Self-Study Unit: Covering Terrorism

On 9/11/01 terrorists attacked New York City and Arlington, Va., just outside Washington, D.C. — international symbols of American economic and military might. They are also the media capitals of the western world. In the past, terrorists primarily targeted U.S. interests overseas, such as the USS Cole, attacked in Yemen in 1998, resulting in the deaths of 17 sailors. Moreover, attacks were often focused on groups that could be viewed, erroneously, as abstract others, in a faraway land. This time, journalists found themselves in the especially uncomfortable position of standing squarely in the bull’s-eye. From 2001 to 2002, 40 journalists including Daniel Pearl were killed while covering traumatic events, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

The anthrax scare, which followed later in September of 2001 and was thought to be domestic in origin, also took aim at journalists at NBC News, the New York Post, and the National Enquirer.

Anthrax-tainted letters were addressed to political leaders at the Capitol Building, the locus of national political reporting in the United States.

This year, anti-American terrorists in Pakistan kidnapped and murdered Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was investigating links between extremists in that country and Richard Reid, the “shoe-bomber.” Pearl’s murder received international scrutiny. But other journalists have been targeted as well. Boston Globe reporter Anthony Shadid, for instance, was shot in the shoulder last summer while covering a story in Ramallah. In December 2000, two vehicles registered to the Washington Post were firebombed outside the newspaper’s Jerusalem bureau.

Outside the line of fire, the rhetorical bombardment can be fierce. When USA Today Middle East correspondent Jack Kelly covered the shooting of Palestinians by Jewish settlers on the West Bank in August 2001, the reaction was ferocious. “I got 3,000 e-mails a day for ten straight days, including several death threats,” Kelly told The Washington Post. “Someone sent a bouquet of white funeral flowers. The message was loud and clear: ‘If you don’t play our way, you will suffer the consequences.’”

The journalists-as-target scenario presents dilemmas for editorial decision-makers. Because terrorism is generally intended in part to garner publicity for a “cause,” no matter how dubious, the media are faced with a Hobson’s choice between publicizing attacks against its own and ignoring the violence unleashed in the name of the cause.

Journalists strive to balance the need to present accurate information of these sensational events while dampening the terrorists’ goal of producing widespread panic. They balance the public’s need to know with the private sensitivities of those most directly affected. For instance, after CBS aired a portion of the video from Pearl’s captors months after his death, Pearl’s family criticized the network as heartless. “Terrorists have made this video confident that the American media would broadcast it and thereby serve their exact purpose,” said Pearl’s father. CBS anchor Dan Rather responded that the anti-American propaganda displayed in the video is newsworthy because it helped explain the motives of the perpetrators.

For journalists, that’s only one of many ethical quagmires. Over the years, the term terrorism has been politicized, and journalists have learned to invoke the term carefully. A state may define border skirmishes or domestic dissension as terrorism to bolster its credibility and international standing. In April, Minnesota political leaders signed a full-page ad in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, accusing the newspaper of a “double standard” for describing Palestinian militants as “suicide bombers” rather than terrorists. Tribune editor Tim McGuire responded that the paper’s policy calls for the specific term — “suicide bomber” — because both sides are accusing the other of terrorism. The term “suicide bomber” has also been contested, with critics pushing for the application of the term “homicide bomber.”

Terrorism can be intensely personal, affecting cherished journalistic values of fairness, balance and objectivity. “We sat in our places and passed on information as best we could when we had it,” said Judy Woodruff, the anchor of CNN’s InsidePolitics and WorldView. “That was what we were supposed to do, but we had to do it as human beings. It was our country that was being attacked. We are supposed to be detached journalists, but I’m an American citizen first. This was not just another story for me. It was my country, my city.” (p. 171, Covering Catastrophe).

Despite the passions common to all Americans during this trying time, journalists generally projected a sense of calm during the early, emergency coverage of 9/11. ABC News anchor Peter Jennings strove to maintain an emotional balance. “I have always believed that my emotion has no more validity than anybody else’s,” he said. (p. 170, Covering Catastrophe).

Tom Brokaw, the veteran NBC News anchor, acknowledges that you can’t always “suppress your personal feelings. They just spill out, and I think that’s understandable to the audience. My operating rule is: You’re not the story; you’re the conduit for the audience to the story. You ought not let your emotions become the story or become a distraction. But at the same time, obviously, you had a human reaction to a lot of this stuff.” (p. 170, Covering Catastrophe). Each of these veteran television journalists strove to provide basic facts about transportation, communications and safety.

Many news media professionals employed a technique unfamiliar to the trade: silence. “We went into silent mode for a short time,” says Jennings. “It was not necessary for us to add our own anxiety or shock. It was all too evident for everybody… Throughout my entire career I have always been conscious that there are times when some people on television simply talk too much. Silence of natural sound on occasion is infinitely more powerful and relevant.” (p. 84, Covering Catastrophe).

This lesson helped newscasters cope with the often conflicting and erroneous data that flowed over the wires. In fact, as CNN’s Aaron Brown said, “In all those years of watching Peter Jennings work at ABC, I had learned the power of the pause…of silence. I suspect my best work that day was knowing when not to speak…I needed that time too. This was my city under attack, my country. I was sure I knew people who would not make it.” (p. 130, Covering Catastrophe)