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Media's Role in the Public Perception of National Security

Over the past 50 years, the mass media has established itself as the chief source of the American public's perception of national security. Dating back to World War II, media has been the link between the public and the government via newspaper, radio and television. Media advancements, particularly in radio technology were crucial to the spread of the Red Scare and McCarthyism. Due to today's technological advances, the American family has access to live media coverage of events. Immediate viewing of 9/11 and the recent war with Iraq have been made possible, thanks to the adoption of embedded reporters and real time coverage. Advancements in the media have allowed for a public that is more aware of current threats to national security.

Along with the awareness that the media has generated for American society, there exists a rapidly growing demand for news reports. After 9/11, a very shocked and alarmed America was searching for answers. Not surprisingly, they turned to the media for facts about what went wrong, who was responsible and why tragedy struck. Additionally, changes in the new terrorism alert status heightens the nation's sense of insecurity and desire for the facts; consequently, the public turns to the media to keep informed on such issues.

While the media is the public's main link to daily news, they are not always a reliable and credible source of information. It is important to note that the media, like any other industry, must provide products and services that are appealing to the consumer. Media outlets are ultimately owned by corporations who must adhere to their own corporate missions and operational budget. Recently, the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) relaxed ownership laws of newspapers, television and radio stations; this decision created much controversy. In support of these acts, FCC Commissioner Kathleen Q. Abernathy stated that "given the rules we adopt today…it is simply not possible to monopolize the flow of information in today's world. Indeed, the fall of Communism in the 1980's and of military dictatorships in the 1990's shows that diverse viewpoints cannot be suppressed even by authoritarian governments, much less by private media companies." In dissent of the acts, fellow FCC Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein claimed that " as big media companies get bigger, they're likely to broadcast even more homogenized programming that increasingly appeals to the lowest common denominator. If this is the toaster with pictures, soon only Wonder Bread will pop out." Congress is now continuing the debate as some Congressmen are working to overturn the ruling.

This revived interest in safeguarding media coverage highlights America's desire for the most accurate and up-to-date news stories. Deeming what is newsworthy is not always a simple task. Executives and editors have the challenge of finding the balance between their corporate ownership, their paper's or station's integrity, and the flood stream of news. Journalists must then take informational leads and write a concise and attractive piece, taking into account several points of view. In the case of security threats, the pressure to capture an accurate portrayal of the situation is further complicated by the limited governmental access journalists have to information. As one embedded journalist reports, "the discomforts and dangers of the war were easily dealt with; accurately conveying the reality of it to the readers back home was not."

When working toward a better-informed nation, it is crucial to acknowledge the tedious work the media must undergo in order to prepare news reports on security issues. With this in mind, today's scientists and future scientists must work with journalists and editors in order to create a more accurate picture of today's national security issues. Without an informed debate, vague reports on national security threats can evoke strong emotional responses. Scientists and security experts are needed to create this debate around both current threats and policies made to protect the nation.

This is not a new concept. In 1955, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell drafted a manifesto calling for scientists around the world to become active in political affairs. They encouraged scientists to assemble in conference to discuss resolutions to the nuclear crisis thereby creating the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Today, organizations such as Pugwash, the Federation of American Scientists, and the Union of Concerned Scientists are taking part in campaigns to promote the reliance on sound scientific research in effective policy decisions. Scientists must work with the media to create an educated electorate, thereby, putting well-informed public pressure on policy leaders around scientific issues affecting national security. Aspiring scientists and current scientists need to understand that their roles must extend beyond the research laboratory.

Today's policies are quickly trying to catch up to the scientific and technological advancements of the last 20 years. Covering this story takes a collaborative effort. This brief includes four articles that will present the differing perspectives on this issue, as well as, three ethical questions that exhibit the scope of this debate. In addition, statistics and interviews with experts on this issue have been gathered to create a better understanding of this topic. Finally, a list of suggested movies, speakers, web sites, books, and articles provide further research on the subject area.

-Submitted by: Matt Mosgin, 2003 Summer Intern