It’s a scared, scared world. Post 9/11-society has brought with it an amazing abundance of changes. From the way news outlets around the world cover terrorist attacks – or perceived terrorist attacks – to the cautionary reactions of international governments one thing it clear: the world has moved toward a direction we never perceived possible on that clear September day. To Americans, it was the day that everything changed, that seemed impossible. To the world, it was a day that rocked a stable nation to its core, and shocked countries big and small. On a global scale the terrorist attacks of September 11 were met with equal bewilderment as a nation panicked, and the world watched.

One way to truly comprehend the world’s reaction is to look at one of the largest international platforms for news. The British Broadcasting Corporation, henceforth known under its familiar title “BBC”, not only has a monopoly in Britain, but is responsible for providing the world with its news as well. Today millions globally turn to the BBC for its breaking news and reporting, including countries where international coverage is considered a luxury. Though the BBC operates primarily via television and radio, the following examination focuses on the presentation of 9/11 from an online media perspective.

The BBC is one of the more trusted names in news organizations. The website itself claims to have the most content of any in Europe, calling itself “one of the world’s most popular and respected websites” with millions of pages of coverage ( It is therefore not only safe to assume, but has been decided based on collected data that Europeans turned to the BBC and its member stations for news of the September 11 attacks. In the time of crisis, the BBC television network – inclusive of its radio broadcasts and online content – is the network the United Kingdom turns to most (Barnett, 120). Even John MacArthur, the noted president and publisher of the American magazine Harper’s, has admitted that in the subsequent aftermath of the September 11 attacks, more Americans began to follow the BBC as opposed to their own nation’s coverage. MacArthur claims this is due to more detailed coverage, and more factually correct coverage with less outright bias – as opposed to perhaps that of FOX News or MSNBC. MacArthur maintains that while the majority of the British press acts in a predominately pro-war manner, many reporters at the BBC toed the line, covering the late war based on information, instead of producers’ desires (Borjesson, 101).

The BBC News home page on September 11, 2001.

Ultimately this argument is at the root of the debate on the BBC’s coverage – both national and international. Americans and other noted media minds vary substantially on the issue. The discussion centers on audience sensitivity, and whether or not the BBC and other British press outlets are inclined to present stories to gain an audience, as opposed to for the sake of the story itself. MacArthur insinuates the latter, saying that the British – and particularly those notable mentions at the BBC – focus on story first, on ratings later. These members of the media see themselves first as reporters and then as tools of the people or liaisons for a government agenda (Borjesson, 101). The BBC reported a near 50 percent increase in web views from an American audience (Schechter, xxxiii). The opposing viewpoint, however, is that British mainstream media (i.e.: the BBC) craft their stories for an audience specifically, as is often done in America (Moeller, 40). It can be conceived, then, that coverage of the September 11 attacks presented little bias, and focused strictly on news.

Yet the coverage makes it clear: Britain, and similar parts of Western Europe, have an invested interest in America and have allied with the country in the past. On a personal level as far as international friendships go, it is expected for the BBC to cover this shocking and near earth-shattering event with the depth and scope that it would had the attacks occurred in the United Kingdom. Images of webpages – the most easily accessible way for those outside England to obtain BBC information – from that day show that the attacks were covered to the full extent possible. Not only is the scale significant in that it looks beyond invested economic or political interest, but the majority of the stories on the site were of a human persuasion. Hints of the global effect and the “whodunit?” intrigue were there, but overall it was coverage of compassion – with a dose of healthy curiosity.

A leading news article from the BBC Website on September 11, 2001.

I asked a British friend of mine, Jo Finlay, for her opinions on the topic of 9/11 and her native BBC’s coverage. Jo is not heavily involved in news – she is neither a journalist, despite being a good writer, nor no longer a student. Admittedly, Jo and I first bonded over very American things – our love for Elvis and affinity for bad horror films among them. Still, I find myself respecting and seeking out Jo’s opinion on many things because, despite a healthy love and respect for this country, she has grown up in a society that views terrorism, entertainment and politics in a different light. She entitled her email to me “The opinions of an ignorant Englishwoman” – half joking, half serious. As fate would have it, Jo was actually out of the country that day, which makes her interpretation of the coverage that much more interesting.

“Ironically, I was out of the country on 9/11. I was on holiday in Portugal, and where we were staying had American news channels on its cable (I can’t remember which ones specifically, but I remember alternating between two, maybe Sky News and ABC, if that is one?!). Anyway my first-hand experience of news coverage on the actual day was an American one.

I tend to think of US news coverage as fairly over the top and a little hysterical. But as it was happening it felt fairly warranted, because these were horrific events unfolding, and at the time no one knew why, or how. I remember being morbidly enthralled by it, sitting in front of the TV for hours, just watching. I also remember being strangely impressed at the footage the channels seemed to have, so quickly and so clear of the two towers.

I don’t know how much I can comment on 9/11 changing news coverage in the States, as I have only visited a couple of times since, and I don’t tend to watch the news as a general rule – in my own country, let alone someone else’s! But I think the coverage could not help but become more frenzied and terrorist/terror centric; and, whether you deem this a good or a bad thing, also a lot more “us and them”. The attack of 9/11 made the States a victim, something that it doesn’t feel very often (not of that magnitude anyway) and understandably, doesn’t enjoy. Would it be fair to say that previous to this, a lot of the more “shocking” news stories in the States were perpetrated by Americans? Columbine, US-born terrorism and the like. This was a meticulously planned strike from outside America; so I think afterwards, the news became very concentrated on Americans rallying round, recovering and bringing these ‘outsid

ers’ to justice. UK news coverage was possibly the same, but to a lesser extent. I remember a lot of speculation over whether London would be next, and I believe Canary Wharf was either evacuated or partly closed on and/or around the time of the WTC attack (being the largest skyscraper we had at the time).

I think the BBC also became a lot more concentrated on the Middle East and terrorism. Maybe even a bit paranoid; what with the perceived threat of an attack over here. We have had our fair share of terrorist attacks here with the IRA, but again nothing as massive as what happened that day, and I don’t think I ever heard the word “terrorism” (and its permutations) so much as after the events on 9/11.

Even one year later, the BBC continued their coverage of the terrorist attacks with a special “one-year on” section. A “five year on” section was also done on the five-year anniversary, in 2006. Not only does this suggest that the attacks were pertinent on a personal level, but that they were impactful on a national level as well. Again, the BBC attempts to distance itself from bias by presenting factual documents (such as the 9/11 Commission Report) with timelines. Yet as with any compelling news organization, the use of pictures made the story heart wrenching, and that much more real.

BBC News one year later: "America's Day of Terror".

Works Cited

  • Screen capped images from website
  • Archives for articles, home page information
  • Information on history of company and present numbers

Barnett, Brooke, and Amy Reynolds. Terrorism and the Press: An Uneasy Relationship. New York: Peter Lang, 2009.
Borjesson, Kristina. Feet to the Fire: The Media After 9/11. New York: Prometheus Books, 2005.
Moeller, Susan. Packaging Terrorism: Co-Opting the News for Politics and Profit. United Kingdom: Blackwell Publishing, 2009.
Schechter, Danny. Media Wars: News at a Time of Terror. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2003.