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At Crisis Workshop, Napolitano Says Media (Incl. Twitter) “Can And Need To Be An Accurate Source Of Information” When “Rumors Spread Or As Conspiracy Theories Abound” On H1N1, Terrorism

September 24th, 2009 · No Comments

Speaking to a workshop on crisis communications yesterday, DHS Secretary Napolitano said both ‘old’ and ‘new’ media “can and need to” continue to address the accuracy of rumors and conspiracy theories on homeland security issues such as H1N1 and terrorism. In her remarks, she also outlined some other news/information challenges faced by the media as well as government officials on homeland security, including “the ability to communicate that things will change without undermining public confidence.”

Napolitano spoke in Baltimore to the “News & Terrorism: Communicating In A Crisis” program (described in the previous post below). It was the 17th workshop in the series which was created in 2004 by the National Academies of Sciences along with DHS and the Radio Television News Directors Association. After the Secretary’s comments, the participants — mostly local media and government officials —  took part in a tabletop scenario involving multiple terrorist bombings in the Baltimore area. Excerpts from the speech are below:

“…print, television, radio, text, Twitter, et cetera, et cetera—all forms of media—can and need to be an accurate source of information, so that as rumors spread or as conspiracy theories abound, or as fears that we are facing—for example, in the spring, the upcoming death of millions of Americans from the flu— we can begin jointly to get accurate information out and accurate assessments about what the risk really are. And also because I view security as a shared responsibility among individuals, families, businesses, so that people can be properly prepared about what they will need to do…

…I know the goal of today is pretty straightforward—is to more effectively work together during a crisis, specifically a terrorist attack—and those will be important steps to take. What you may want to be thinking about, however, is [how] you handle reporting an alleged terrorist investigation—as the investigation is going on when there has been no actual attack. Because there—there are judgments to be made from the media side as well.

I think one of the values I hope you take away from today is a better mutual understanding of what everybody is doing and what they are coping with. And that leaves from the government side, a better understanding, too, of what the media is coping with—that we will develop out of this some ways to more effectively work together and also, a deeper, more profound understanding of how incidents actually happen and how they are managed from a news perspective.”


“For example—and I can say this as a former governor and attorney general, and U.S. Attorney—actually, when something happens or—be it caused by nature or caused by terrorists or what have you—the situation will evolve very, very rapidly and it is absolutely 100% the case—and I’ve been involved from everything from the Okalahoma City bombing investigation to the aftermath of 9/11—because out in the states, we didn’t know whether 9/11 was confined to the east, to New York City and Washington, D.C., whether there were other targets around the country—to now the things I deal with as the Secretary of Homeland Security—but in every situation, the facts as originally presented change.

They are not facts. They are data points. And you need to think of it that way and you need to be thinking about—we all need to be thinking about the fact—the fact, that the situation—that these things are going to change. And those decisions will have to be made by people in positions like mine, even when your data points are not complete or they are inconsistent.

So, you’re constantly being forced to make judgment calls based on your best estimate of the data at that particular time. And then, you also have to be flexible enough to change that as you move along. Which means when you have the press conference, you have to be—have some understanding from the media’s side—that that is a snapshot of the data and the decision as it exists at that time—but it may change over time. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

If you make all your decisions and whatever, at the outset of an incident and you don’t change and you don’t adjust as the data becomes more profound, more accurate, more filled in—you’re probably not a very effective decision-maker in a particular situation. So, explaining that and helping the public understand that and not feel that this is something unusual and the people don’t know what they’re doing—that is a very, very important part that media can play—communications can play…

And so, the ability to communicate that things will change without undermining public confidence in what is being done and the ability to communicate scientific or engineering or other types of information is so very, very important. And as we try to do it—and we’ve been working in our own Department on how we do these things—but the media, we hope, is also thinking about that at the same time. So, the point of fact is—is that we can have the best crisis management ever for any crisis, and if the communications isn’t right, or the media isn’t with us, or is viewing it differently, it will be viewed in the aftermath as not successful crisis management.

So, part and parcel of our crisis management is communication with the media and then—hence, the media communication with the public—an effort that we can all always be thinking about in these settings and it’s nice to do it in an enclosed ballroom. Are we going to lock the doors—nobody can get out. No windows, so you can’t be distracted—but to really focus on these things for a bit with some scenarios and people who have the responsibilities here.”

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Tags: Department of Homeland Security · Media · Preparedness Events