CBRN and the Media: Policy,Plans and Reality

Globalized terrorist groups are now a threat to any country in the world with the rising number of chemical, biological and radiological dispersion weapons,[1] nuclear weapons, large scale explosives and electronic attacks (CBRN). Even so, there is currently no open-source information that suggests that nuclear weapons or biological weapons, such as smallpox, are in the hands of terrorist groups and that these more serious weapons would become a risk in the event of state-supported terrorism. Since 9/11 newsrooms have proven to be high quality providers of open-source intelligence on weapons of mass destruction and patterns of terrorist attack. Richard Sambrook, Director of News for the BBC, has identified public trust and impartiality as important in reporting and also comments that audiences are smart enough to make up their own minds about levels of risk.

In reality, public response to media broadcasts during CBRN attacks will be determined by the confirmation, in different forms of media broadcast, of what the threat is, what to do and where to go. If there are conflicting media reports at the time of a CBRN attack or if there is ambiguity in the broadcast regarding threat and safety information, the public will be driven by anxiety, panic or denial because the threat to their life will seem insurmountable.

There are currently no plans by the government for production of information leaflets for the population. This policy contrasts with that of the Australian government, which has issued booklets to every household. The Home Office has launched a web site[3] for providing information on the threat to the public, for personal protection and for business preparedness but this does not, at this stage, deal with CBRN weapons effects. A link to the US and Australian web information on these subjects is provided through the UK Resilience website.[4] Still, this does not suffice to keep the population informed, reassured and prepared.

There are many examples of public response to radiological threats and the potential for public panic if media reports are ambiguous or contradictory. Following the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor incident there were several days of uncertainty as to the level of threat to the local population. In response to contradictory statements about the threat on the day - when a threat was announced and then contradicted by another spokesperson - over forty thousand persons left their homes, stayed away for over five days and made significant legal claims against the facility for their evacuation.

Role of the Media

Some useful questions could be asked about the role of the media in the UK and public response to near-real6 time reporting of chem/bio or radiological attacks:

  • Is there a 'joined up media' with connectedness between news desks and pooling of information between different media groups under catastrophic attack circumstances?
  • Are there plans for continuity of transmission of radio, television and other forms of media communication with the public and have these been tested by media in partnership with the government?
  • Have communications between all major media and government information services been exercised and tested, to account for disruption in mobiles, telephones, radio, and the internet and to provide a near-real time flow of advice to the public?
  • Has movement of media personnel, information and broadcasting capability been tested under conditions of disruption of transportation, where several hundred metres or many miles (in extreme attacks) may be cordoned off, with contaminated areas and chaotic street situations?
  • Is there currently access for the media to emergency procedures planned by the Government and local authorities for mass evacuations, mass shelter, cordons or other government led plans for chem/bio or radiological attacks?
  • Are there plans by the media for protection of their personnel and for advice to be given on managing in the contaminated environment? This includes personal self-decontamination, use of masks for escape from areas and an understanding of the major signs and symptoms of exposure.
  • Are there plans within media companies to ensure their continuity of broadcast or print information and have these been tested?

Near-real time coverage

Near-real time coverage of terrorist incidents involving chem/bio or radiological attacks create some risks to the communicators in the front line. Improvised devices from RIRA and other terrorist groups have not prepared people in the UK for the size and force of very large tonnage explosives. The 9/11 attacks involved fuel in aircraft tanks which was equivalent to many tonnes of explosives. Road tankers with fuel and chemicals and storage sites for hazardous materials provide potential weapons of this type.

Chemical weapons such as hydrogen-cyanide will be invisible but may contaminate reporters and enter skin, or, if masking is delayed, move into the respiratory tract before protection is possible.

Biological weapons may be dispersed without any explosive but may be identified through the behaviour of an individual releasing an aerosol device, stamping on containers or otherwise opening containers to the air. The release of a material may not be seen or may be a shimmer or momentary haze of ash-like substance that has disappeared within seconds.

Reporters entering areas under attack or post-attack will be moving against a surge of evacuating people and may not be skilled in putting on suits within a matter of seconds, nor be aware of possible contamination of clothing, skin and respiratory tract. (Contaminated clothing confined in this kit will deliver doses to the skin of the individual and to the eyes and respiratory tract.)

Reporters leaving a scene may not understand that exposure to cyanide and other chemicals cause longterm impacts on the body, for example, weakening of the heart muscle. There is a requirement to seek a medical check and tests such as ECG and monitoring for symptoms such as rashes, chest complaints and urinary tract and gut problems.

Extensive decontamination is required when taking off the kit and cleansing of eyes by washing out for a number of minutes. Judgments about exposure require a supervisor and skills in CBRN protection. A 'buddy system' is essential for self-decontamination and this has implications for the use of teams rather than individual reporters in times of high risk. Team work for recovery of persons who become incapacitated within the contaminated environment also needs consideration along with medical assessments or management in a comfortable situation in the event of irreversible contamination.

Radiological exposures will be minimally reduced by kit being worn by reporters for CBRN attacks. Apart from some basic protection of the body and respiratory tract from some forms of radiation emission, the basic dosage to the body will be the same as for persons wearing no equipment. The danger for persons wearing masks will come from natural assumptions that they are protected from radiation dosage.

As an overall assessment of risk for the media, there are two issues:

  • The media are now targets for assassination, bombs, chem/bio and radiological dispersion weapons. In past decades they have operated on the front line with some protection similar to that of the Red Cross as they were perceived as noncombatants.
  • A general assessment would be that communicators in the front line face the same dangers as the target population but risks may also have increased because of the direct targeting and subsequent global publicity surrounding high profile media victims. This trend pre-dates Al Qa'ida attacks on 9/11.


The reality is that the media are targets and have a higher risk profile than members of the general public. Plans by news directors should avoid exposures of persons in any high risk area by maintaining safety distances and ensuring that there is an evacuation or escape plan that will avoid contamination or other injury.

Plans need to be considered by individuals in the media for protective kit and decontamination with a buddy system. Policies within the media need to cover the special risks of CBRN weapons to personnel so that media have no higher risk of exposure than any member of the public.

Policies for communication to the public before, during or after a CBRN attack, should be validated through testing in a partnership with government and with other media groups. These policies will be to reduce the potential for panic by the population when under attack by chemical, biological or radiological dispersion weapons.

Sally Leivesley is Global Continuity Manager, Risk Analysis (UK) Ltd. sally@newrisk.com


1. Radiological dispersion weapons are commonly known as 'dirty bombs' and are an improvised weapon that generally combines explosives with radiological material from radiological waste sources to disperse contamination. 2. Richard Sambrook, 'Broadcasting Threats: the media and transmission of risk' The Unlikely Counter-Terrorists, ed., Rachel Briggs, (London: The Foreign Policy Centre, 2002), pp. 70-77. 3. Home Office Web Site is: http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/terrorism 4. Resilience Web Site is: http://www.ukresilience.info/terrorism 5. Nuclear Reactors: Factors Associated with Stress in the Local Community, International Disaster Institute, London 1980 6. Near-real time represents the nearly instantaneous management of information and pictures from the scene of an incident with the reporter acting as a platform with portable camera and computer equipment to provide immediate vision and sound. This information may not be subject to editing delays and gives the public near-real time access to what is happening at the scene.

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