Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

October 16, 2014

Adjusting our signal to noise ratio

I am currently involved in planning three different tabletop exercises.  Each are efforts to enhance “whole community” involvement.  My particular role is to enhance private sector involvement.  Currently the news media is not targeted for participation in any of these exercises.  In my several years of being involved with various homeland security training and exercises I can only recall two occasions when news media have been involved as participants.

There are several impediments to involving news media in these sort of activities, including:

  • Effective exercises are designed to expose gaps and shortcomings in order to improve preparedness.  News media are inclined to expose gaps and shortcomings in order to increase readership/listeners/viewers.
  • Many public sector participants tend to be “authoritative” or “officious” or “control-freaks”.  This is troublesome enough with other private sector participants.  With members of the media it can be explosive.
  • News media participation can discourage the involvement of other private sector parties due to fear of exposure (see first bullet).

But it seems to me increasingly clear we must find a way to involve news media in preparedness activities or continue — and deepen — the risk of serious mis-communication and public mistrust on the very worst days.  While major media are no longer the only or even primary sources of information, they are a significant source of amplification and confirmation.  Too often they are amplifying and confirming misleading information.  An ongoing example:

The media’s attention to symptoms can obscure attention to the source of problems.  I am astonished by the extraordinary attention given to a few instances of Ebola in the United States in contrast with lack of attention to sources of the problem in West Africa… despite clear and consistent and, at least to me, very reasonable analysis that until the source of the problem is better managed the risk to the United States will only grow.

On Tuesday afternoon the United Nations coordinator for Ebola response told the Security Council that the world basically has sixty days to contain the virus or face a serious risk of pandemic.  In much of the world, this was the Wednesday morning headline.  Not in the United States.

Below are two screenshots.  The first is for the Google News US edition.  The second is for the UK edition.  According to Google, “articles are selected and ranked by computers that evaluate, among other things, how often and on what sites a story appears online.”  The source stories can be found in US media, but too often buried beneath the symptoms.

Google US edition

UK edition

In my judgment a similar symptom vs. source issue is endemic to most US media coverage of terrorism, urban wildfire, flooding, and many aspects of border security.  It even erupts in how longer-term electrical outages are reported.

I am not arguing against news coverage of symptoms.  The attention given to the series of false steps in Dallas has clearly facilitated enhanced readiness across the US health System. But these are tactical –symptomatic — issues, not strategic issues addressing the problem at its source.

When novel and especially deadly threats emerge, the failure to distinguish between symptom and source is at least distracting and too often misleading… in a manner that can undermine public health and safety and, certainly, competence.  Sources can be even more complicated to understand than symptoms, but this further underlines the need for insightful media coverage.

There are very few editors, producers, or reporters who can afford to specialize in any of the so-called “low-probability, high-consequence” risks that confront us.  That’s a problem for most of the private sector and across the public sector as well.  We all need help adjusting our standard-operating-procedures to these non-standard events.  We should start to do so in workshops and exercises before the symptoms explode.

Some possible discussion topics and exercise issues:

In dealing with “high-intensity-risk-environments” (HIRE), do not mistake ambiguity for inattention.  Recognizing ambiguity may be evidence of close attention.

In engaging a HIRE, do not confuse uncertainty with incompetence. The compulsion to sound certain in the midst of complexity is, in my opinion, a principal cause of incompetence.

In the midst of a HIRE, complexity and lack of control does not necessarily signal lack of organization or progress.  Efforts to control can escalate complexity and suppress resilient self-organization.

In a few months I should be able to let you know if I am successful in involving media in any of the exercises currently being planned.


And since I’m writing about attention to sources as well as symptoms, in regard to Ebola here are some potentially helpful sources on sources:

FrontPageAfrica – A Liberia based newspaper. (BTW, this is not the largest circulation Liberian newspaper, but some of its competitors have, in my opinion, their own serious noise-vs-signal problems.)

The Concord Times – A Sierra Leone based newspaper.

The Telegraph – A Sierra Leone based newspaper.

Doctors Without Borders Guinea News

Guinea (Conakry) Guinee Focus (French)

World Health Organization Africa Regional Office

US Department of Defense Africa Command

CDC Ebola Hub

Resources from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine here and here and here  (and it’s worth looking for more)


Thursday evening NPR broadcast an interview with Dr. Lewis Rubinson.  An intensive care physician with the University of Maryland Medical Center, Dr. Rubinson spent three weeks in September serving Ebola patients in Sierra Leone.  The full interview (with transcript) is, I suggest, a good example of well-informed, realistic thinking about dealing with symptoms.  Following is an excerpt:

RUBINSON: There are nearly 6,000 hospitals in the U.S. It wouldn’t have made sense to me that every single facility would have the ability to be honestly prepared. It doesn’t mean that there doesn’t need to be an appropriate level of the ability to identify patients and provide early treatment and keep staff safe. I think that’s really on every institution because we can’t control where patients present. But I think out in West Africa, we got very, very good at being 100 percent all of the time. You had to. In the U.S. there’s no technological fix for this. We can’t buy a widget and just solve it and give it to the hospital and say, you’re prepared right now. Most of this is about diligence, it’s about discipline and it’s about 100 percent adherence. And I think, again, that’s very hard to imagine that every facility could do that. Not because they aren’t good facilities, it’s just there are other priorities that they need to be taking on at the same time. Again, every facility needs to be able to identify the patient, take care of the patient early, keep the staff safe, but I think it’s very hard to imagine that every facility would be good at managing a patient throughout their course of the disease, especially if they get very sick, like had happened in Dallas.



In regard to sources rather than symptoms, here’s “top of the fold” attention being given British operations in West Africa.  According to Friday’s Telegraph,

Ebola is the “biggest health problem facing our world in a generation”, David Cameron has said, as he urged foreign leaders to “step forward” with more resources to fight the crisis.

The Prime Minister urged other leaders to “look to their responsibilities” to help tackle the Ebola epidemic ravaging parts of West Africa… 

He said: “Britain, in my view, has been leading the way. The action we are taking in Sierra Leone where we are committing well over £100 million, 750 troops, training 800 members of health staff, providing 700 beds; we are doing a huge amount.

“I think it is time for other countries to look at their responsibilities and their resources and act in a similar way to what Britain is doing in Sierra Leone, America is doing in Liberia, France is doing in Guinea.

“Other countries now need to step forward with resources and action because taking action at source in West Africa is the best way to protect all of us here in Europe.”


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Comment by Rubin, claire

October 16, 2014 @ 4:31 am

Se this article in the WashPost: Ebola, the CDC and why government struggles with unprecedented disasters.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 16, 2014 @ 5:00 am

Here’s a link to the article Claire has referenced:


My comment: Unprecedented — or simply uncommon — events will always challenge a system as large and diverse as US healthcare… or supply chains… or banking and finance… or you name it. Mistakes will always occur. Any plan or concept-of-operations that does not anticipate such failures is a fantasy.

So far I am not seeing anything happening in the United States that should cause particular alarm. I do see cause for concern, attention, meaningful follow-up. I absolutely perceive the need to recognize we are facing a novel and complex threat. I think it is destructive and dysfunctional to hold anyone up and down this system to zero-tolerance standards.

Comment by Rubin, claire

October 16, 2014 @ 5:17 am

The paragraph that caught my attention was;

A main culprit of government fecklessness, Light wrote, is communication. This is in part “because information has to flow up through multiple layers to reach the top of an agency, while guidance must flow down through the same over-layered chain. The result is a disastrous version of the childhood game of ‘gossip’ in which key information gets lost, discarded, distorted, or ignored as it is passed from one child to another.”

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 16, 2014 @ 6:23 am

Claire: Thanks very much. The description you quote is certainly accurate. Does it surprise anyone? I hope not. Rather, the children’s game helps us recognize a persistent reality of social — and especially bureaucratic — behavior. Effective preparedness and planning will reflect this reality rather than work too hard to combat it.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 16, 2014 @ 6:35 am

I am a big fan of CBS This Morning. It has become my preferred source while I do my daily aerobic exercise. Compared to every other televised source available to me, it is realistic, restrained, and reasonable. This morning at 7 Eastern for most of the first quarter-hour CBS This Morning focused on Ebola. To the point of my post, during this important and extended lead story there was not even a token mention of the West African source of the problem. The attention to the individual and institutional symptoms unfolding from Dallas was appropriate and, I judge, helpful. But the absence of any attention to the source of the problem in West Africa misconstrues the nature of the risk and the sort of strategies that will be most effective in containing and eventually suppressing the risk. On other occasions CBS has provided coverage from Liberia. But the persistently non-proportional attention — even by this premier news team — is troubling.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 16, 2014 @ 9:03 am

My lengthy comments lost. Phil I am greatly disappointed in this post and analysis. Read again my comments in the past on the differences between PUBLIC AFFAIRS and EMERGENCY PUBLIC INFORMATION.

Any exercise wherein PAR’s are not formulated and utilized is a waste of time and money.

It is not the NEWS MEDIA anymore but the MSM! With 35% of all B.A.s now awarded for “Communications” no courses or books utilized for those degrees teach PAR formulation.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

October 16, 2014 @ 9:18 am

Bill: I hope you may find time to re-write some of your lost comments. I understand my angle here is contrary to many elements of well-established PAR doctrine. I think that doctrine is, mostly, well-suited for most emergencies. I judge it is not well-suited for most novel and especially high-intensity risks. I would welcome your critique and an opportunity to test my critique.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 16, 2014 @ 9:34 am

ALL: Buried in the WAPO article is reference to a July 2014 Brookings report by Dr. Paul Light, PhD. I have not seen it before but suggest all review and send comments to Brookings.

Comment by William R. Cumming

October 17, 2014 @ 9:05 pm

Phil! Thanks for updates and the MD at Maryland seemed quite sensible to me.

Pingback by Homeland Security Watch » Ebola source sitrep 1

October 18, 2014 @ 2:06 pm

[…] is the first in an irregular update on efforts to engage Ebola’s center-of-gravity.  As noted previously, I am concerned US media is not giving sufficient attention to fighting this disease where it […]

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