The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks changed the country,including the way it gathers and presents its news. As the nation struggles for answers,a new kind of journalism has emerged.
“I don't have a name for it yet,” explained Roy Peter Clark,a senior scholar at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg,Fla. “Let's just call it evaluative journalism. It's looking at what happened and finding out how it impacts our lives. This goes past straight reporting and even beyond explanatory journalism,into the nature of our culture and its meaning.”
Two weeks have gone by,and all of the nation's television screens,Internet news sites and newspapers still seem unable to hold the tears,no matter how hard words and film try to clutch them. Not long after the images of the jetliners slamming into the World Trade Center towers had a chance to sear into America's psyche,members of the media began asking questions.
Starting with why.
Their work has drawn largely praise from a number of media experts. Some have even gone as far as calling it “journalism's finest hour.”
The media have remained dispassionate yet respectful of the grieving,many of the experts noted.
“I think journalists have spent a lot of time,energy and emotional capital on doing a good job on an important and exceedingly complicated story,” Clark said. “All of us have been able to feel vicariously the horror and terror of the victims in a way that is beneficial to society.”
Another expert said the press has shown a quality rarely attributed to it: restraint.
“The media have grown in the public's eye during this time,” observed Rich Noyes,director of media analysis for the Media Research Center in Alexandria,Va. “There is an amount of rage in the press right now. How can there not be?” But: “At this point,the coverage has been comparatively subdued.
“It has been journalism's finest hour,” Noyes added.
Ralph J. Begleiter understands the difficulties facing reporters during tragedies. A former CNN world affairs correspondent,he has covered a number of world-changing events,including the 1983 terrorist attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut,Lebanon,and the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie,Scotland.
Earlier this week a friend asked Begleiter,now a professor at the University of Delaware,if he considered the coverage of the attacks to be excessive. The former reporter struggled to contain his anger. He recalled how the O.J. Simpson trial and the Monica Lewinsky affair—which now appear relatively trivial—had garnered nearly the same amount of coverage.
“So my response,” Begleiter said,“was ‘no,I don't think it has been too much.'”
Following the attacks,the public was hungry for news and the media responded. Internet news sites got so bogged down with traffic,some pulled advertising to allow faster downloads. Cable news networks such as CNN and MSNBC devoted several days of wall-to-wall coverage. Fated to be keepsakes,many newspapers printed extra editions,carrying headlines that announced “U.S. Under Attack” and “Terror in America.”
But with such a glut of information,errors were inevitable—especially for television news,where accuracy tends to be sacrificed for speed. On Sept. 13,for example,ABC,CBS,CNN,MSNBC and Fox News reported that five people had miraculously been rescued from the World Trade Center rubble. It turned out that the rescued were two firefighters who had become trapped in a hole two hours earlier.
Similar errors have caused the public to lose some faith in television news,said Matthew Felling,media director at the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington,D.C.
“As soon as you felt informed,there was a recantation,” Felling noted. “Whether it has been phantom bombs on the first day (of coverage) or firefighters found alive,it has taken a suspension of belief to watch the news.”
Another criticism has been “flag waving,” displaying American flags as decorations during news presentations. Examples include CNN's waving flag at the bottom of its screen and the scores of news anchors who have worn American lapel pins and ties during the past two weeks.
Said Dara Williams,director of News Watch,a San Francisco State University-based project that promotes media coverage of minority groups: “I think it's fine to be patriotic,but at the same time this is a test of journalistic integrity and how fair you can be in your coverage. Even though it's such an emotional time for us,that doesn't mean we should throw out fairness and balance and ethics.”
As the shock of the attacks wanes,media coverage should shift to educating the public about terrorism,suggested Bob Giles,curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. Giles is confident that journalists will perform well.
Because they already have.
“The media has demonstrated why it has been a vital part of America's democracy,” Giles said.