On Basketball, Terrorism, and Hype

Around 6 PM on Friday, ABC News sent out an email alert with these words:
Big, scary news, right? Well, not really: The FBI did alert law enforcement officials that there was an Internet posting discussing attacking the stadiums, but maintained that there was no specific, credible threat. "We have absolutely no credible intelligence or threats pertaining to this issue," FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said.

This wasn't quite much ado about nothing – according to the Associated Press, the posting "described a potential attack in some detail, calling it an efficient way to kill thousands of people using suicide bombers armed with explosives hidden beneath their winter clothing" – but the email alert, built on nothing more than a warning about an internet posting, seemed out of proportion with the significance and credibility of the threat.

It can be difficult to report on potential terrorist attacks. If you ignore the threats and something happens, you're assailed for not taking the issue seriously. But if you report everything that comes across your desk, you can find yourself accused of hype. The AP's lede reflected these concerns:

The FBI said yesterday there is no specific, credible threat of a terror attack aimed at college basketball arenas or other sports stadiums, but acknowledged alerting law enforcement to a recent Internet posting discussing such attacks.
The AP seemed to be saying, "look, this probably isn't a big deal, but the FBI thought it was at least worth mentioning, so we do to." That's the right way to approach a story like this, and it's a far cry from the breathless email alert. Of course, in fairness to ABC News, an email alert doesn't leave a lot of room for nuance. But one has to wonder, in light of the lack of a credible or imminent threat, why they sent it in the first place.

Along these lines, consider the ABC News story about the incident posted online, which carried the byline of correspondent Brian Ross. The story, headlined "EXCLUSIVE: FBI Warns of Possible Terror Threat At Sporting Events," took a decidedly different tone than the AP story. While the AP stressed the lack of credible, specific threat at the outset, Ross left that information for his third paragraph, opting instead for a more sensational lede:

With college basketball championships under way around the country, the FBI has warned stadium operators of a possible suicide bomb attack at sporting events.

In a directive issued today, obtained by ABC News, the FBI said a posting on an extremist message board "advocated suicide attacks against sporting events as a cost-effective means of killing thousands of Americans."

ABC News also featured the story on Friday's "World News Tonight," unlike its competitors. Anchor Elizabeth Vargas said that "the FBI and Department of Homeland Security have issued a terror warning tonight. It says suicide bombers may be planning to attack a major sporting arena somewhere in the country." She then was joined by Ross, who said:
"The FBI sent this warning out today without saying whether it's credible to 18,000 police agencies, sports leagues and stadium operators because it's titled, "How You Can Kill Thousands of Americans With a Few Hundred Dollars and Three Men." A very specific sort of detailed description of how to do that that apparently is getting broad distribution among Jihadist websites around the world."
Ross then got into the specifics of the way in which the Internet posting suggests the attack be carried out, which includes the use of "blonde or black" American suicide bombers who would detonate their belts both in the arena and at exit gates as spectators flee. At the end of the segment, Ross did point out that the government does not believe any imminent threat exists.

I am no expert on the relative newsworthiness of FBI warnings such as this, but I do find it telling that the other networks largely ignored the threat. (The AP story did appear on the MSNBC Web site.) The FBI regularly puts out these kids of alerts, and it's left to reporters to figure out which threats deserve to be reported and which do not. Most media outlets seem to have decided that the lack of a credible threat meant this wasn't much of a story. One hates to criticize an evening news show for focusing on something different than its competitors – as the Project for Excellence in Journalism pointed out, "viewers got strikingly similar information regardless of which of the three evening newscasts they chose" – but one has to wonder if ABC News might have been better off choosing a different topic with which to break out of the pack.