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Covering Education Amid Threats of War or Terrorism

Veteran education journalists offer suggestions on working through national security threats.

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On the spectacular blue-skied morning of 9/11/2001, I was a staff writer for U.S News & World Report attending a not particularly exciting press conference a few blocks from the White House. Suddenly, someone burst into the room and announced “Our nation is under attack.” We all rushed outside, where thousands of office workers were milling in the streets because the government and all transportation had just been shut down. Warnings of a plane heading toward the White House (and, thus, us) sparked through the crowd like an electric arc.

I took a very circuitous walk (going an unnecessary half mile north to get as far as possible from the White House) to get back to the U.S. News office in Georgetown. Over the next several months, I was detailed to cover everything from airport security to the terrorists’ dining habits, and got a crash course in crisis journalism.

Now, as our nation faces the threat of more hostilities, it’s important for education journalists to maintain a commitment to craft, apply the lessons of history, and be vigilant against pressures that might cause us to spread falsehoods or unnecessarily worsen anxiety.

Here are some resources and tips from veteran education journalists who’ve worked through previous national security threats:

Apply Your Skills

In times of crisis, everybody in a newsroom has to pitch in to the big story. That may mean getting handed an assignment far outside your beat. Don’t panic. The skills you’ve developed as an education reporter are more important than ever. Education reporters are especially adept at interviewing people of all ages and from all walks of life. In addition, we spend a lot of our time checking primary sources such as official data and research papers. And education reporters are at the forefront of addressing issues of equity and inclusion. These are exactly the kinds of skills needed to research and convey accurate information in a crisis. (For more on this, the American Press Institute offers an in-depth read on advancing empathy and source diversification. )

Focus on the Intersections

When the first plane hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, President George W. Bush was sitting in a second grade classroom, reading to the pupils from a book about goats. (His administration had planned to spend that whole week discussing education.) But there are many more fundamental ways that education is connected to national security, says Daniel Golden, who wrote a recent book on how intelligence agencies use college staff and students. Golden, who is now an editor for ProPublica, suggests looking at the connections between current events and education, such as what school textbooks say about countries like Iran or whether schools or publishers are making changes to instructional materials in light of recent events. Current events also pose challenges to teachers who may struggle with how to discuss issues like war and patriotism in these politically divided times, he notes.

Arm Yourself With the History of Journalistic Mistakes and Misdeeds

Amanda Ripley, a veteran education journalist and author of “Complicating the Narratives” and “The Unthinkable,” a book about disaster behavior, urges reporters to learn about the many mistakes news outlets committed in past crises. You’ll need those historical examples to push back against pressure from editors and readers to publish unchecked material, she says. For example, many news organizations had to make six-figure payments to security guard Richard Jewell for rushing to falsely blame him for the 1996 Atlanta bombing. And Ripley recalls covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, observing police officers worsening community panic by spreading false rumors of looting and other crimes.

Don’t Believe Anybody

Especially anybody who wants to go off the record. And these days, be supremely skeptical of anybody you are only connecting with online. In times of crisis, don’t publish without rigorously checking even the most reasonable-sounding claims from trusted friends and “official” sources. In the days after 9/11, I got calls from friends and relatives passing on news tips that they were absolutely sure were true. One person swore they’d heard explosions outside of Foggy Bottom, for example. I went there and found no evidence of explosions. I was continually astonished by the amount of ignorance and misinformation passed on to me by government officials. The Washington Post’s recent expose of the constant government lies about the reality of the Afghanistan war should serve as a reminder against taking anybody’s word about what’s really happening in war.

As deep fakes and AI-generated online avatars get increasingly sophisticated, journalists need to take extra steps to verify identities as well as claims, so here are some resources for fact-checking.

Try Not to Re-Traumatize Your Audience — or Yourself

Ripley recalls how traumatizing it was to re-watch the televised images of the World Trade Center towers burning and falling. And research shows that it was traumatizing for children to keep seeing the televised images of the 1995 Oklahoma City terrorist bombing. “War is frightening. It is not our job to quell fear. But it is our job to provide useful  information,” Ripley says. People who are over-frightened become paralyzed and can’t take in new or nuanced information, she notes. She urges journalists to consider “the psychology of the audience” and temper coverage of threats with information on “how people can be useful.” She suggests journalists explore “solutions journalism” techniques, which involve taking a rigorous investigative approach to efforts to address social problems.

In addition, Poynter has an important post on steps journalists can take to limit the psychological damage to themselves.

Rock Comfy Shoes

In times of stress, why not practice a little self-care by wearing clothes and shoes that are comfortable? Comfy shoes are especially important for women, Ripley says, noting that on 9/11 women suffered more injuries than men because they had to kick off their stylish but uncomfortable shoes during their escape.

“I’m rocking sneakers right now,” Ripley told me as we talked by phone Tuesday morning.

So was I. Because you never know when you’re going to need to take a little bit of an extra walk.