Coverage of a catastrophe
Media scored high by all initial counts, Berkeley profs say

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs

03 October 2001 | The media rose above commercialism and ratings during the World Trade Center tragedy to perform admirably, several journalism scholars at Berkeley concurred, but will they be able to perform as admirably in the climate of a covert war against terrorists?

The surprise and magnitude of the Sept. 11 attack left journalists with little time to do anything but report, said Cynthia Gorney, an associate professor of journalism and West Coast-based writer for the Washington Post. Those horrifying events unfolded too quickly, and all they could do was capture the devastation — in the camera’s eye, on tape recorders or note pads.

Coverage was “surprisingly good,” Gorney said. “There wasn’t anything that I saw that really upset me in the coverage. Like the reporters themselves and viewers all over the country, I was watching this happen live; we weren’t seeing edited stories.”

Orville Schell, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism, was impressed by the seriousness and freedom of the reporters covering the event. Their attitude of emancipation reminded him of “the feeling of being freed from all the normal political and commercial restraints” that he had noticed among the press in China during the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989.

Gone was the happy talk, the intrusiveness of commercials, the “arbitrary programmatic partitions which used to mark every hour and half hour,” Schell said. “We didn’t have the immutable divisions of sound bitten news stories; the 10-to-12 minute segments that have long charac-terized magazine format news shows.”

Schell observed that producers were suddenly “liberated from having to assign fluffy stories that were calculated to get better demographics.” Reporters were given the space to go after the story “in a conscientious, dignified and thorough manner.”

Comprehensive coverage
Gregg Zachary, visiting professor and senior writer for the Wall Street Journal, agrees. He thinks the initial news coverage was “straightforward and comprehensive.”

“It’s been a long time since any news event has dominated the media to the extent that this has,” he said. The restraint most media demonstrated while reporting on an emotionally charged situation was fairly remarkable, he and Gorney agreed.

Gorney, who has covered several disasters, including the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens and the Loma Prieta earthquake, was impressed with how objective and level-headed television and radio reporters remained. The most personal reaction she obsreved was the silence that fell over a few broadcasters as the towers crumbled.

“That silence was telling, because broadcasters are never at a loss for words,” she said. “I was impressed that we didn’t see a lot of press trying to comfort the public. The role that an anchor assumes in crisis coverage is often that of a parental figure to the public rather than a reporter. But most reporters stayed out of the story and just reported what was happening.”

Criticism in aftermath
CNN gave the story exclusive coverage in the days following the attack; the networks devoted unprecedented amounts of time to it. However, replay after replay of the aircraft crashing into the towers began to raise the “overkill” flag among media critics. Others questioned the “tastefulness” of graphic photographs and footage, such as those of people jumping from the towers.

“That was certainly a defensible decision,” Gorney said. “If I were a news director, I probably would not have run that. But I do think that the enormity of the attack, because this was such a huge event affecting thousands and thousands of people, warranted the pictures of people jumping out of windows because that was a powerful part of the story.”

Criticism has slowly grown since Sept. 11. Objections center on too much patriotism in the reporting, Zachary said, and too little questioning of what happened and why.

“There’s been insufficient criticism of government agencies for their failure to protect the towers, for allowing the accident to happen at all, for allowing terrorists to live underground in the U.S.,” said Zachary. “And I don’t think we’ve heard enough yet about the consequences of acts like this in other countries, how they are reacting to what happened, and what the U.S. is planning to do about it.”

Yet the challenge of covering a covert war is likely to make that difficult. The press have a right to publicize what happens, said Berkeley professor of constitutional law Robert Post, but they don’t have a constitutional right to access to the information, except in the context of a trial.

“Essentially they’ll have access to whatever the Congress chooses to allow, but it will take the Freedom of Information Act to get past that,” he said. “This kind of war is going to be very hard for them to cover because so much of it is going to be covert.


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