The University Record, October 1, 2001

Media coverage on target for Sept. 11

By Lesley Harding

The sights and sounds of Sept. 11 will not soon be forgotten. The images of the crashing planes, the burning towers that became massive heaps of rubble and the grief felt by the world will play over and over again in our minds.

The vividness of this national tragedy became all too real for most of us, even for those thousands of miles away; as we watched the events unfold right before our eyes. Television networks were quick to capture the disasters in New York and Washington, D.C., and the attention of world viewers for weeks to come.

“It’s during these kinds of events that professional journalists show what they’re made of,” says University media lecturer Tony Collings. “That’s why some journalists are so good—because they can keep their cool under the greatest of stress.”

Collings is a former foreign correspondent for CNN and Newsweek Magagzine. His new book, Words of Fire: Independent Journalist Who Challenge Dictators, Druglords, and Other Enemies of a Free Press, is dedicated to journalists who have risked their lives struggling for a free press.

Whether reporting from Ground Zero, near the Pentagon or commentating for endless hours from the anchor chair, Collings says most journalists did a good job. They stayed calm, collected and put things in perspective.

No easy task as journalists tried to gather as much information as they could in the middle of utter chaos and confusion. Collings says before any reporter goes live with information, they must think about the story from all perspectives. Leaving out even the tiniest detail could inflame an already volatile situation.

Two such cases stick out in Collings mind. He claims ABC created unnecessary fear on the second day by misreporting a second hijacking that had been foiled. Apparently, there was no second attempt. A reporter misinterpreted why people were being detained at airports after the attacks and anchor Peter Jennings jumped the gun before knowing the facts.

And, on the first evening, a CNN reporter did a live shot from Afghanistan. The night sky behind him was lit up by flames. The reporter speculated that there had been a retaliatory cruise missile attack but had no evidence to back up his story. Eventually the CNN anchor raised the possibility that the attack could be related to that country’s ongoing civil war, and indeed it was.

In those early hours following the attacks, journalists tried to get their hands on any information they could. Back at the news stations, executive producers scrambled for a game plan. Many were relying on information from their reporters on location, their own files and clippings, and the Associated Press Wire Service, but ultimately, little could be scripted as events unfolded live. Anchors were on their own to “tap dance” through adlibs and count on past experiences to deliver the voice of reason.

Aside from just getting the story out as quickly and fairly as possible, news organizations had to struggle with what they should and shouldn’t run. Several papers and at least one network showed images of a man falling from the World Trade Center. Despite these horrific pictures, Collings says it was appropriate to use them. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to suppress the horror. It’s part of the story even though it’s terrible. War is terrible, but we still show those images.” Collings says stations could have downplayed the shock factor by obscuring the person’s face, making the pictures smaller or running them later at night.

If military efforts escalate into war, Collings says the number one responsibility of all journalists is to remain as objective as possible. He says they’ll need to avoid speculation and just rely on the facts. Any misstep could cause terrible consequences to our economy or provoke unnecessary panic.

If war does break out, Colllings warns that some journalists could be put in the tightest spot of their career. If they are tipped off to information that would help the United States effort, they’re going to have to evaluate where their loyalties lie. Going public could destroy any covert efforts on behalf of the U.S., warning the government could destroy their journalistic integrity and potentially put them in harm’s way, and not doing anything at all could result in further devastation.

Despite its relatively brief history, television has reported on several wars: the Korean War, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War. Collings believes if there is a war it will be the most difficult yet to cover. The effort will be shrouded in secrecy and reporters will have few facts. Collings says, “Great journalists worldwide will rise to the occasion.”