The Evolution of Media Coverage Surrounding 9/11
The tragic attacks on the World Trade Center Towers as well as the Pentagon on September 11th, 2001 were quite possibly the most shocking and devastating experiences the United States has had on its own land.  The following day, September 12th, CNN had a time line of the events of that day to help people understand exactly what happened. The report was objective and timid, shying away from placing blame on specific terrorists and focused on the events of the day.  The American media’s treatment of this tragedy evolved similar to the way a person would react to such a disaster: first shock, disbelief and fear on to sorrow and vengeance and finally justice. Much of the world shared in the sorrow for the innocent lives lost that day.  My Australian pen pal, Nathan Baulch, remembers the night the attack occurred watching on NBN which cut it much of its live coverage from ABC.  What was most unbelievable to him was the magnitude of the destruction in such an iconic location for American culture.
CNN’s, as well as other major networks’ initial coverage of the attacks as they were happening included footage from other stations that had cameras setup first such as ABC.  The words often used included “hijacked”, “suffers”, evacuate” and “possibly terrorists” (CNN, Fox, MSNBC).  The media was very focused on what happened and how to preserve as many lives as possible in the aftermath.  The coverage was very personal and included many interviews from eye witnesses, what they saw and how they felt.  Video of the second plane hitting a tower as well as the towers collapsing under enormous stress were breathtaking and painful.  The blurry images of people jumping from the towers as well as the clear closeup of the “falling man” made us question who we were.  After speeches by Bush which included emotionally charged verbiage like “hunt down and punish those responsible for these cowardly acts” and “thousands of lives were suddenly ended by evil” the American news changed its tone to fit this kind of light and dark frame.  Rapidly the discussion moved from urgent care for those affected by the tragedy to war and vengeance.  Stories of Bin Laden and of Afghanistan abounded.  A study of the first 12 weeks of media coverage on 9/11 by Christine Rodrigue at California State University shows that in the first two weeks of coverage, reactions, investigations and military discussions were the three most presented stories of the Los Angeles Times.  After those three weeks, only the military theme kept a steady stream of stories pouring into the paper reaching almost 20% of the 558 stories.  The next largest theme found in the paper was the idea of crime and justice, that the acts were portrayed as criminal with about 10% of the stories and showed up in the second half of the 12 weeks (Rodrigue).
The American news media had a difficult job during the initial aftermath of the attacks.  Their job was three-fold: To cover the personal, economic and political effects of the crimes, to cover the “why” and context for the crimes, and finally to look forward to what actions the country is taking because of them.  Where the media lacked in their coverage of 9/11 was in building the context for the terrorist attacks, something which foreign news covered more readily.  In a paper presented at the International Studies Association by Cristina Archetti, the paper shows establishes different frames that 9/11 was placed in by different media outlets in four countries: America, Italy, France and Pakistan (Archetti).  The findings show that in the US the frame was presented as a good and evil dichotomy where the terrorists were irrational, relentless and pure evil and established a War on Terror against those who hated the American way of life.  Other nations like Italy tried to gain perspective on terrorism, establishing a “War on Terrorism” that fought the root of terrorism, poverty and struggle.  Italy’s media frame did not try to justify killing innocent people but tried to understand and fix the problems of the world rather than fight this vague notion of evil.  France likewise took a similar position as Italy but pushed education rather than poverty.  In both, context was developed by the media to inform the viewers and help them understand why this tragedy occurred as well as to try to define what terrorism really means.  The vague definition in the US, Germany and Britain include these three cornerstones: “the use of violence; political objectives; and the intention of sowing fear in a target population” (Barnett 15).  While this provides a label, Italy and France put an origin and history to the people under the label.
As time moved on and the US entered more deeply into the “War on Terror” the US media framed 9/11 and its effects with the unifying of the citizens in memorials, resurgence as a nation as well as the need for vengeance.  All of the major news networks held extensive memorial services a year later.  CNN’s featured 6 major stories: the day, faces of 9/11, the cleanup at Ground Zero, fighting terror, a changed world and news headlines (CNN).  The memorial day brings back the old themes from the year before, personalizing the experience by using pictures of faces.  CNN called 9/11 “the first milestone of the 21st century” keeping its importance as a day that will live in infamy (CNN).  The section on fighting terror emphasizes fear of future attacks and justified retaliation via war and preemptive strikes.  The criminal aspect of 9/11 is only represented by a small blurb on tests of the US legal foundation, downplayed by the other images and text.
Al-Jazeera, in contrast to US TV news, has been a primary source for pictures and videos of Al-Qaida and the War on Terror.  A short passage from Mohammed El-nawawy’s book shows the impact shows the difference in impact Al-Jazeera has than CNN: “But what about all the casualties in Afghanistan? I mean all these photos Al-Jazeera is showing.  It’s frightening. And you don’t see any of them on CNN” (El-nawawy 2).  Al-Jazeera has presented a much more balanced view of Al-Qaida running stories about the messages and demands by the terrorist group.  In one article about Al-Qaida and further attacks on the US the word terrorist is never used (Al-Jazeera).  Al-Jazeera ran a story in 2003 about the second anniversary of the 9/11 attacks but did not use any of the same emotional draw that CNN or other networks used.  The article took a worldly perspective on how other nations treated the occasion and criticized the foreign policy with headers like “Stoking hatred” referring to the disapproval that the policy has garnered from other nations (Al-Jazeera).  It also talked about an Australian morning paper’s opinion: “The goodwill of America’s allies has been squandered.”  This opinion is not alone as my pen pal also shared some concern over America’s disregard for patience and international support.
Almost a decade later, the aftermath of 9/11 is still reaching the front pages with the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed but much of the passion for vengeance has passed in the media replaced by the need for justice as well as pressing concern over the economy.  A CNN article describing the potential locations of the trial interviews some New Yorkers who see it fitting to have the trial in New York but would rather have it at a military base for added security and reduced cost (CNN).  The US has for the most part overcome the heated emotions and that is reflected in the media’s presentation.  Al-Jazeera has also run an article on this debate and reads with the same objectivity (Al-Jazeera).
The world’s news media reacted to the attacks on 9/11 in a variety of ways but most often mirrored the feelings of their viewers and not all adopting the same framing of the material.  The US media went through a cycle that many people felt the past decade trying to make sense of the attacks, understand what happened and how to react.  The US media focused on the future and the emotion of the events and less frequently commented on the context of the situation.  Other nations like Italy and France and their media outlets, who were more detached and physically distant to the attacks, approached the situation with more ability to humanize the terrorists and find ways to fix the problem rather than punish the “bad guys.”  Despite the differences in coverage, all of the major news stations showed sadness for the great destruction done by so few.
Works Cited
El-nawawy, Mohammed, Iskandar, Adel. Al Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East. Cambridge, MA: Westview Press, 2002. Print.
Barnett, Brooke, and Reynolds, Amy. Terrorism and the Press: An Uneasy Relationship. Peter Lang Publishing, 2008. Print.
Archetti, Cristina. “Political Actors, the Media and 9/11: A Model of International Frame Building Based on Bourdieu’s Theory of Fields” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Studies Association, Town & Country Resort and Convention Center, San Diego, California, USA, Mar 22, 2006 Online <PDF>. 2010-02-04 <>
“Al-Qaida vows anti-US attacks.”, 10 Sept. 2003. Web. 3 Feb. 2010.
“Execution ‘likely’ for 9/11 suspect.”, 1 Feb. 2010. Web. 3 Feb. 2010.
“Bushwacked! Asia remembers 9/11.”, 11 Sept. 2003. Web. 3 Feb. 2010.
“September 11: Chronology of terror.”, 12 Sept. 2001. Web. 3 Feb. 2010.
“Terror trials test U.S. Legal foundation.”, 3 June 2003. Web. 3 Feb. 2010.
“America Remembers.”, n.d. Web. 3 Feb. 2010.
“U.S. Marks anniversary of 9/11 terrorist attacks.”, 11 Sept. 2008. Web. 3 Feb. 2010.
“White House eyes moving site of 9/11 trial.”, 29 Jan. 2010. Web. 3 Feb. 2010.
Rodigue, Christine M. “Media Coverage of the Events of 9/11.” 27th Annual Hazards Research and Applications Workshop. Boulder, CO. 14 July 2002.