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Giving the bad guys ideas

Vincent Duffy
Ambassador Bridge

Last week, a bomb threat called in from Canada shut down the tunnel that runs under the Detroit River between Detroit and Windsor. The tunnel is the second busiest crossing between the United States and Canada. The busiest crossing is the Ambassador Bridge just more than a mile down river. The tunnel was closed to traffic for most of the afternoon while authorities from both countries inspected the tunnel and found no bomb.

Michigan Radio reported on these events, keeping commuters up to date on the traffic situation and the rest of our audience informed about the events.

But our investigative reporter, Lester Graham, went a bit further. This bomb scare in the tunnel highlighted the vulnerability of the international border crossings in Detroit. The tunnel doesn’t allow commercial truck traffic, so all of the $13 billion dollars of trade related trucking crosses the Ambassador Bridge every year. Graham wrote a blog post on the station website detailing the economic damage that could be done to the region if the bridge were threatened or shut down.

“If the Ambassador Bridge were closed for hours or days for any reason, it would be a much different story,” Graham wrote. Some major “just in time” manufacturers would start to run out of inventory in less than a day. The economic impact would be huge.

So, guess what? (You can probably see where this is going.)

This week, somebody on the U.S. side of the border called in a bomb threat for the Ambassador Bridge.

“When I learned about it this morning, I cringed,” Graham said. “At least it was false.”

Did Graham’s story give some nutcase the idea to call in a bomb threat about the bridge? Unless the person who did it is caught, and authorities find Graham’s story in the suspect’s computer history, we’ll never know. But maybe.

Were we irresponsible in writing about the possibility?

The situation reminded me of an interview I aired with an agriculture reporter shortly after the terrorist attacks of 911. Todd Gleason, of the University of Illinois Extension and the host of Commodity Week on WILL-AM in Urbana, Illinois, told me that if terrorists really wanted to strike fear in America, they would attack the food supply. He said a few well-chosen chemicals, sprinkled on vegetables in the produce departments of stores in a few major cities, would make people fearful of their own food and severely harm the U.S. economy.

The response to that story caught me by surprise.

“Are you crazy?” one caller yelled into the phone. “You just gave a blueprint to every terrorist trying to destroy our county!”

(If this happens next week, I might be in big trouble.)

Do the media have a responsibility not to talk about certain subjects or raise certain possibilities because it might put ideas in people’s heads?

There are numerous examples of media outlets showing restraint.

During the George W. Bush administration, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice asked the U.S. television networks not to air videotapes of Osama Bin Laden in their entirety, concerned that they may have coded messages in them.

Some media outlets are reluctant to report details of teen suicides, citing studies that indicate that media reports of suicides can encourage other vulnerable individuals.

The RTDNA Guidelines for Covering Bomb Threats suggests covering false bomb threats could lead to copycat threats.

When a gunman in Grand Rapids held people hostage in their home last year, media outlets on social media kept reminding each other and their audience not to publicize everything they heard on the police scanner, lest they give the gunman an idea what the police were doing.

Lots of scholarly journals have printed articles on the relationship between terrorists and the media, and I don’t mean to revisit all of that here.

But when the media produce these types of stories, I hope the desire is that those with the ability to address the exposed vulnerabilities will do so, rather than giving ideas to someone that will exploit them.

But I wonder, when we cover stories that expose or point out vulnerabilities to our collective security, what responsibility do we share?

Vincent Duffy has been news director at Michigan Radio since May 2007.
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