crawls"—words running across the bottom of the screen—to keep viewers apprised of the latest news. The package sent to Microsoft first seemed to contain anthrax, but further tests were inconclusive. Then more tests seemed to indicate the presence of anthrax. But when workers in contact with the package were tested, none seemed to be infected. The public was confused. The Channel 2 reporters were careful to stick to the facts, Fox said.
“You can’t cry wolf in the news business and keep an audience, can you?” he said. “But we treated it like a big story, because it was a big story.”
While the staffers at Channel 2 aren’t using gloves to open mail, they are aware of the criteria for suspicious items. And the station also now has a supply of plastic baggies and gloves.
New mail-handling procedures have also begun at Reno’s daily newspaper, where the mail sorting process has been moved to a separate room, said Reno Gazette-Journal publisher Fred Hamilton.
“We’ve taken some precautions,” Hamilton said. “We have put our employees on a higher alert. … People are handling the mail with gloves. Administrative assistants for different departments are using gloves. Fewer people are handling mail at the front end, and we’re just being very cautious.”
To quell readers’ fears, the paper also sought to do responsible reporting at each stage of the latest anthrax episodes, posting updates on its Web site, www.rgj.com.
“Everyone’s a little nervous now, with it being found in Reno,” Hamilton said. “We don’t try to incite panic. We make sure we’re accurate. In the case of last week, working the story about the letter received by Microsoft, it gets to be very confusing for the reader as far as which tests were positive, which tests were negative. It needs to be reported. People need to know what’s going on. [Anthrax] makes people jittery.”
If you’ve been in the media biz for a couple of decades, you realize that threats via mail and bizarre phone calls come with the territory, said Jeff Ackerman, publisher and editor of the Nevada Appeal.
“We always run a risk in the media from whatever group is out there that doesn’t agree with us,” Ackerman said. He thought about having someone screen the Carson City newspaper’s mail but decided against it for now.
“We want to look at envelopes more carefully now, but I’m not hitting the panic button,” Ackerman said. “I’m more worried that I’ll get hit by a truck.”
During his journalistic career, Ackerman has received plenty of threatening letters. One series of letters described threats to his life in graphic detail, causing increased security at the paper for a while.
“You’re either too liberal or too conservative—or somebody just gets the notion that the media are to blame for everything wrong with society,” Ackerman said. “That’s OK. If you don’t have anybody mad at you, you’re not raising enough hell.”
As a disease that’s not contagious, anthrax doesn’t seem to carry the threat of some other deadly diseases that he’s read about. But plenty of damage can result merely from a public panic.
“You have to cover these things with caution," Ackerman said. He wondered how many hoaxes would turn up in the coming days. "How many people will think it’s funny to put powder in an envelope? How will [officials] run around testing all of these? I see these problems springing up all over the place."