Tom Ridge, news anchor
Where would you go first for information if you believed a terrorist attack had occurred: To the Homeland Security Department's Web site or to CNN?
According to a poll Federal Computer Week conducted in cooperation with the Pew Internet & American Life Project, only a small percentage of people would first turn to a government Web site for information.
That is probably how it should be.
Many federal agencies have recognized the potential for making government information and services more accessible via the Internet. The Internal Revenue Service, for example, has won over many taxpayers by posting tax forms online and, to a lesser extent, by letting people file their tax returns electronically.
But to borrow a phrase that has gained currency with the Bush administration, disseminating news is not an inherently governmental function.
Television and radio stations have made it their business to provide fast and thorough coverage of major events. During a crisis, the media operates like a widely distributed network, with each outlet adding information to the collective pool of knowledge. DHS cannot match that — nor should it try.
Still, the federal government has a vital role to play in this process, and technology can help. Although news organizations can provide a valuable street-level view of a crisis, they often must turn to government agencies for the essential information. For example, was the recent blackout in the Northeast a result of terrorism? What about the Columbia space shuttle?
DHS and other agencies should assess their abilities to funnel answers to the media as soon as they are available. Perhaps the general public is not interested in receiving e-mail or pager alerts when news happens, as the FCW poll found, but a reporter certainly would be.
At a time when any disaster makes people suspect terrorism, information is not just a matter of convenience but of public safety. Broadcast news may have cornered the market on news dissemination, but the federal government should make sure it's a reliable business partner.