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Anthrax Attacks: A Study In Panic

aaResearchers examining SARS in Toronto learned that in a systematic crisis, where multiple agencies are involved, it is important to recognize your organization’s strengths early on. For Sunnybrook & Women’s, the hospital had a unique ability to respond quickly to crises at all levels of the organization–from doubling the capacity of isolation rooms literally overnight to working to contain the spread of the illness through strict adherence to infection control protocols.

According to DuHamal, the role of the public affairs department was to highlight these wins early and often through every available communication vehicle with internal and external audiences. The CEO was the person positioned at the helm of the crisis, but he would call upon members of the SARS management team to answer staff questions about everything from human resources to financial issues about protective equipment. It is important to have a wide variety of people communicating and carrying a similarly themed message–multiple faces add credibility when communicating with multiple audiences.

From SARS to the Anthrax attacks, crises, by their very nature, are unpredictable and varied. Newsom, Scott and Turk tell us you should always anticipate the worst thing that could happen to your organization and be prepared to deal with it. (10)

Since September 11, a national survey of public relations professionals found that companies give higher priority to updating their crisis communications plans and seek faster ways to communicate with all employees during an emergency. (11) The survey of 150 companies found that 46 percent of companies have increased their focus upon crisis communications planning in the wake of 9/11. “Companies re-evaluated their crisis communication plans and determined that the top priority is to communicate quickly and effectively with all employees.” (12)

But when information is conflicting, an even bigger crisis can occur. Remember Three Mile Island. Although the accident was unique, years later, some scholars have suggested that the accident could be seen as a classic example of the clash between technology and the media. (13) With Three Mile Island, neither the utility nor the National Regulatory Commission had emergency public information plans in place. Consequently, their responses were confusing, conflicting and disorganized. Finally, the White House stepped in. The federal government demanded that communication be centralized and limited the number of people who could speak about the accident. In fact, a task force later concluded that a major communications breakdown occurred due to lack of planning by Metropolitan Edison, the NRC and the Media. (14)

Did a similar clash occur after 9-1-1–this time between the biological scientists, the federal government and the media? So, who were the sources of the media coverage of the first days of the anthrax incident? While the media have the power to set the public’s agenda (15), it is the sources of that information that are critical in the communications process and the public understanding of scientific issues.


To explore the sources behind the anthrax incident, the researcher examined national media coverage of the first days of anthrax including three major national newspapers. The Washington Post, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times and the major networks including ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN.

Using LexisNexis, the researcher found relevant newspaper stories. Vanderbilt Television News Archives, which houses network news stories, was used to duplicate network TV news stories during the first days of the anthrax attacks as well.

To determine first and second sources behind the anthrax coverage, a content analysis was conducted on stories between October 4, 2001 (TV news), October 5, 2001 (newspaper) through October 18, 2001. During that time period, when the first victim died of inhalation anthrax to the closing of the Hart Senate Office Building and the Longworth House Office Building in Washington, D.C., the story drew national attention.

A total of 222 print stories were carried in all three nationally circulated newspapers and 39 network TV news stories were analyzed during the selected time period.


faOf the 222 print news stories, first and second sources cited in the articles were extremely diverse. Basically, no ONE individual was seen as “the source” for news regarding Anthrax.

Interestingly, members of the Bush administration (27) were cited the most as a first source. Of those 27, there is a diverse group that in the article was associated with the Bush Administration. For example, the President’s Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, was cited seven times followed by President George W. Bush who was cited as a first source six times. The Attorney General was cited as a first source three times. The Vice President was cited three times. Ari Fleisher, the White House Press Secretary, was cited twice as a first source. Others cited as a first source once were a State Department Spokesperson, the First Lady, a spokesperson for the President, a “Government Office,” a Bio-terrorist expert at DHHS and a Director of the Center for Drugs at the FDA.

Interestingly, all other first sources of the newspaper stories were again quite diverse.

Local and state officials were cited 20 times as a first source. Of those, for example, then New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani was cited 4 times, the Governor of Nevada was cited twice. Governor of Florida Jeb Bush and his Lt. Governor were each cited once as well as the spokesman for the state comptroller of Maryland. Other various state government employees were cited as a first source. Of the 20 state and local officials cited as a first source, seven served as either a health department employee, the director of public health or an emergency management officer.

Not surprisingly since media outlets were targets of the anthrax attacks, the media were cited 25 times as a first source. Of those 25, cited the most as a first source were NBC Nightly News Anchor Tom Brokaw (three times) as well as the President of ABC News (three times). Others cited as a first source the AC Nielson ratings (5), the editor of health meds.com, media/news reports (with no one individual as source) (3), an AMI employee, an AMI mailroom employee, American Media chairman. Fox news anchor Brit Hume, the Star gossip editor, the National Review editor, a spokesman for the tabloids, the editor of the Oregonian paper and the Washington Post.

Like the media, members of Congress were also targeted in the anthrax attacks when Senator Tom Daschle’s aide opened an anthrax-laced letter. Senator Daschle was cited as a first source in two of the 222 print stories. Other Senate and House members and their staffs from Louisiana to California were cited as first sources ten times.

Postal service employees and economic sources were cited as a first source, each eight times. Officials/authorities (with no particular name and/or title) were cited ten times, experts were cited six.

Pharmaceutical sources from Cipro’s manufacturer to a local pharmacist were cited as a first source six times; the Centers for Disease Control representatives were cited five times. Others cited as a first source included a bio-weapons expert, who was cited one time as a first source, a germ warfare advisor to the Pentagon was cited once, infectious disease specialists and epidemiologists were each cited twice. University researchers and professors of medicine were cited as first sources only a total of seven times. In addition, terrorism/anthrax experts from universities were cited a total of five times.

Second sources in the anthrax print stories fell along similar lines. Again, second sources were quite diverse. Contrary to first sources, as a second source, the media were cited the most (26 times) followed by Bush Administration officials a total of 22 times. Of those, DHHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, once again, of the Bush Administration was cited the most (7) followed by the President (5), John Ashcroft (4) and others including the Federal Reserve Chairman cited twice, the Vice President, 1; a Bush campaign advisor, 1; a State Department Spokesman, 1, and “U.S.” 1. Experts (the word expert was used in the story with no explanation of exactly who that expert was) were cited five times as a second source.

Local/state officials were cited as a second source 15 times with all but four sources coming from their public health, emergency management areas. The CDC was cited as a second source six times. Police and fire department individuals were cited as second sources seven times.

TV Network News Stories

During October 4, 2001 to October 18, 2001, a total of 39 TV news stories related to the anthrax attacks were shown on the three evening network newscasts, ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN as recorded by Vanderbilt Archives using the key term “anthrax.” (Since news stories first appeared on TV on October 4, the researcher included October 4 news stories).

Interestingly, in 13 of the 39 TV stories (33.3%), there was no first source. The individual cited the most as a first source in the TV stories was US Attorney General John Ashcroft (3). DHHS Secretary Tommy Thompson was cited twice as a first source as well as an NYU Medical University physician. Other first sources ranged from Alan Greenspan to Ari Fleischer to biochemical weapons specialists to postal workers.

As a second news source, Attorney General Ashcroft again was cited the most (2), Tom Daschle (2), the Postmaster General and Dr. Jill Trewhella of the Los Alamos National Laboratory were each cited twice in this category. (See Table 4)


When examining simply the sheer number of stories on the anthrax attacks, 222 in three major national newspapers and 39 on the TV networks, October 4 through October 18, it is apparent that this story was drawing national attention.

Yet what is not so apparent is who was controlling the message regarding the anthrax attacks. When examining sources of both the print and electronic news stories, of the 222 print news stories and 39 TV news stories, basically no ONE individual was seen as “the source” for news regarding anthrax.

Cited the most as a first source in both print and TV news stories were members of the Bush Administration. For print, DHHS Secretary Tommy Thompson was cited seven times and U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft was cited the most (3 times in the TV news stories). DHHS Secretary Thompson was cited two times as a first source in the TV news stories. Yet, still the sources were numerous and varied from the President himself to the Attorney General to bio weapons experts.

It is not surprising that the media were cited in print stories as a first source 25 times, right behind members of the Bush Administration, since media outlets were targets of the anthrax. However, the media were NEVER cited as first or second sources in the TV news stories. In fact, there were NO first sources in 13 of the 39 TV stories.

Overall, there were no sources cited as both first or second sources in a far higher percentage of the TV stories than print stories. Nearly thirty-six of the TV stories had no first source compared with nearly seven percent of the print stories.

Second sources in the anthrax print stories fell along similar trends as first sources; however, the media jumped to the highest category with the majority of second sources. Of the TV news stories, Ashcroft again was cited the most as well as Tom Daschle, the Post Master General and a Los Alamos National Lab spokesperson. Interesting again, when examining second sources, no ONE individual appeared to be singled as the source for the anthrax attacks.

It in interesting to note that DHHS Secretary Thompson labeled the first death as an “isolated case.” As time would tell, the anthrax death was anything but isolated, yet this statement was coming from the top health official of the United States while bio-terrorism experts were saying the case was deliberate.

While this study reveals such a diverse cast of characters as sources of the anthrax attacks, and noting the conflicting information of the sources, the data suggest that such could lead to confusion from the public. Who was to be believed? The United States’ top health official or a top bioterrorism expert?

This research may very well suggest the chaos of the anthrax attacks was comparable to the misinformation and chaos that led to the same confusion of Three Mile Island. Only in that case, the government had to step in to begin to clear the confusion. Furthermore, did the conflicting information about the anthrax attacks even lead the media to search for even more diverse sources to attempt to get correct information or to at least let the public decide exactly who to believe? This study did not attempt to answer those questions; however, even in its limited timeframe of the attacks, public relations practitioners can take note.

What Can Practitioner’s Learn?

While sources of the news stories were trying to spread calm, the inconsistency of the sources themselves may have helped to spread fear. Who was to be the source for anthrax? Was it the government? Health officials? Biological science experts? Bio-terrorism experts? This study suggests there were NO main sources, which may have contributed to the panic itself. And when there was more than one source, often responses from US governmental officials differed from any experts in the same report.

In essence, have we not learned from our cases like Three Mile Island in the past where a major communications breakdown occurred due to lack of planning? This study perhaps suggests that a model more similar to communicating SARS in Toronto should be examined where the notion of challenging one contact was explored. Instead, scholars learned that a wide variety of people communicating with a similarly themed message added credibility when communicating with multiple audiences.

This study of the first days of anthrax may well suggest to public relations practitioners that the basics of crisis communications should be adhered to. That is, communications must occur at the very birth of a crisis. Yet, to receive a more accurate and thorough picture of the crisis, perhaps a team of experts including government and scientific experts should come together as one voice with one message.

It appears, at least from this research, that no one ever quite got a grip on who was to control the anthrax message and even what the basics of what that message should be to create calm instead of panic. And while practitioners may still adhere to the “one voice” message, perhaps one voice may have to come together as several individuals as one team of experts.

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