Lessons from 9/11 Survivors
On the weekend observance of three years after the September 11th attack, victims traveled to the Mid-America Press Institute workshop, co-sponsored by the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, to give their impressions on how reporters should interview those effected by violence.
A flip chart at the front of the conference room at the Millennium Hotel in St. Louis, Mo., showed three names written in bold letters:
Three-year-old Elisha had added his own special artwork in scribbled lines written in blue, red and green at the bottom of the chart. He also drew on his hands or others' hands when he wasn't playing with a digital camera or screaming his age at the audience or telling a person not to ask a question or riding up and down the escalators.
He was a boy with sparkling eyes acting his age and being a distraction to the participants in the "Interviewing: The HEART of the story" workshop. And to his mother, April, that was perfectly OK: "Reporters need to learn to interview with a child. They need to learn how to interview without being distracted by what he's doing."
April and Elisha were injured in the attack on the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. April was registering Elisha, who was only 2 1/2 months at the time, at the Pentagon's child care center when the attack occurred. Both continue to suffer from the effects of that day, and April, who walks with a cane, said she developed post-traumatic stress disorder afterward.
Abe, or Abraham, Scott lost his wife, Janice Marie, in the Pentagon attack. She was among 32 of 37 employees in her department who died; she and the others had moved to a new area of the Pentagon less than two months before 9-11.
On the weekend observance of three years after the attack, Abe, April and Elisha traveled to the Mid-America Press Institute workshop, co-sponsored by the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, to give their impressions on how reporters should interview victims of violence. The workshop, which also included speakers such as two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Eric Nalder and Dr. Frank Ochberg, covered all aspects of interviewing, from investigative to beat to storytelling to victims.
The workshop session "Memories of my 9-11 Interviews" provided examples of how victims are thrust into the public spotlight by a horrific event that changes their lives.
Abe, who is nearing retirement as a Army financial officer, admitted that he had never spoke to anyone but troops before 9-11. He fidgeted, sat down on a table at the front of the room and nervously drank several cups coffee during the session.
"It's very hard for me to do interviews, physically, mentally and emotionally," he said. "For me, it's about keeping the memory alive. I'm not a celebrity. It's all about this: I'm Janice Marie Scott's husband, not Abe Scott."
He then dug into his coat pocket and showed the participants a thick stack of business cards from reporters who had interviewed him since the day when he lost his wife of 24 years. He added that the most important books to him are the Bible, a special book on the victims of the Pentagon and American Airlines Flight No. 77, and the 9-11 Commission Report.
Both Abe and April described interviews that left lasting negative impressions for them, including one in which a reporter walked into April's house without knocking. Others included "insensitive" remarks such as "I understand what you're going through" or "You don't look hurt, so were you really hurt?" or "It's been three years; why are you not over it?" or "How much money did you get from the victims' compensation fund?" And others in which they were misquoted or only sound bites were used to misconstrue their overall statements.
They also questioned the use of "anniversary" because radical elements in other countries celebrate Sept. 11; they prefer "observance," "day of remembrance" or "memorial date." They wondered why reporters insist on asking questions about whether they are for or against President Bush or John Kerry. And they expressed worries that media organizations have not portrayed enough African-American victims of 9-11.
However, they also pointed out news organizations that they thought were sensitive and respectful, including W*USA (Channel 9) in Washington, National Public Radio and the Washington Post. NPR sent a person to play with Elisha while a reporter interviewed April. A Post reporter apologized for problems that occurred when she first approached April. A W*USA reporter took the time to inform Abe a month in advance about an interview and then respectfully accompanied him to his wife's gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery.
Both said that reporters can be aggressive about the truth, but they shouldn't forget that sensitivity, respect and compassion can help them to obtain even better stories.
"Don't let the drive to get the story ... push you" not to show respect for the victims, April said.
After their workshop session, Elisha continued to play, drawing pictures for three workshop participants while others crowded to talk to Abe and April for nearly 25 minutes. Elisha then continued to run up and the down the conference room's center aisle as another speaker was doing a presentation.
Abe then took it a step further by snapping photos of everyone as they listened to the end of a presentation. He then insisted that everyone take a group picture after the workshop had ended.
However, by that time, neither were a distraction to anyone. They were part of a community brought together by a common theme: the will to improve their interview techniques, most importantly victims.