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Media Coverage After the Attack: Reason and Deliberative Democracy Put to the Test

Generation sXeptic

Matt Nisbet

October 1, 2001

How well have the media covered the September 11 attack? Over the past decade, have the American news media, especially television news, fundamentally failed the American public by not providing essential coverage of world affairs? How can a citizen be both skeptical and informed in the coming months if history suggests mainstream media coverage is likely to turn increasingly hegemonic and sensationalistic?

The Nature of Media Coverage

Media reports on Tuesday, September 11 were deeply influenced by the breaking nature of events and the restraints of live television reporting. Indeed, the events transcended the typical norms and routines that journalists use to guide the news production process. On his personal news Web site, veteran magazine journalist and television pundit Andrew Sullivan posted late Tuesday that “I have been unable to think of anything substantive to write today. It is almost as if the usual conventions of journalism and analysis should somehow remain mute in the face of such an event. How can one analyze what one hasn't even begun to absorb? Numbness is part of the intent of these demons.”

At the television networks, some journalistic conventions, however, did take hold. From the beginning, there was a framing of events that focused narrowly on reaction from high-profile leaders. These reports typically offered speculation on the anticipated actions and statements of President George W. Bush and of New York City Mayor Rudolph Giulani. Across the media, Bush was characterized as “facing his greatest test,” and there was conjecture as to what Bush should do “politically.” Later in the week, Bush’s early response was unfairly compared to that of Giulani’s, who was on the scene of the World Trade Towers almost immediately, while Bush sought the sanctity of a NORAD air command base.

On Tuesday there were also attempts to frame the events in historical perspective. CBS’ Dan Rather was one of the first to introduce the context of battle, calling the incidents “the new face of war.” Jeff Greenfield, CNN’s resident sage, compared casualty levels at Pearl Harbor (2,400 killed) and the Civil War’s Antietam (20,000 killed), to the potential casualty counts in New York City. As the day wore on, framing the events in the context of Pearl Harbor became pervasive, as the phrase “day of infamy” was used liberally throughout coverage. By Wednesday morning, headlines in the New York Post and the Daily News blared “Act of War,” and “It’s War.”

Other more troubling journalistic conventions were also apparent. The desire to beat the competition with exclusive reporting or new footage was initially dismissed by the news organizations. In one example, Dan Rather echoed election night by announcing on CBS News that it didn’t matter to the CBS organization if they were first to report news, but instead CBS was concerned only with getting the story right. Early in the day, there were remarks on several networks that the news organizations were sharing footage of the events. However, in several instances later on, including on CNN and ABC, new footage of the second airplane collision with the World Trade Towers was introduced with an “exclusive” tagline, calling into question the appropriateness of trademark competitive reporting in light of human tragedy and national crisis.

The competitive nature of the cable news networks moved ahead on other fronts, as CNN used the events to introduce to captive viewers Paula Zahn, their new on-air personality recently acquired by way of rival Fox News. Also on September 11, for the first time in history, the vast vertical integration of America’s mass media came out of hiding, as parent companies simulcast their news flagships across sister cable networks. CBS News coverage was carried on Viacom-owned MTV and VH1. AOL/Time Warner broadcast CNN coverage on TNT, TNN, and CourtTV. Even ESPN was taken over by ABC News broadcasts. Wherever Americans turned on television, avoidance of news was virtually impossible.

In many cases, the visual spectacle was grossly misused by the television networks. Newscasts ran repeating footage of the second World Trade Center plane crash in the corner of the screen as interviews and other reporting was ongoing. In an exceptional display of unfortunate editorial judgment, the New York Times in Wednesday’s edition joined the tabloids New York Post and New York Daily News in carrying full-page color photos of victims falling from the top of the World Trade Center towers.

On Wednesday morning, as new information and events slowed, the media turned to showcasing the human tragedy and drama related to the attacks. Airwaves and newspapers were full of images of suffering and anecdotes of personal misery. American nationalism, religious devotion, and symbolism took over, with heavy coverage of flag-waving and religious services.

Though such human interest coverage in part may be necessary, it was mainly overemphasized. Missing in early coverage was proper attention to Congressional debate, Presidential planning, broader historical and political contexts, and international response. Only in a few elite media outlets, including NPR, the New York Times, and PBS could reporting be found that rose above the human drama.

The shock that swept across the public in the wake of the September 11 events underscores one possible effect of trends in the news media over the past decade. The news media’s overwhelming obsession with scandal, sex, and celebrity has failed to provide the American public with the necessary international context and understanding that might help people cope with the terrorist attack, and enable the public to apply some level of differentiated knowledge in the assessment of an impending American military response.

Maintaining Reason and Deliberative Democracy

As events unfold in the coming months, the public’s overwhelming dependence on the American media establishment for news and information presents several challenges to the ideal of a reasoned deliberative democracy. History, from the First World War to the Gulf War, suggests that media coverage will increasingly turn hegemonic, driving out alternative considerations or information in deference to a prevailing majority perspective that mirrors closely official U.S. government sources.

Here several forces will be at work. First, American journalists are prone to certain cultural or national assumptions and biases in their reporting that is often magnified in times of national security crisis. Second, in instances of military action, the media are highly dependent, and sometimes exclusively dependent, on official government sources for the release of information. Third, political leaders from both parties are likely to unite solidly and uniformly behind the perspective and the policy choices of the President, meaning that voices of dissent or minority perspectives on courses of actions or the nature of the events will be scarce or difficult to find.

There are, however, several recommendations for how an informed and skeptical citizen should confront the media tide in the coming period of great national action and development:

Balance Television News Coverage with Print Coverage. In cases of breaking events, television is the best possible medium for keeping up with the latest information. In recent years, some have speculated that Web-based news represented a strong challenge to the primacy of television. However, the complete overload of news Web sites on September 11 disproves this notion for now.

Though television is the best method for gaining instant information, and carries some value through the pure power of its images, the best reporting remains in print. Here I suggest reading a diversity of local and national newspapers, gaining a well-developed context for the news, and a multitude of perspectives. Newspapers are less immediate in their reporting, sorting out and filtering news accounts. They also have the ability to explore issues in much greater depth than television. A wealth of communication research indicates that television is not very good at conveying complex information, and that integrated knowledge and diverse considerations are best gained through news-in-print.

Discuss Issues Often and with a Diversity of Others. In coming months, heightened intolerance, prejudice, and hate for certain individuals or political groups across the world will emerge. Sadly, within the United States, fear and distrust has increased among neighbors and across communities. Individuals of Arab descent or Muslim faith have experienced physical attacks, discrimination and threats. Some political leaders and religious leaders, in an effort to marshal support for government policy or further their own interests, have appealed to nationalism or to extreme beliefs.

Countering these forces, past communication research indicates that it will be necessary that citizens seek out and engage in frequent deliberation, not just with other individuals with whom they already agree, or share a common background, but with a wide range of members of society that hold a diversity of perspectives. Such activities foster greater tolerance, lead to a higher quality of public opinion, and enhance knowledge. Discussion helps place in context breaking news reports, and mobilizes citizens towards volunteerism and political participation.

Seek Out International News Coverage. Again, as American media converges on a common perspective, it will be necessary to use the Web to seek out the media perspective in Europe and elsewhere abroad. This will be especially important as military actions are considered and carried out.

The events of September 11 are not uniquely American in scope. Terrorism is a world problem, and Americans should consider themselves global citizens. These horrific events are deeply rooted in world history, religion, ethnicity, economics, and politics. Perhaps, if any good can be found from these events, it is that they might spark an enhanced American interest in world affairs, and a greater understanding of world culture and history. For too long, the news media in conjunction with the entertainment media have cultivated a vision of reality that values materialism, fame, and melodrama. Yet now, it appears that never before has one single event made what America considered important yesterday, seem so trivial today.

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Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as public relations director for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer.