September 11, 2001: Covering the Inexplicable

As the news of the attacks on September 11, 2001 began to filter in, the press was faced with an important question:  How should it be covered.  Unlike most instances of news, there was no way for individual stations to get unique coverage of the events as they unfolded.  Instead, they were reliant upon their networks and the independent stations in New York to provide the information that could be conveyed to their audience. 

It was a move towards a more traditional type of journalism, one in which the network covered the major stories and the local stations simply acted as a way to get the network’s coverage.  The coverage began with radio.  Due to the ease of getting on the air over other forms of media, the radio stations in New York got the first details of what had happened out.  As time went on, the local New York stations were able to get television broadcasts out, but for the most part they were forced to cover the same material, just with a unique spin.  This information was then pieced together by other news outlets, particularly those not in the United States to create their own reports.  The coverage of September 11th was a return to the way that news used to be conveyed, simply out of necessity.  It created a requirement that news outlets work off of the same material and rely on local and network coverage, just as was required before technical innovations allowed for more local coverage.

A driving force in the coverage was the role of radio news.  When the attacks first came down, the first people to get the news out were the radio people.  Since the radio reporters needed to only get a phone or two-way system working to get a report out, the radio stations were able to break news the fastest.  As the television stations scrambled to get their trucks out and set-up, get their reporters all set up and everything else, the radio stations were able to start getting the news out.  One of the first reporters on the scene was WCBS’ Mary Gay Taylor.  She reported to the newsroom with eyewitness accounts and a description of the scene (Gay, 2001). 

Mary Gaylord Taylor WCBS from the WTC

Her reports from the site of the incident helped to get information out quickly.  As a radio reporter, she was able to maneuver to get extra information that would have evaded many television sources due to the amount of equipment they needed.  In this sense, she acted as other non-US reporters do.  She didn’t have formal interviews with people.  Rather, she talked directly to the people on the scene and got their uninfluenced opinions.  This is common in journalism in other parts of the world, including Greece (E. Manakidou, personal communication, February 2, 2010).   During Ms. Taylor’s coverage, she fulfilled two major roles: eyewitness and traditional journalist.  These were the two most common roles that journalists fulfilled during the attacks (Barnett, 2009).  As the one of the first reports, she had to fulfill these roles in order to present as much information as was possible.  It became important for Ms. Taylor to begin getting the information out.  Since she was at the forefront, she often had a limited amount of information, particularly due to her location.  However, since she was one of the first to report from the scene, she became an important source of information for people around the world. 

When people in the United States began to hear about what was going on, 90% of them went to their televisions for information (Reynolds, 2003).  When they turned their televisions on, they did not see their local anchors and reporters.  Instead, they were met with the network coverage of what was going on.  Whether it was CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, or CNN, they saw the same coverage as anyone else in the United States that was watching that network (Barnett, 2009 p. 120).  In essence, all of the networks were presenting much the same information in their own ways.  This was in stark contrast to the way that news had evolved up until the attacks.  The advent of satellite technology and the desire for a competitive edge had driven many local stations to begin to cover stories with their own reporters and with their own angles.  Due to the nature and scale of the attacks on September 11th, this system was simply not feasible.  With the cities of New York and Washington, D.C. under high security measures, there was no way to get a crew from every station in the United States into the city. 

This dependency caused the networks to come up with their own unique look at it. In an effort to get more information, CNN set-up intervenes with people in the intelligence community and the legislature (Blitzer, 2001).  This was a perspective that CNN was able to get in order to differentiate itself from other networks.  While most of what was covered was speculation, it presents a look at the way that people were thinking at the time of the attack.  The attacks had caught people completely off-guard, and thus further investigation was needed to ascertain exactly what was involved.  As was common with the coverage of the event, every possible lead was reported in an effort to get as much information out as possible (Reynolds, 2003). 

The reliance of particular sources also carried over into the international sector.  Unless a non-US news outlet had a bureau in New York or Washington D.C., they could not get their own, distinct, coverage. Thus, many outlets were forced to get their information from what the American networks were sending out.  The Daily Telegraph’s main story about how events unfolded wasn’t published until eight hours later (Harnden, 2001).  Since they had to piece the information together from the various American reports it wasn’t until later that they were able to create their own presentation of what had happened.  As part of the delay, they were able to get more information as to what may have been behind the events as they unfolded.  For example, in The Toronto Sun, they had an engineer explain how the towers came down (Traikos, 2001).  The Daily Telegraph’s coverage focused on trying to give a full breakdown of what happened when and the effects that each event had.  In this way, the international coverage was able to maximize their lack of presence at the scene of the attack.  They got extra information that wasn’t at the forefront of what was being reported by the American press and give a more detailed look at exactly what was going on. The Toronto Sun’s article explains an aspect of the situation that may have been lost on many people.  The Telegraph’s story focused on explaining to the people what was going on, so they didn’t have to try to sift through what each piece of information that the American outlets were covering. 

News coverage of the September 11th attacks presents a look at the way that news used to be covered, and how it is covered in a time of crisis.  Since radio is the easiest to get on the air, it is often the earliest source of information.  Eventually, the television networks are able to catch up and begin with their own coverage.  In a crisis situation, the networks play an important role in providing information to the entire country since the local reporters cannot cover the story unless they are present where the event is unfolding.  Eventually, the information is pieced together by news outlets outside of those located at the location of the event.  They are then able to run stories that are more cohesive and paint a fuller picture of what is going on.  In the end, the attacks represented a return to the basics for journalists as they tried to cover as much as possible and get the information to people around the world.  It becomes a matter of presenting a unique spin rather than being the first to break the information.  In the end, the information was the same, but the presentation was different, and that determined who was viewing or listening to each network.  The international press then takes this information and tries to add to it. It also acts as an interpreter for its audience so that they can better understand what is going on.  It is this chain that allows news to flow and really inform people, and September 11th proved that this style wasn’t going away.

Bibliography

Barnett, B., & Reynolds, A. (2009). Terrorism and the press: an uneasy relationship. New York: Peter Lang.

Blitzer, W. (2001, September 11).  Interview with Senator Chuck Hagel and Jim Woolsey [Transcript].  Retrieved from: http://edition.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0109/11/        bn.67.html

Harnden, T. (2001, September 11).  The day that changed the world Americans were stunned       into silence as they grappled with the scale of the disaster unfolding on their TV screens.          Toby Harnden in Washington reports.  The Daily Telegraph, p. 04.

Manakidou, E. (2010, February 2).  Impact of September 11th attacks on journalism [personal        communication, electronic mail correspondence]

Reynolds, A., & Barnett, B. (2003).  This Just In … How National TV News Handled the             Breaking “Live” Coverage of September 11.  Journalism & Mass Communication     Quarterly, 80(3), 689-703.

Taylor, M. G. (2001, September 11).  WCBS Report: On the scene at the world trade center         [MP3].  New York.  Retrieved from: http://www.wcbs880.com/topic/play_window.php?audioType=Episode&audioId=150371

Traikos, M., & Dacruz, M. (2001, September 12).  Towers could withstand great forces; crashes   too much: engineer.  The Toronto Sun, p. S32.