9/11: Media coverage — much to commend, much to lament

Sunday, September 11, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 6:44 p.m. CDT, Sunday, September 11, 2011

Think back to Sept. 11, 2001, and the traumatic weeks when the American news media struggled to make sense of the unfathomable.

What emerges from a decade of non-stop news coverage lurching from topic to topic with the attention span of a sugar-laden toddler is murky at best, non-existent at worst.

From star-spangled banners unfurled behind patriotic news anchors covering the biggest story, well, ever, commercial-free (remember that?) to a suddenly, temporarily re-energized print press flush with readers eager again for news of the world, it’s tempting to slip into nostalgic remembrance of a news media standing and delivering at a moment of national need.

It’s hard for me to think otherwise. I distinctly recall that terrible morning, in which I dropped a cherub of a daughter off for her first day of preschool, only to be ushered aside on the playground with the news that everything had changed, utterly, on a crystalline day made for kite flying or dog walking.

My first stop? The Columbia Missourian newsroom.

I knew where I had to be. I had no job there, and perhaps was underfoot, but no matter. The only place for a journalist to be that day was among journalists.

Fortunately, media scholars less in the tank than me almost immediately began studying the coverage of Sept. 11 and its aftermath, employing a wide variety of methods to give us some sense, 10 years later, of media performance.

A review of just some of the dozens of media studies of Sept. 11 serves as a useful reminder that while it was a day hopefully never to be repeated, the news media performed, in every discernible way, much as we’d have expected it to, albeit on a much grander scale.

The breadth and scope of the scholarship makes it difficult to do much more than summarize major points, but it’s noteworthy that much of the criticism of 9/11 coverage reflects criticisms that could be made of coverage of Hurricane Irene, the recent East Coast earthquake, or Casey Anthony.

1. Volume does not equal substance. Several studies of print and broadcast coverage reflected one of the great ironies of today’s media ecosystem: more time and space than ever, squandered on the inconsequential.

This is a criticism much more germane to television, as one article noted: “…television news could have done more to illuminate the political and historical backdrop of Sept. 11, or at least of terrorism in general, given the enormous news hole to be filled.”

Yet print journalism, too, moved quickly from the attack itself and its causes to the military response in Afghanistan and later, Iraq.

Much of the discussion of the geopolitical origins, and consequences of terrorism, were left to the polemicists. Which leads me to the next point…

2. Opinion is not analysis, and neither is newsgathering. What Americans needed then — and continue to crave — is understanding, context and meaning. What they are served disproportionately is opinion.

This charade begins with the agenda-setting power of the cable blabfests but sullies all of journalism eventually.

As one scholar noted, “we find that the networks relied heavily on an ad hoc interview format and that they relied extensively on a handful of experts and political figures at the expense of stories that offered a broader context.”

A 24/7 news hole must be fed, but why do we assume that it must be fed so poorly?

It’s all about the money: Opinion is far cheaper than learned commentary or actually going out and getting some news work done.

3. Different medium, different frames. One study looked at eight newspapers and five television networks, revealing significant differences between media forms.

This is to be expected, of course, but what stuck out from this and several other studies was the stark difference in a journalistic staple — sourcing. Newspaper stories, overall, employed a rich diversity of sources, from government officials to citizens.

Broadcast sources were not only heavily drawn from government, but from the same government officials, over and over again. The economics of the business rears its ugly head again.

4. More media, same old speakers. Several studies underscored the depressing lack of source diversity, an issue that continues to plague the news business.

As America was hit by its worst act of terrorism ever, it’s stunning to recall that in New York and Washington, D.C. – two of America’s most racially diverse cities – journalists still managed to speak with an almost all-white cadre of sources.

One study, which looked at more than 1,000 sources in television and newspaper coverage of 9/11, found that two-thirds of all sources were white, regardless of story type, and that there was an almost complete absence of female sources beyond the predictable human-interest portrayal.

I’d be remiss if I did not also point out that many studies lauded much of the coverage of 9/11 for its depth, for its completeness and for its human warmth.

There was much of the coverage to like, and as many scholars noted, it represents a high-water mark for an industry now in the midst of a tumultuous transformation.

Still, the coverage of 9/11 in many ways embodies a magnified view of many endemic weaknesses in our media systems reflecting changes in media ownership, technology and economics.

As we contemplate the horror of that day 10 years ago, let us not forget that it was a free press that brought us the news.

Charles N. Davis is an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism and the facilitator of the Media of the Future Initiative for Mizzou Advantage. His scholarly research focuses on access to governmental information and media law.

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