NEW YORK – Journalists are supposed to be the public's watchdog, but since Sept. 11 some critics argue that reporters have been barking too loudly.
With 24-hour news coverage, newspaper inserts and magazine specials dedicated to the war on terrorism, journalists have speculated about everything from the possibility of a poisoned water supply to a large-scale outbreak of the plague.
But in its effort to educate and inform the public about the potential terror facing America, are the media giving terrorists ideas?
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who sits on the House Judiciary Committee and works with the Homeland Security Task Force, said he is concerned by some of the messages that get out.
"I think we watch the news from time to time with different interviews and think, 'Why are they giving people ideas about using the ventilation system in the Capitol or attacking the economy by attacking the postal system?'" Schiff said.
But Joan Deppa, a journalism professor at Syracuse University and author of The Media and Disasters: Pan Am 103, said that by reporting on things like smallpox vaccine stockpiles and treatment of inhalation anthrax with multiple antibiotics, the media can send a message of preparedness to potential attackers.
It's like telling the terrorists: "If you do that again, you won't kill as many people as you think you are going to kill. We are prepared and we are going to fight you," she said.
However, Deppa cautioned that members of the press — who are under pressure to fill many pages of print and hours of air time — should be careful about the "experts" they consult.
"They need to be people with some real expertise," she said. "Does this person really know what they are talking about? Are we informing the public or confusing them?"
Dick Taylor, a medical doctor from Longmont, Colo., said bioterror is a legitimate news story, but thinks the press should not report what really frightens people because terrorists' purpose is to spread fear.
"Every time I read a story about bioterror, smallpox is the lead," Taylor said. "Smallpox is the boogie man."
Taylor characterized the media's initial response to terror as "astoundingly good."
"They did a good deal of separating fact from fiction," he said.
However, more recently as the anthrax scares have spread, he said, the media have gone back to their old ways.
"We saw Tom Clancy interviewed as an expert on terrorism," Taylor said. "That shows strongly that the media is running out of experts."
Clancy, best-selling author of well-researched thrillers, wrote 1996's Executive Orders, in which he created a chillingly familiar scenario: A Japanese pilot crashes a 747 into the Capitol while Iranians unleash an Ebola virus threat on the country.
And Taylor's opinions are similar to those of the public at large.
Just days after the Sept. 11 attacks, 86 percent of Americans thought the media were acting responsibly, according to a Gallup poll. But by early November, only 43 percent said they approved of the way the news media were handling the war on terrorism.
Willie Runnels, a retiree from Brandon, Miss., is one of the people fed up with the media. "I think the message should not have gotten out about smallpox," he said. "I think [the press] should say, 'This is what we know for sure,' not 'this is what we think might happen.'"
But others believe it's foolish to think that the media are inspiring terrorists. James Boer, a software engineer from Kirkland, Wash., said, "We'd be underestimating them if we thought they were just listening to us for ideas."
Richard Dekmejian, a terrorism specialist at the University of Southern California, said the reports are rudimentary and do not give away any secrets.
The level of knowledge "is taught at the freshman college level and high school level," he said.
He added that knowing what to do with the information is the difficult part. It has been available in books and on the Internet for years, he said, but years of training would be needed to put it to use.
Fox News' Anita Vogel contributed to this report.