Soft targets, hard questions


The tragedy coming out of Norway is simply numbing. And not just because of the loss of life (77 known victims at this writing). But because it’s Norway. One of the most peaceful places on earth. The home of the Nobel Peace Prize. Where the Israelis and Palestinians went to try to forge the foundation of a peace between them. A place where it truly can be said that “this kind of thing just doesn’t happen here.”

The July 22nd car bombing in Oslo, and the subsequent shooting massacre at a youth camp on a nearby island, remind us all again about the nature of vulnerability. About dangers lurking where we least expect them. About the critical importance of vigilance.

Initially, there were reports that a group sympathetic to Islamic extremists had taken credit. But those reports were later tempered by news that a native Norwegian, a self-proclaimed Christian fundamentalist with an anti-Muslim mindset, was in custody and was the prime suspect in the crimes.

That didn’t stop some American radio talk hosts from placing agenda ahead of fact. They downplayed official police reports and transformed their own first theories of another al-Qaeda inspired attack into an unsubstantiated “government cover-up” — a narrative that surely kept skittish listeners and fearful cynics glued to their radios in the weeks leading up to the 10th commemoration of the 9/11 attacks here.

In times of crisis, we broadcasters must always remember that we hold a singular responsibility to the truth. To fairness. To accuracy. And where opinions must or should be expressed, to facts that support those opinions.

Most important, we must serve as a beacon of calm in a sea of chaos.

But we must also remember the uniquely high-profile our organizations hold as dispensers of facts and opinions someone is bound not to like. The attacks in Oslo are stark reminders of our own vulnerabilities – the vulnerabilities attached to being open forums for debate in a free and open democracy.

The Oslo bombing significantly damaged the nearby offices of VG, one of Norway’s big newspapers, forcing an evacuation. And for a time, Oslo’s TV2 was sealed off as authorities investigated a suspicious package there.

But the events in Oslo are but the latest in a series of violent events which have impacted media organizations or personalities associated with them.

We know the outrage that boiled over in the Muslim world when a Danish newspaper cartoon of the prophet Mohammed was published. We remember Don Bolles, the Arizona Republic reporter who, in 1976, was blown up by a bomb planted in his car, sometime before he was to have met with someone promising leads for a story on land fraud linked to organized crime. And we recall Alan Berg, the liberal Jewish talk host at KOA/Denver, gunned down in his own driveway in 1984 by white supremacists who just didn’t like his view of their world.

And there have been far less tragic — though no less serious — attempts to intimidate those who report facts and express opinions in the media. Harassing calls and e-mails, obscene letters, packages containing noxious or toxic materials. Out of control hecklers at public appearances. Even a backhoe attack by eco-terrorists that toppled the brand new towers of KRKO-AM in Snohomish, WA in 2009. The list of threats goes on and on.

The last thing we, as lovers of free speech, want to do is to see our platforms — our newspapers, content production centers and broadcast stations — turned into fortresses. But the tenor of our times —  and simple common sense — require that we find that sensible middle ground between wide open doors and barricaded dungeons where we can do our jobs safely and fearlessly.

Take a look at the external and internal security of your facilities. Are there recorded surveillance cameras at key locations, and are those cameras monitored in real time by trained security personnel? Do you have “panic buttons” located strategically around your facilities to alert internal security or law enforcement in the event of a hostile intruder or other emergency? Have you supplied “all-hazards training” to your staff, including modules on situational awareness, active shooters, suspicious packages, hazardous materials, communicated threats and first aid? Do you have an ongoing relationship with law enforcement that includes an exchange of intelligence on individuals who have threatened your staff or your facilities?

Are your lobbies isolated from the rest of your building? Have you installed a “prox card” system of door interlocks so that if an intruder gets past the lobby, they can’t have free run of your plant? Have you developed and rehearsed strategies and tactics for simulating on-air broadcasts, in the event a would-be hostage taker succeeds, and demands that his message be broadcast? Do you have contingency plans for transferring operations to a sister station or competitor if your facilities are inaccessible or inoperable for some length of time? Have you identified areas of safe refuge in your building, drilled an in-building relocation, exercised your evacuation procedures?

And operationally, if you yourself are not impacted by an untoward event that has exploded in your service area — and you are not primarily a news or talk station — have you cross-trained your staff, and provided them with the necessary research, communications and other assets, to support continuous live crisis coverage that is quickly initiated, and is credible and reliable?

These are hard — and sometimes costly questions. They demand extraordinary commitments in an economically constrained operating environment. They require us to ponder terrifying possibilities, to question our fundamental character. But difficult or no, we must meet these challenges.

Let’s arm ourselves with the knowledge we need to ace the tests we face. A good starting point is Valerie Geller’s excellent new book, Beyond Powerful Radio — with detailed chapters in preparing for contingencies and handling emergencies on the air or online (full disclosure: I contributed excellent material on these very themes to this excellent book). Log on to for details on how to buy copies for you or your staff (full disclosure again: I am NOT a compensated spokesperson), and use it as a starting point for your own internal discussions and planning.

What happened in Oslo, New York, Washington, Shanksville, PA, Phoenix, Copenhagen, Denver or Snohomish, WA yesterday could happen to us tomorrow. Every bad event is a lesson in preparedness and resolve. As security experts tell us over and over: The people determined to do us harm need be right only once. We need to be right — and ready — every time.

–Howard B. Price, CBCP, MBCI
Dir., Business Continuity & Crisis Management, ABC News