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Covering The Thwarted Plot

The foiled transatlantic terror plot is getting a tremendous amount of attention from news outlets everywhere. Even those who aren't typically news junkies are likely flipping on cable news or checking news Web sites during the day more than they otherwise would. So, how does that affect the way the network evening newscasts report the story?

"We've got to be guided totally by the facts," said correspondent Bob Orr, who handles the aviation beat for CBS News and is one of those covering the foiled terror plot story. "There's always pressure to match or beat the competition," which includes cable news. "The challenge [for the evening newscasts] is to take all the information that's out there, and distill it to something that's factual and clear and put in proper context."

According to Orr, the ability to add such context is an advantage the network broadcasts have over cable. "When you're covering something in real time," as cable networks are, said Orr, "There's a lot of flack, a lot of coverage of the hot button issue of the moment. I think it's tough for those outlets to editorially police what they're saying" as events are unfolding on the air.

That cable news provides a continual flow of developing information throughout the day for news-hungry viewers, however, indeed poses a challenge for the evening newscasts -- to provide something unique. "The challenge for us is that the raw material has been out there, so by the time the 'Evening News' rolls around, [the audience] has seen a lot of the stuff. So we have to bring another dimension to it, one that hasn't been exploited yet."

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For Orr's story on the broadcast last night, which focused on the effects of the foiled plot on airline security measures (you can watch it here) he says he relied primarily on tapping institutional knowledge, much of which he shared with colleagues for their stories.

Since this particular story has "a lot of tentacles," said Orr, there isn't a particular correspondent in charge of covering it. That translates into a lot of information sharing. "Yesterday my focus was airports," said Orr. "A lot of the reporting that I did ended up in other stories, and others' reporting ended up in mine." That information sharing is valuable, but it can also become problematic. "We don't want to do five or six stories that are repetitive," said Orr.

What about the tone of stories? One of the primary gripes that most critics have about news coverage of terror-related incidents is the unnecessary hype that often goes along with them. As far as coverage of the transatlantic terror plot was concerned, at least one critic thought CNN's coverage was impressive in that regard. Wrote David Zurawik in today's Baltimore Sun: "Each report was done with so much context, confidence and calm that America's pioneering 24-hour cable news channel nearly could have been mistaken for its venerable counterpart, the standard-bearer of international crisis reporting, the BBC." CNN President Jonathan Klein told Zurawik in an interview that the network is treading lightly when it comes to terrorism stories: "There's no question that it's such a volatile subject, and that it so plays to viewers' fears, that handled incorrectly, TV news coverage could induce anxiety, to say the least."

"The facts have to rule. We can't get outside the facts," said Orr. "That said, you know up front that terrorism is a scary topic … and terrorism and aviation is even more frightening to most people. You don't want to sugar coat it … but we also have a responsibility not to hype it."

Irresponsible information is certainly present, said Orr, who finds that most of it comes in the form of headlines or teases, "the devices that are there to keep people interested." (TVNewser's Brian Stelter took note of one curious headline: "FNC's coverage is using a 'Terror in the Sky' label. Is that really appropriate, since this plot has been thwarted?")

"We have to be careful not to oversell or over-hype the story," said Orr, but at the same time, he added, "It's a serious story. This was a genuine plot with all the earmarks of a sophisticated operation, but we have to put it into context … it's not necessarily that the sky is falling."

While there are outlets that might be over-blowing the story, he said, "I think the vast majority [of reporters] want to get it right."

UPDATE: Correspondent Sheila MacVicar, who has been covering the thwarted terror plot from London, adds some more thoughts about her approach to the story and its challenges.

"Stories like this are suddenly in front of you, and require immediate response. There's usually not a lot of time before you have to get on the air and start reporting what you know, when you know it. It's constantly rolling. In this case, I was actually on my way to Heathrow early in the morning to catch a flight for another assignment. I heard the news, the first reports, which begin with the words 'We are just hearing…' and immediately diverted. I've covered terrorism and terrorism-related issues for more than a decade, and that depth of knowledge is enormously helpful in trying to sort out what's real from what's not. It also gives me a kind of mental 'rolodex' – familiarity with past plots, attacks, players, associations and that helps to try to keep things straight."

"Terrorism stories tend to be enormously complex. At the end of the day, when time comes for 'Evening News,' my job is to try to communicate what we are sure we know in a way in which the audience can understand what has happened. It's too easy to get lost in the detail. I also can't assume that our audience has had much time in front of the T.V. to absorb what's gone on. I get a chance to take my audience off the 'breaking news' treadmill, and put it all together, hopefully with context."

"There's a risk of over-hyping any story; that's particularly true with alleged terror plots. In the U.K., because of legal restrictions here, people can be detained for a number of days without being charged. Their identities are usually protected. Details of what is alleged to have been about to take place can be scarce, confused and wrong. The police and intelligence services are, to say the least, circumspect in what they say, so as to not taint any future prosecution. So we rely on what is said in public, and what we learn from people we talk to who are connected to intelligence or security circles. Experience has taught me that where there is a U.S. connection -- because of the close relationship between U.S. and U.K. intelligence and police – U.S. officials will say more (sometimes, much more, and sometimes to the chagrin of officials here.)"

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