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Behind the Headlines: Are ‘see something, say something’ counter-terrorism campaigns working?

An example of a "See Something, Say Something" campaign from the Department of Homeland Security.
Department of Homeland Security
An example of a "See Something, Say Something" campaign from the Department of Homeland Security.

In our weekly "Behind the Headlines" segment, St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh discussed some of the news stories on listener’s minds. 

Part I: The efficacy of “see something, say something” counter-terrorism campaigns

This week, we turned our attention to “If you see something, say something” counter-terrorism campaigns. This comes after last weekend’s bombing in New York City, which injured 31 victims, in which the man who set off the bombs was learned to have recorded a video of himself lighting an incendiary device in the backyard of his New Jersey home two days before the attack. Likewise, in St. Louis this week, suspicious packages found near City Hall brought the St. Louis Regional Bomb and Arson squad to investigate — but there was no danger.

Webster University professor Remy Cross.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Webster University professor Remy Cross.

Are these the kind of things a “If you see something, say something” campaign is made for? What makes people report suspicious activity or withhold the report? What happens to those reports once they’re made?

We spoke with Greggory Favre, the Captain of Homeland Security for the Fire Department and member of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force, as well as Webster University professor Remy Cross, who teaches a terrorism class at the university and has interviewed tip line operators for research.

The campaign, which has been around for 14 years in New York City and six years across the rest of the country, is still adjusting to what makes a credible or not credible claim.

“If you track the trajectory of this marketing campaign, you will find different markers come up as they have adjusted the theory behind what they want you to call in,” said Favre. “When it first came out, people identified religion, skin color or type of dress. New York City has led the way in creating ads that go, ‘no, no, no, what we’re looking for is the executive briefcase left in a busy train car.’ We want you to call on the activity or action that is out of place, not the person who is driving behind it.”

Cross warned that “see something, say something” campaigns are a visual way to reassure people that something is being done, but they aren’t particularly effective. Rates of tips that generated reports in New York City were quite low, often less than ten percent, Cross said, and many reports were rooted in stereotypes. The number of tips that led to arrest were less than 0.1 percent, Cross said. He offered a different way of looking at the matter:

Captain Greggory Favre, St. Louis Fire Department.
Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Captain Greggory Favre, St. Louis Fire Department.

“Remember that terrorism is a vanishingly rare occurrence,” Cross said. “The vast majority of Americans will never experience a terrorism threat in their life. Beyond that, terrorism thrives on ignorance. If you get to know your neighbors, get to know your community, that will help you understand what does or does not belong. Also, it will help build bonds with people who are feeling marginalized or feel like outsiders, this helps bring them back in and feel a sense of community well-being.”

Part II: Reporting from Ireland, it is St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman

On the program, we also heard from St. Louis Public Radio reporter Maria Altman who was in Ireland reporting on agriculture technology. Read more about her reporting trip here.

A view of the National Ploughing Championships in Ireland.
Credit Maria Altman, St. Louis Public Radio
A view of the National Ploughing Championships in Ireland.

Altman is reporting from the middle of the country as part of a delegation from St. Louis that includes BioSTL and the Yield Lab.

“I’m here going to the National Ploughing Championships with those two groups,” Altman said. “It is what it sounds like: there are tractors and plowmen competing, but there is also a lot of innovation that goes on here. It is the largest ag trade show in Europe.”

There are close to 300,000 people who attend the trade show every year. Irish companies are looking to the U.S., and St. Louis in particular, for guidance on merging the worlds of innovation and agriculture.

“Ag tech is a newer area of innovation,” Altman said. “In Ireland, agriculture is huge. Food and food products are their biggest export. About ten percent of the population is involved in agriculture. They also have a lot of U.S. tech companies over here, so there is a lot of knowledge in information technology. Those two things are coming together over here.”

Want to learn more about Altman’s reporting? Read these stories and follow along as @radioaltman takes her reporting to Israel next.

St. Louis gives Ireland a look for ag tech innovation

St. Louis-based Yield Lab to open Ireland incubator with plans for more global locations

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.