Self-Study Unit: Covering Terrorism

"At the WTC, there were other people who were much better prepared than I was to rescue the victims. I felt that what I could best do with my energy was pay tribute to the men and women who got out in those difficult conditions and made those gestures of help. The reason I would justify that cameramen and photographers and journalists be present in these situations is not because they are making money or because they’re parasites. It’s because 50 years from now, it’s important that people contemplate the decency that so many people demonstrated in trying to do the right thing in a situation that was difficult. I don’t know how that can be communicated without images, without words, without film.”

Photographer Peter Turnley (Nieman Reports, 2001 (4), p. 9)

The stories journalists tell, visually and verbally, help the public make sense of confusing, threatening times. In fact there is evidence that putting language to traumatic experiences helps individuals cope. Although it is not a stated mission of the press to heal, articulating the event for others may have a therapeutic effect on the larger community.

Yet headlines of September 12 often neglected the personal stories. Instead, they focused on the cause (“Attack on America”), to consequences (“Disaster,” “Nightmare”) to interpretation (“Bastards,” “The Longest Day,”) to the future (“What Now?”) The human consequences only showed up as second-day angles.

There are many non-stereotypical ways to portray grief both visually and in narrative form. Fred Richen, former photo editor for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, warns that journalists tend to portray grief differently when it takes place in what they consider their own community.

Before assigning or reporting a news story, reporters and editors might consider asking themselves the following questions:

  • If I were chronicling events directly affecting my family and me, would I alter the wording in any way?
  • Are graphic descriptions or images necessary to the angle of the story?
  • Could any of the reporting in this story prove harmful to the subjects of the story?
  • If so, is this information necessary for the story?