The September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center are often credited for ending the American public’s sense of security and beginning an era of apparent vulnerability. Before 2001, America had a very limited history with domestic terrorism. Stories of terrorist activities rarely made headline news. The general public was never worried that they might be subjected to a biological attack or find anthrax in their mailbox. September 11th changed that perception. More precisely, the way the American news media handled the event and adjusted their coverage of terrorism changed that perception. After examining news coverage of 9/11 from American, European and Chinese sources, the most striking difference in American coverage when compared to foreign coverage is that the framing and language used by American news media seemingly indicated that all Americans were in danger and that the country had just entered a state of war.

A Changed America

In many ways, the American press gave the terrorists more credit than they deserved. The American press was quick to assert that terrorists were poised to strike again as shown by Barnett and Reynolds in Terrorism and the Press An Uneasy Relationship, “U.S. reports of 9/11 often speculated that the terrorists have or would soon have access to biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons”. Not only was the media suggesting that another attack might be on the horizon but that the next one might involve weapons of mass destruction. In hindsight, spreading this kind of information seems unnecessary.

This kind of reporting is exactly what Barnett and Reynolds had warned about earlier in the book when they referred to turning terrorism into theatre. They write, “by exploiting terrorism as infotainment, the media effectively become a terrorist accomplice, ‘merchants of fear’, whose inflammatory coverage merely promotes the terrorist message”. This is very much what the American media did after 9/11. The cable news channels added segments on terrorism. They showed videos of the towers fall, pictures of people jumping out of the towers and interviews with anyone who could describe their experience as though they had just survived Armageddon.

China contributing to new-found patriotism

The sense of apprehension being spread across the nation was not lost on the Chinese press. China Daily, China’s largest English-language newspaper, described the attacks as a horrific sequence of destruction and that they “spread fear across the nation”. A notable difference in the Chinese coverage in comparison to the American coverage is that the Chinese makes no speculation that this was anything more than an isolated event.  It even makes mention of an incident in 1945 when an Army bomber crashed into the Empire State Building in a dense fog as if to suggest that it is an anomaly that has happened before but is not likely to occur again soon.

U.S. B-25 crashes into the Empire State Building in 1945

In days following the attack, the Chinese coverage shifted toward the Chinese response to the attacks at both the political and individual level. Another article from China Daily includes many quotes from Chinese citizens with their opinions of the attack. One such opinion reads, “This is just a cowardly act by terrorists. No matter what problems you might have with another country, you should never resort to such tactics”. Another Chinese citizen said, “It doesn’t matter who did it or what they were upset about, but taking that many innocent lives is a price that’s barbaric”. These reactions show that the Chinese were outraged much like Americans were by the attacks and even use much of the same language you would expect to see in an American paper or a speech by President Bush. The one missing element is the fear mongering. The Chinese media did not treat this as anything more than one incident. They too acknowledged that retaliation was imminent but did not treat this as an act of war or speculate that more terrorist attacks were to come.

Much like China, European coverage of 9/11 did not have the same degree of inflammatory language or suggestions of war that the American media had. Barnett and Reynolds go into this distinction in detail in Terrorism and the Press saying that U.S. coverage of terrorist events such as the 7/7 bombing used adjectives such as “fear,” “terror,” and “helpless” while the British press used adjectives like “calm,” “resilient,” and “defiant.” Clearly any of these words could be used to describe the event. Why then, does the American media insist on using the more sensationalist and fear-inducing language? A look at the BBC’s editorial guideline reveals in part why the British language is different. It states, “We must report acts of terror quickly, accurately, fully and responsibly. Our credibility is undermined by the careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgements. We should let other people characterise while we report the facts as we know them.” (bbc.com). Clearly, U.S. broadcasters are not using the same guidelines.

They go on to say that the U.S. media, “emphasized war language… The reporting then quickly turned to ‘Could it happen in the United States’ type stories.” This statement says a lot about the way each country handles the news. It seems paranoid on the part of America to ask these questions before the story is even a day old. On September 11th, the British media did not immediately ask if the terrorists were coming after them next. They delivered a story with facts rather than speculation. Tying in this attack with the “war on terror” makes it seem like the U.S. struck after 9/11 and now the terrorists have struck back.

War

Jasper Bergink, a Dutch masters student, weighed in on the idea of the “war on terror” being an ongoing back and forth between the free world and terrorism saying in the Dutch media, “there must have been commentators who cast their doubt about the possibility of a ‘War on Terror’ – terror can’t be eradicated”. Jasper seemed unsure about whether the war on terror was a legitimate war or just rhetoric used by the American media and government.

Jasper also shared his thoughts on 9/11 and how the Dutch press covered it. He said the Netherlands used a pro-American perspective but there was never any language used to suggest there was anything to fear or any reason to believe another attack was imminent. He also said during this time he learned from the news that the US had military bases in Muslim countries and from their perspective he could see why they might condone such an attack. He also recalled “Moroccan youth in the Netherlands celebrating after the attacks; they thought the US had deserved it.” The only way Jasper recalls seeing the news media change in his country was that stories of “heroes” became more frequent, especially relating to rescue workers in New York. Jasper’s memory of September 11th seems to indicate that while the Netherlands media took a pro-American stance on the attacks, they refrained from using any kind of framing or language that would swing the popular opinion and ran more positive stories over those of loss and revenge.

Ultimately, the way the American news media portrayed the tragedy resonated in the government and American people. A more paranoid view of foreign policy has emerged as a result of the attacks. In The Writing on the Wall, Will Hutton writes, “Ever since 9/11 there has been a mounting assertion that the only way to achieve national security is to be unilateralist, internationally aggressive against states that might harbor terrorists and tough on civil liberties”. This new philosophy on security is due in no small part to the way the media has covered the post 9/11 world. However, the journalists themselves shouldn’t be held entirely accountable for the way things happened. In China Shakes the World, James Kynge writes that Gerland Levin, Time Warner’s CEO, “declared in one e-mail that after 9/11, Time had a ‘fundamental moral responsibility’ to the ideals of journalistic independence and democratic dialogue”. Within Months, Levin was forced from office for putting journalistic standards above cost cutting. It seems unreasonable to say that America lacks journalistic integrity, but given the way the media covered 9/11, they do seem to blur the line between news and entertainment.

Works Cited

Bangzao, Zhu. “14 Chinese institutions in WTC, fate of 30 Chinese unkown.” China Daily 12 Sep. 2001: n. pag. Web. 4 Feb 2010. <http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/en/doc/2001-09/12/content_17232.htm>.

Barnett, Brooke, and Amy Reynolds. Terrorism and the Press an Uneasy Relationship. New York: Peter Lang, 2009. 116-133. Print.

“BBC-Editorial Guidelines – War, Terror and Emergencies.” BBC. BBC, Web. 4 Feb 2010. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/editorialguidelines/edguide/war/mandatoryreferr.shtml>.

Hutton, Will. The Writing on the Wall. New York: Free Press, 2006. 295. Print.

Jianlin, Yi. “WTC collapses in terrorist attack; Washington attacked.” China Daily 11 Sep. 2001: n. pag. Web. 4 Feb 2010. <http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/en/doc/2001-09/11/content_82500.htm>.

Kynge, James. China Shakes the World. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. 14. Print.