Guest Commentary – 9/11 images dilemma: To show or not to show?

Aug 5, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Carie Lemack is a petite 26-year-old with a winning smile and poise beyond her years. You would never imagine that she has had to cope with more tragedy in her young life than most of us will ever experience. On Sept. 11, 2001, Carie’s mother, Judy Larocque, was aboard American Airlines Flight 11 bound from Boston to Los Angeles, the flight that was the first to be deliberately flown into the towers of the World Trade Center.
“Never in my wildest dreams,” she says, “did I think I would see my mother’s murder on television.”
What is bothering Carie now is that she continues to see that moment on television, often when she least expects it. She has turned to Radio-Television News Directors Association to discuss an idea she believes would minimize the pain felt by the families of Sept. 11 every time they see the video that shows the moment their loved ones died.
She acknowledges that the video will be used to tell the story of Sept. 11. Still, she advocates that networks and stations find a way to alert families and others when those particularly painful images are about to come on the screen-images of the planes striking the towers, people jumping or falling, the collapse of the towers.
In those images, we are witnessing the deaths of hundreds of people. Her idea is that a symbol on the screen or a verbal announcement would alert families and anyone else who doesn’t want to see the images, so they can turn away. She has already met with one network to discuss the idea and plans to call on more.
At the heart of Carie’s concern is an ethical dilemma that journalists struggle with all the time. As The Poynter Institute’s Bob Steele puts it, how do we minimize harm while still carrying out our duty to tell the truth? There are those who argue that the images of Sept. 11 must be shown to remind everyone of the horror of what occurred on that day. But many news organizations have put the images of planes and tower collapse off-limits, except in rare circumstances. They decided that repeated use of those images is simply too disturbing.
With the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11 just ahead, news organizations are planning how they will mark the occasion. As the president of the organization Families of September 11, Carie represents one point of view that journalists will want to take into account. Whether or not her idea of alerting the audience is adopted, news organizations will want to discuss how much of the video to use and in what ways. Is there a way to tell the story without causing new pain not only to the families and friends of those who died that day but also to those in the audience who may find it too tough to relive the experience?
The video question comes up not only for anniversary coverage but also for terrorism stories that arise on a daily basis.
Journalists might want to ask themselves whether there are other ways to tell the story and other images that could be used. Do we risk making the audience less sensitive to the story by constantly using Sept. 11 video as B-roll?
Nor is this a problem only for television. One of the most horrifying audio experiences was the sound of bodies crashing through the glass canopy at the World Trade Center.
Some might advise family members such as Carie to avoid the news. But she points out that she has a vital interest in learning as much as she can and following the investigation as it unfolds. She wants to see those stories. What she fears is encountering the painful images in the course of watching a story that could have been told without them.
She also urges producers to be sensitive when interviewing family members, something that is sure to happen all across the country around the anniversary. She tells of several family members who sat down for a live interview only to be confronted with Sept. 11 videotape as the anchor introduced them. It was no wonder they lost their composure.
Sept. 11 and its aftermath has posed a multitude of challenges for journalists trying to make the most responsible decisions while giving the public as much information as possible. A significant challenge has been deciding how to report on threats to security. Simply put, how much can you report about security lapses without providing a how-to guide for would-be terrorists? When and how is it appropriate for journalists to test security systems? For example, should a journalist try to smuggle a knife through the local airport security system? How do you responsibly report on risks without frightening your community needlessly? How closely can you work with government authorities without compromising your independence?
For journalists wrestling with these issues, RTNDA has resources to offer. Through Radio and Television News Directors Foundation’s Ethics Project, we have developed guidelines on a number of related issues, such as the use of graphic video, the use of file footage and coverage of violence. All are accessible on the RTNDA Web site.
None of these decisions is clear cut or easy. But with thoughtful discussion and consideration of a wide variety of viewpoints, journalists can come to good conclusions.