Professors assess changes in news media since 9/11

By on September 12, 2006

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, set the tone for a period in media history where the American media would be forced to respond to an unprecedented challenge that demanded thorough and relentless reporting, and posed critical questions about the role of the press during a time of war, according to Margarita Diaz, assistant professor of journalism.

In conjunction with the fifth anniversary of the attacks, Academic Affairs in conjunction with the Albert Schweitzer Institute hosted a panel called “How the World Has Changed Since 9/11.” In it, Diaz joined professors Mohammed Elahee, Scott McLean and Bill Dunlap in a discussion about the effects of the September 11 attacks on world economics, the political climate in the United States, and civil liberties in this country. Professor Diaz spoke about the need for the electronic and print media to perform self-examinations in order to uncover ethical lapses in their coverage of United States foreign policy.

Diaz explained that in the aftermath of the attacks, the electronic media responded to the demand for constant news by providing viewers with blanket coverage, relying on professional and amateur video.

“On September 11 in New York City, I was one of millions of people glued to the TV anxiously awaiting any bit of new information – not just about the identities and motivations of those responsible for the attacks, but also about the most basic necessities for negotiating the crisis that had befallen our city. Were the subways running? Were the blood banks open? Was the plume of smoke inexorably making its way over Brooklyn safe?” Diaz said.

Diaz explained that in the aftermath of the attacks, television news audiences were looking for not only information, but for perspective, insight, a sense of community and comfort.

“In some ways, television on September 11 became the city’s public square. Across the five boroughs, in thousands of apartment buildings, in offices, restaurants and stores, television gave New Yorkers a sense of what was happening, a glimpse of the horror unfolding downtown,” Diaz said.

The immediacy of the television news reports was contrasted by the slower news cycle of the print media, which deployed hundreds of reporters to provide spot news coverage and analysis of the days events in the Sept. 12 editions of their papers.

“The headlines on the front pages of the newspapers across the nation reflected the mood of some, the worries of others: ‘A New Day of Infamy,’ said the Albuquerque Journal; ‘Darkest Hour,’ proclaimed the Denver Post; ‘U.S. Attacked,’ read the New York Times,” Diaz said, noting she was shocked by the boldness of the headlines.

Information was disseminated quickly by the electronic media. Print outlets struggled to provide readers with up-to-date information.

The New York Daily News ran a front-page headline that predicted 10,000 people had died in the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The number was inaccurate, reflecting the trend of print outlets’ struggle to provide readers with up-to-date information, at the expense of accuracy.

Diaz said she is dismayed at the state of television news.

“In many instances, what I see on TV, especially on the cable news networks, is what I like to call video-game journalism, in which on-screen graphics, and sound and visual effects, take the place of serious reporting,” she said.

After the rubble of the Twin Towers was cleared, The New York Times and The Washington Post, widely considered the country’s most influential newspapers, engaged in a process of self-examination concerning their coverage of events that preceded the Iraq War.

Diaz used the example of Daniel Okrent, public editor of The New York Times, who examined the paper’s coverage regarding the search for weapons of mass destruction in an article published in 2004. Diaz said that Okrent called his newspaper’s coverage as “credulous.”

Okrent later wrote that some stories published in The New York Times, “pushed Pentagon assertions so aggressively you could almost sense the epaulets sprouting on the shoulders of editors,” Diaz said.

In 2004, The Washington Post published a 3,000-word, front-page article admitting it “blew it,” by not publishing enough stories on the front page that included the opinions of people who disapproved of the idea of gong to war in Iraq, or who simply questioned the presidential administration’s rationale.

In response to The Washington Post’s self-examination, Diaz argued that editorial decisions “have an enormous impact on how facts are perceived by the public.”

Diaz said she is still waiting for the major television networks to conduct the kind of self-examination performed by The New York Times and The Washington Post.

“This is not the age of Walter Cronkite and much less of Kate Couric; this is the age of Jon Stewart. No wonder then, that Americans are asked how much confidence they have in the news media, only 15 percent say a great deal,” Diaz said.


About Tanya Lagatella