Are you afraid yet?

Are you afraid? You should be.

Once again, The University of Iowa launched its Hawk Alert — a notice via text, phone, email and media that there is something going on. Maybe.

For at least a year, the Hawk Alert has been a failure, scaring students more than securing them. Of course, you might say, the campus is doing its job in telling us any time something might be happening. Because, if they didn’t and something DID happen, we would say they failed.

I’m more interested, however, in the media’s response to these alerts.

Today, when an alert was issued that someone may have been armed and dangerous in a park on the edge of campus (no one was found to be, apparently), the Hawk Alert made the news — big time.

On the Press-Citizen:

And on the Gazette:

And on the Daily Iowan:

And even on the Register:

Now, maybe this is breaking news. Maybe media have a role to play in “public safety” and putting this on their websites is their civic duty.

But how many times must we promote “crying wolf?” Each time someone says something is happening, calls the police, they call the university, the university calls me and the media it is news? It’s breaking news?

The reason these things are breaking news, to reporters anyway, is:

– It’s news from the police.

– It’s news from the university.

– People should know about possible danger.

– This could be a good story.

– Something might happen.

And then what we see, when nothing does happen, the press come out with a story critical of the Hawk Alert system. What a cycle.

The other reasons this is news, include:

– Reporters love writing anything given to them by the police.

– News is anything that comes from the university.

– Breaking news is the most fun and it shows how media are involved in the community.

– Breaking news is good for our websites. Keep coming back!

– There isn’t much effort that goes into these types of stories. It is free to media. Just post it online. Who cares if the news is substantiated; it came from the police and the university — that’s good enough for us. Whatever they say.

– Fear is good for the soul. Being afraid of something brings us together as a community.

So the real meanings and purposes of the Hawk Alert go a lot deeper than just being a “watch out” for people. It may be free and easy news, but it isn’t much more than that.