Media coverage of Sept. 11 anniversary mixes emotions

Sunday, August 25, 2002

Jennie Susan Farrell plans to spend three hours on Sept. 11 facing television cameras, in hopes of telling the world about the beloved brother she lost to terrorism a year ago.

By the time Farrell and others convene at 1 p.m. for a televised town hall meeting at NBC headquarters in Rockefeller Center, the network will have broadcast six hours of Sept. 11 commemorations and still have 10 more to go. That's in addition to several documentaries aired in the days leading up to the anniversary.

Robin Sweeney won't be watching. He and his wife planned a two-week vacation to Europe in order to avoid the Sept. 11 memorials and the accompanying press coverage about the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Pentagon and the hijacked United Airlines Flight 93.

"We just cannot take it anymore," said Sweeney, 65, of Rockville Centre, N.Y. "Sept. 11 is constantly on television. We lost dear friends in the World Trade Center ... the thought of seeing those planes fly into the towers again is too much." Escaping those searing images will be difficult. Media coverage of the one-year anniversary will dwarf that of remembrances for the Oklahoma City bombing, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Experts use terms normally reserved for natural disasters - such as "avalanche" and "flood" - to describe the magnitude of Sept. 11-anniversary journalism.

Media reaching crescendo

The Big Four television networks - ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox - plan blanket coverage on the anniversary day with expanded morning news shows and evening programs that don't wrap up until 11 p.m. Daily newspapers will have special sections and glossy magazines. And National Public Radio will offer its member stations 20 hours of continuous programming.

The coverage, however, started nearly a month before Sept. 11. CNN aired the first installment of its "America Remembers" documentary on Aug. 17.

And the special reports, whether print or electronic, will become more frequent until they reach a crescendo beginning Sept. 8. Newspapers on that Sunday will be chock-full of photographs and lengthy articles, such as at the Houston Chronicle, where the front pages of all seven sections, plus the Sunday magazine, TV guide and entertainment tabloid are to be given over to the anniversary.

But will people pay attention? Will they tune out? These are the gnawing questions in newsrooms around the country as editors and producers devote significant resources to the Sept. 11 memorials.

In an Internet poll, 37 percent of the 269 journalists responding to The Poynter Institute, a Florida-based media foundation, said audiences already were "saturated with Sept. 11 material."

Providing rest

NBC officials acknowledge their "Concert for America" - a collaboration between the network, Washington's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities - is meant to provide a respite for audiences weary from hours of somber remembrance. ABC and CBS will offer news documentaries, while CNN plans a special edition of its "Larry King Live" talk show.

"We're going in a different direction," said Mark Lukasiewicz, executive producer for special projects at NBC News. "By the end of the day, it's important to have something in the schedule that's forward looking, positive and celebrates some of the good things that Americans have brought to each other in the course of the last year." National Public Radio also hopes to give listeners a break from the news with a three-hour program of classical music, poetry and essays.

The TV networks are expected to draw their largest audiences on the morning of Sept. 11, when memorial services are scheduled at Ground Zero, the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pa., where hijacked Flight 93 crashed. Viewers then probably will dip in and out of programming, which is expected to include a primetime speech by President Bush.

Journalists aren't certain how audiences will respond to wall-to-wall coverage. Large numbers may devour the stories and demand more. Or they may tune out.

They appear to have done the latter six years ago on the first anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, the worst attack on U.S. soil until last year. ABC, CBS and NBC drew smaller audiences for their nightly news broadcasts than in prior weeks, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Still, Ralph Izard of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University cautioned against comparing previous national traumas with Sept. 11. The death of 168 people and injuries to more than 500 others in Oklahoma was a tragedy - but it was localized.

"Sept. 11 was different because it was truly a national event," said Izard, who is writing a book about TV coverage in the days immediately following the terrorism. "We all experienced it through television and feel connected to it in a way that we aren't to those other events." So, there is the potential for millions of people to spend hours watching television, listening to the radio or reading articles. CNN saw its audience increase 40 percent for the first part of its "America Remembers" documentary aired Aug. 17 compared with the previous Saturday.

(Begin optional trim) Not all media outlets intend to splurge on commemorating Sept. 11.

The Wall Street Journal, forced from its headquarters in lower Manhattan after the collapse of the nearby Twin Towers, will carry only a handful of articles during the week.

"Why do one?" said a Journal spokesman, when asked about a special section to mark the anniversary. "We wouldn't take away space from the paper for news of the day to provide special coverage. We cover news each day." (End optional trim) Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker sees Sept. 11 as an ongoing story that requires expansive coverage. The newsmagazine, like the Journal, won numerous awards for reporting on the terrorist attacks. But Whitaker said to "ignore the anniversary as if we have nothing to add is inappropriate." He promises Newsweek's double issue, due at newsstands Sept. 2 along with rival Time magazine, will strike a balance between re-examining what happened a year ago and looking forward. Stories will address what comes next in the war on terrorism, for New York City, the economy, airline industry and other areas.

Priscilla Painton, executive editor of Time magazine, said, "We have the advantage here because the consumer can pick us up when they want to, and read at their own pace." Radio executives also contend they have the edge over television in the race for audiences, particularly those wishing to avoid a replay of videotape showing the airplanes crashing into the World Trade Center.

"On Sept. 11 last year, TV had a real advantage because they could show those unbelievable, horrifying pictures," said Jay Kernis, senior vice president of programming at National Public Radio. "But a year later, we may have an advantage in that we aren't forcing you to look at the pictures on the radio." NPR has joined with Minnesota Public Radio and 10 other stations to produce programming in advance of Sept. 11 and to make it available to all public stations. Highlights include a global call-in show with the BBC World Service and a national town hall meeting.

Still, Kernis admitted in an interview that "a number of stations probably will decide the best public service they can provide is to not carry a lot of this material but to play classical music during the day." Kernis, like so many New York City residents, was profoundly affected by the terrorist attacks. Five months later, his pre-teen boys were terrified one day by a sound truck blaring a message across their Upper West Side neighborhood. They ran into their parents' bedroom screaming that the family had to immediately evacuate.

"There's a huge hole in the ground at the end of Manhattan and a gash in the Pentagon, and not all the sounds in the world can fill them," Kernis said in a recent speech. "But the sounds we collect at stations across the country may serve as bridges and help people to get over the holes, and to reach greater understanding." Similar sentiments were expressed by many journalists interviewed, all of them mentioning the conflict between reporting the news objectively and being sensitive to people's emotions.

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service

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