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.
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