Self-Study Unit: Covering Terrorism

Early live reports of terrorist attacks are sometimes confusing and misleading. Yet there are also extraordinary examples of media excellence, with journalists risking their lives to inform the nation about an unfolding crisis.

Rose Arce was getting her morning coffee at the deli across the street from her Greenwich Village apartment when she heard an enormous roar emanating from farther downtown. Pulling her cell phone out of her pocket, the veteran Cable News Network producer raced toward the chaotic scene at the World Trade Center. From her cell and pay phones on the path down Sixth Avenue, she provided some of the first live commentary both on the impact of the planes into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the subsequent collapse of the skyscrapers.

Arthur Santana, a crime reporter at The Washington Post, was driving to work when he heard radio reports about the deliberate crash of the jumbo jet into the Pentagon. One of the first journalists on the scene of the wreckage at the Pentagon, he spent the day in its parking lot and that night in the inner courtyard, helping rescue workers search for bodies and befriending those who had lost colleagues and loved ones in the fiery collision.

As David Handschuh drove along the West Side Highway to the 9:30 a.m. graduate photojournalism class he teaches at New York University, he noticed smoke billowing from lower Manhattan. He called the nearby offices of the New York Daily News, where he is a staff photographer, and headed toward the World Trade Center. There he photographed the previously unimaginable, even for a veteran chronicler of horror: falling debris, flaming buildings, body parts, images that to this day he has never shown another human being. As a second plane slammed into the north tower, he snapped a shot he still does not remember taking. As the first tower collapsed, a thunderous wave of hot gravel and glass catapulted Handschuh an entire city block, trapping him under a car. After rescue workers carried his unconscious body to safety, he became trapped again in a deli as the second tower came down. Handschuh, who broke his leg, was evacuated across the Hudson. He spent the rest of the fall and winter recuperating from both the physical and emotional wounds he sustained. His only regret: he had relinquished his camera in the chaos.

These courageous journalists were three of several hundred who faced enormous challenges that day, most without any experience covering terrorism or even the most rudimentary training or schooling. It was new terrain in part because terrorism in the United States, such as the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City, has been primarily domestic in origin. Like rescue workers armed only with notebooks, journalists, in many cases, raced to the scene without contemplating the danger they faced.

Each journalist faced distinct challenges. Arce, for instance, juggled her journalistic duty to get the story and inform the public with concerns about her own physical safety. She escaped the collapsing buildings in part because police and fire officials ordered her to evacuate what would become known as Ground Zero. It only dawned on her that she was in danger when she observed rescue workers racing away from the site. At night, she returned home to a residential neighborhood swarming with security and under a cloud of dust and ash, the remnants of which would linger for months. Blocks away at St. Vincent’s Hospital, friends and family of those believed to be trapped in the towers when they collapsed kept vigil.

Santana never feared for his life. But he was faced with another ethical dilemma. Should he inform Pentagon and police officials of his press credentials and risk being expelled from the scene? After consulting with his editors via cell phone, he decided that it was his obligation to display his Post press pass. Instead of being sent packing after his revelation, Santana was enlisted by officials to help with the search and rescue efforts. During the long, exhausting ordeal, with fires raging all around, he befriended a middle-aged man, Kenneth Foster, who watched the rescue efforts with a particularly acute sense of dread. Foster’s wife Sandra had worked in the quadrangle of the Pentagon that had taken a direct hit from the airplane. He had lost touch with her since the impact. Santana’s remarkable inside story of Foster’s struggle ended up on page one of the Sept. 13 edition of the Post.

Handschuh, meanwhile, relied heavily on family, friends and colleagues during his recovery from wounds that were far more than physical. “As I turned my camera lens on the flaming north tower, I realized that not all the debris falling to the street was glass and metal,” Handschuh writes in his essay on the ordeal, “A Lens on Life and Death.” “I can’t begin to describe what it looked like as some chose to jump to their deaths rather than confront the reality that they were about to be burned alive.”

In emergencies, the media serve as an alternative early warning system. The world learned about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon first through television, radio, and news sites on the Web. The public turned to daily newspapers and newsmagazines to fill in the details in special editions and provide second-day analysis.

Early live reports on the attacks were sometimes confusing and misleading — predictable given the chaotic circumstances — contributing in part to the panic that gripped the nation in the aftermath of the four hijacked airliner crashes. Yet there were also extraordinary examples of media excellence, with journalists risking their lives to inform the nation about the unfolding crisis. The empathy they displayed went a long way toward humanizing the events, leading to an outpouring of support and compassion for victims, their survivors, rescue workers, and everyone affected by the atrocity.

“I was very aware that it was important when I was on the air that I be calm and professional,” said NBC News correspondent Anne Thompson. “The rest of the country was seeing this, and you didn’t want to add to a sense of panic. You had to be in control that day; it was more important than ever.”

This journalism curriculum is designed to outline the challenges, both professional and psychological, confronting reporters and editors who find themselves in the position of covering terrorism. Based on extensive interviews with journalists, it suggests ways to cover those affected by terrorism with accuracy, sensitivity and clarity. It discusses ways that terrorists have sought to use the media, and how journalistic skepticism can prevent manipulation. It also reviews interesting angles, stories and approaches to covering terrorism.

This curriculum also examines the impact upon journalists of internalizing the images of both physical and emotional suffering described in their coverage. Based on the latest clinical research about emotional responses to trauma, it outlines some measures journalists are taking to reduce work-related distress and possibly confront — and prevent — Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Finally, it traces steps media organizations are taking to prepare their staffs to cover terrorism.