Why the news must remember Sept. 11

Sep 9, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Last year, television and radio were universally praised for their coverage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. This year, with the one-year anniversary approaching, everyone wonders whether the coverage will be respectful and meaningful or wretched excess.
Already the critics are complaining about the number of hours, speculating on the tone of the coverage, questioning whether the audience will be turned off. Their underlying question is, why do they do it?
The answer actually is another question: How could they not?
Sept. 11 ranks as one of the most significant events of our time. One year later it not only is appropriate but mandatory for news organizations to take notice, pay respect and assess what has been accomplished in the 365 days since.
It is the job of journalists to reflect on important events. It is their job to hold institutions accountable, especially the government, for how well they safeguard the public welfare. It is journalists’ job to tell stories that inspire-and sometimes infuriate.
Often television and radio journalists are faulted for failing to follow up, for failing to return to stories that dominate the news for a period of time. Journalists, the critics say, too quickly move on to the next big thing.
This time, follow-up is entirely justified.
For one thing, there will be a number of ceremonies across the country that must be covered out of respect. The President reportedly plans to address the nation and the world. It would be unthinkable not to broadcast those events.
Just as unthinkable would be to ignore the anniversary of the deaths of more than 3,000 people who perished as victims of a cruel, murderous conspiracy. We have learned a great deal about them as individuals in the course of the year. It is time to put the pieces of the mosaic together, to mark their passing and to offer whatever comfort is possible to the many thousands who knew them and mourn them. Through television and radio, the country can be united in paying tribute to their memory.
The anniversary also is the appropriate time to take stock of what we have learned, what we still don’t know, what changes have been accomplished and what must still be done. The public needs to know-wants to know-what progress has been made in lowering security risks, improving intelligence operations, protecting our borders and containing terrorism. The networks and local stations have done impressive investigative reporting throughout the year. Now is the time to look back at what has been accomplished and what work remains.
We still are in a state of war, a war on terrorism. How is it going? How do the government’s promises compare with its achievements? What do we know about the war’s progress and what do we not know? These are all questions journalists should ask, now and in the months to come.
The news won’t be totally grim. There will be tremendously inspiring stories of survivors who have struggled through the year. Painful as it may be to witness that struggle, we all can be uplifted by the triumph of the human spirit over the most daunting tragic circumstances.
Not that this coverage has been easy to plan. How much is too much? What pictures should be shown? Can families and friends of victims tune in without confronting images showing their loved ones at the moment of death? How much human emotion can be shown? Some of it is simply too raw.
For the journalists preparing this coverage, this is a story they have lived with since 8:48 a.m. on that awful Tuesday one year ago. Many, especially those in New York and Washington, only recently have stopped to reflect on their own experiences.
Journalists are “first responders” in a major crisis, just like police and fire fighters. They rush toward danger, not away from it, and many of their stories from Sept. 11 only now are being told. The anniversary allows the journalists who have pursued this story to put into perspective what they have learned and to share that knowledge with the audience.
And that is, after all, the purpose of journalism.
Journalists are not supposed to suppress information but to offer enlightenment. As television and radio news organizations look ahead, they’ll be striving to attain-on Sept. 11, 2002, and in the days and weeks following-the standard for excellence in coverage they set on Sept. 11, 2001.