Audience receptivity skyrocketed. At just ten years old, even I caught on. My mom brought me to school early to put up posters for the student council election. The election had dominated my priority list; and therefore was at the forefront of my parents’ minds too. Posters, stickers, speeches—the Gregory family had no time for news that morning. When my mom dropped me off, we were perfectly unaware of the largest, most transformative news story to break in years.

I noticed more noise than usual in the empty hallways, but eerie noise. The muffled TV sets, hushed voices, and lack of children or laughter unnerved me enough to show up at my classroom a full ten minutes early. Immediately, I noticed that the TV was on, which confused me because we had no movie planned. My teacher was watching the same show as another teacher, featuring repeated footage of a plane tearing into a building. She was on the phone, and come to think of it, several other teachers I’d passed were making phone calls too. Everyone must be so excited about this show, I thought.

“Oh my god, this can’t be real.” As my teacher spoke those words, I noticed for the first time this was a news show. My teacher explained what was going on, and questioned whether my parents would even want me in school right now. As more students showed up, she lowered the TV’s volume, but she didn’t turn it off; she didn’t even mute it. That TV stayed on all day, still showing the plane tearing into the building.

Two things intrigue me about this memory. I felt unsafe. I felt unsafe in a vague and terrifying way. I didn’t expect an airplane to fly into my school, but I was scared because the people in charge of me were scared. Meanwhile, the people in charge of me were scared because the people in charge of them— or in charge of their world perceptions— were scared too. While the news media were painstakingly familiar with the element of fear, this fear was authentic, and it alarmed everyone.

I also remember how strange it felt that the television was on. At school we learned about the world through the filters of textbooks, never straight off the TV. My classmates weren’t the only non-traditional viewers that day; teachers and employees all over kept the newsfeed constant. These elements— genuine fear and a receptive audience— rendered the traditional US approach to news useless and revealed how US media, in comparison with foreign news sources, uses fear to draw in viewers.

News media depends upon advertising. Since advertisers want to market their products as widely as possible, news corporations must entice plenty of viewers to stay afloat. News, therefore, is not just about information. While networks attempt to objectively deliver facts, they draw upon curiosity and emotions as well. Celebrity news and human interest stories attract viewers, but so does fear. In an article about the use of fear in news media and popular culture, David L. Altheide and R. Sam Michalowski assert that “popular culture [is] oriented to pursuing a ‘problem frame’,” (Altheide and Michalowski, 475) in which media isn’t interesting unless it’s problematic. Furthermore, if the problems don’t pose a personal threat, incentive to watch is still limited. It answers, according to Altheide and Michalowski, the press’s major question: “How can we make real problems seem interesting?” (479) However, the media delivers this fear in measured doses, so that viewers feel the need to stay informed, but still enjoy watching.

Acts of terror did not fit neatly into a problem frame. Journalists followed fear-inducing patterns for murder, for drug busts, for armed robberies. But for once, the content alone induced panic, so where did they come in? Some stations, like CNN, handled the situation inquisitively, with a tone of eerie calm, explicitly refraining from speculation and “panic here on the air” (9/11/01 CNN…). Others, like ABC, attempted to quell immediate shock as the planes hit and broadcast continued. FOX, however, replayed the impact in slow motion and engaged in immediate speculation. A September 12th headline from FOX’s website reads “Arafat Horrified by Attacks, but Thousands of Palestinians Celebrate,” creating an enemy for readers to fear just a day after the attack. The same images aired repeatedly. Without the use of catchy graphics or music, viewers genuinely wanted and needed to see the news. Journalists everywhere were bewildered.

Elsewhere, reporting lacked scare tactics and melodrama. BBC’s 9/11 coverage serves as a precise example. The reporter first covering the event, while not overly quiet, eerie, or dumbstruck, also avoids panic and guesswork. She simply reports calmly and objectively. The September 11th homepage of BBC’s website contains repeated headlines about the terrorist attacks, but avoids catchphrases like “Day of Terror” (September 11 News…). Minimal pictures stand next to the headlines, not exceeding the textbox in size unlike CNN’s and ABC’s dominating photos. However, controversy ensued after a BBC reporter allegedly announced the fall of Tower Seven before it actually happened. Groups who refer to themselves as “truthers” claim that U.S. government, BBC, and other news and governance agencies took part in the attacks (911Truth.org). This controversy may generate suspicion, but it also serves as a perfect example of the “fear [that] pervades popular culture and the news media” (Altheide and Michalowski, 475) taking root in other forms of public discourse.

In Sri Lanka, an attack like 9-11 did not fall so far out of previously established problem frames. “It was not a new experience for our organisation – as Sri Lanka was undergoing a war during this period,” says Shameer Rasooldeen, CNN World View Correspondent and News1st reporter. “Over 60,000 people have been killed during the three-decade long war,” he adds. In regions used to real, constant threats, reporters and news broadcasters don’t need to turn to scare tactics. Here perhaps, a genuine need for awareness draws in enough viewers on its own. The United States, however, took a few days to fit the events within a somewhat familiar frame. “Subsequent to the aftermath of the attack, probably after two days, there were opinion pieces and even stories about survival and the reaction from the world,” Rasooldeen recalls. “[They] turned this incident in a way that created somewhat of a hatred towards the Muslim community around the world.” Here he notes US attempts, just days after the attack, to hold onto the audience by embellishing the events with controversy. Instead of continuing to encourage controversy, Rasooldeen suggests the US media report more on the subsequent attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan. “What about the human rights of the innocent civilians in these countries?” he asks. “Let’s not talk about terrorism alone. If we can make a difference in the people’s lives, let’s do it and start that effort now.”

The terrorist attacks on 9/11 did generate more global awareness within the news. According to a data generated by PDT Research, coverage of terrorism increased by 135 percent in the years following 9/11, coverage of US foreign policy by 102 percent (How 9/11…). However, journalists still deliver that global awareness in an exploitative manner. Foreign news gained a presence on the nightly newscast, but not at the expense of human interest and celebrity stories intended to draw viewers in. Just months after September 2001, a study conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism announced that “eight-in-ten evening news stories concern[ed] government, national or international affairs, up 67%” (Before and After). But four years later, the total ratio of hard to soft news hardly changed (How 9/11…). Only coverage of national hard news decreased significantly to make room for more international news. “Although subjects such as drugs and crime were the traditional ways of making people frightened, they are easily trumped by terrorism,” explains ADT Research’s Tyndall Report (How 9/11…). If the media sought increased viewer awareness, time spent on celebrities could instead catch viewers up on uncovered events leading up to the shock of 9/11. Instead, the press simply catered to the audience’s limited attention span, talking more about the world until that got boring. Terrorism, today, has lost its genuine shock factor, and “the war on terror” serves simply as another phrase to generate that comfortable fear that keeps viewers hooked. If an event as unexpected, powerful and tragic didn’t change the sensational attitude behind news reporting, perhaps only a shift in news format will.

Works Cited
Altheide, David L. and R. Sam Michalowski. “Fear in the News: A Discourse of Control.” The Sociological Quarterly. 40.3. (1999): 475-503. Web. Feb. 6 2011.

9/11/01 – CNN News Coverage 1st 5 Minutes. 9 July 2007. Youtube. 5 Feb. 2011. Web. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vfYQAPhjwzA.

“Arafat Horrified by Attacks, but Thousands of Palestinians Celebrate; Rest of World Outraged.” FoxNews.com 12 Sept. 2001. Web. 6 Feb. 2011.

Williams, A.D. September 11 News. September11News.com. Web. 5 Feb. 2011.

“Before and After. How The War on Terrorism Has Changed The News Agenda.” journalism.org. Project for Excellence in Journalism, 19 Nov. 2001. Web. 5 Feb 2011.

“How 9-11 Changed the Evening News.” journalism.org. Project for Excellence in Journalism, 11 Sept. 2006. Web. 5 Feb 2011.

911Truth.org. 911Truth.org, 2001. Web. 6 Feb. 2011.