In recent weeks, tragic events in Orlando, Dallas, Baton Rouge and elsewhere engender thoughts for the victims, their families and their communities. Events like these have become all too common, and certain normal routine has developed, with broadcast stations devoting substantial amounts of airtime to coverage of the event until some new story takes away their attention. While the events are ones that cause us to think about those involved, and perhaps the broader political and policy issues that each raises, broadcasters also need to consider, to some degree, the legal implications of the coverage of such events and the questions that are sometimes raised about the FCC issues that can arise in such coverage. Why isn’t EAS invoked? Can we interview political candidates about the events? What other legal issues should broadcasters be considering in connection with events like these?
One question that seemingly arises whenever events like these occur is why isn’t EAS used more often? Even during 9-11, there was no activation of the EAS system, and there were some questions of why that was. In fact, EAS is not intended to provide a source for blanket coverage of events like those that occurred recently, or even of those with broader national implications like the events of 9-11. There are no reporters or information-gathering sources at the other end of the EAS alert system putting together updates on the news and ready to start providing substantive coverage of any news event. Instead, EAS is meant to provide immediate alerts about breaking, actionable events – like the approach of a severe storm, the need to evacuate a particular area in the advance of a fire or after a tanker spill or, in its origins during the Cold War, the possibility of a nuclear attack. In any of these events, it is not EAS, but the broadcasters themselves and other journalists who are the ones that need to provide the in-depth coverage of events as they occur. While the FCC is looking at revamping the EAS system in many different proceedings, the basic workings of the system do not change. A weather alert or a Presidential address on a catastrophic event may occur through EAS, but the full coverage of that event, with all the developments and details, is going to come from the broadcasters themselves, not from Federal, state or local EAS alerts.
Thus, stations need to develop their own plans for responding to emergencies. Even all-music stations need to consider how they will react if their community is hit with some sort of tragic event. Will regular programming go on as if everything is normal? Or will the station somehow try to stay on top of breaking developments? If so, how? I remember, during 9-11, many of the DC music radio stations started carrying audio feeds of some TV news reports. For radio stations already under common ownership with the TV stations, or ones that had some sort of regular news-sharing arrangement, that might be easy to put into effect. But, if there is a local emergency, trying to arrange such coverage on the fly, while local news stations are busy covering the story, may not be so easy to do. To avoid contractual and intellectual property issues, these kinds of emergency news-sharing arrangements should be worked out now, before an emergency, so that they can be quickly implemented if and when the need arises.
Station security itself is another issue that needs to be considered. The FCC has already expressed concerns about such security in its recent proposals to eliminate the remnants of the physical public inspection file that could result in stations not having to make access to its facilities available to anyone who walks in the door. But stations need to think beyond just physical access. We’ve had a number of issues with hacking of stations – both in the context of the zombie alerts that resulted from a hack of certain stations’ EAS systems (see our article here), and more recently, situations where stations’ over-the-air feeds have been taken over by hacking of IP-connected studio-transmitter links. Stations need to consider the security of all of their equipment to be ready to address these issues when they arise.
Finally, in any such situation, especially in the superheated political environment of the current election, stations will no doubt want to contact political figures for comments on the day’s events. In fact, in many cases, local political figures who may be in the middle of the response to any local emergency may also be candidates in local elections coming up in November. Can stations interview these officials without running afoul of the FCC’s equal time rules and having to contact every candidate, including every fringe candidate, to ask for their reactions as well? Generally, stations can use their good faith journalistic discretion in determining which candidate will be interviewed in any regularly scheduled news or news interview program (as we have written many times before – see for instance our stories here and here). But also exempt from equal opportunities is the appearance of a candidate in on-the-spot coverage of a news event. So if there is an on-going situation in your community, where local officials are providing briefings on what is happening in the community, the mere fact that some of these officials may be candidates for local office in the upcoming election should not give rise to equal opportunities claims. If stations use their good-faith journalistic discretion in determining how to cover breaking news (as opposed to any sort of partisan approach), the appearance of candidates in such news coverage should not give rise to equal opportunities.
There are, no doubt, other considerations for stations to take into account in covering local emergencies. We welcome comments on other issues that stations should consider in preparing for those situations that most stations hope that they and their communities never have to face.