Tuesday, August 16, 2005

CNN television news gave extensive coverage starting around 5:30 PM EST today to a new computer virus, a worm dubbed rbot.cbq. Its reporting suggested that it had the potential to become one of the most virulent and costly yet seen. This story was unique among cyber-attacks reports as the network apparently learned of the virus through becoming one of its early victims. Media organizations ABC and the New York Times were affected as well. Perhaps first-hand experience gave the studio more insight on the virus while providing an early notice. The coverage that followed, however, raises concerns that the network’s perspective was skewed, and that perhaps the damage even diminished its reporting ability.

CNN treated the story as a potential global crisis in its manner of coverage as well as in the advice given to viewers. For over 45 minutes, by one viewer’s tally, CNN devoted exclusive air-time to this topic. Home users were advised to turn off their computers for safety, while businesses were warned that if continued operations prevented this measure, they were at high risk. CNN.com sported a bold red headline above its usual content area, warning of the virus. CNN stated they were requesting reports from key sources across the nation, including California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

After some time, the network eventually obtained a Microsoft statement describing the virus as “low-impact” and only affecting computers running Windows 2000. CNN also learned from Microsoft that there was a patch available at Microsoft’s web site. CNN’s coverage contrasted with a lack of actual evidence of widespread infections, in this reporter’s view. Much of the discussion and advice came from experts probably not officially associated with CNN, so there is a question of who is at fault.

Chris Carboni of the Internet Storm Center speculated that “The fact that CNN, ABC and the NYTimes got it may be as simple as reporters from these organizations visiting the same event and connecting to an infected network. While a firewall may have protected their office network up to now, these infected laptops were able to take out the network from the inside once they connected back to it.”