“We have two reports—not officially confirmed—that a portion of one, at least one, of the towers has collapsed. But I caution that it is an unconfirmed report…there will be rumors all day. We’re going to try to separate the rumors from the facts.” – Dan Rather, CBS News
Eighty-nine percent accuracy from all networks during the week of September 11th, 2001.
Pretty stunning isn’t it? Or is it. It is our job to be accurate, not first. Or is it?
When trying to picture the road ahead in my career, I base it on how news networks perform during breaking news: Sandy, Boston Marathon, Sandy Hook, Supreme Court rulings, and although I didn’t know it at the time, 9/11. If I have time, I take notes. I write down what I see the networks do so I can process their thought process later. Then I ask myself: is this a team I would want to be a part of? Needless to say, there are teams I would love to join. There are others that I probably discredit more than I should.
9/11 was the day that drew me to the news forever. I was 12 years old. My teachers allowed us to watch the history unfold. I’m glad they did. For the first time, my peers and I bombarded them with questions that they couldn’t answer.
I, like most other Americans, became glued to the networks for the next several days. I remember asking a teacher in the lunch room if he could remember the last time news networks went wall-to-wall (I don’t think I knew that term at 12 years old) and he said that he didn’t remember.
Probably because it hadn’t happened very often in his lifetime. Oklahoma City, Challenger and the assassination of JFK were the next closest domestic stories–and they still didn’t reach the American public as rapidly as the news did on 9/11. Within three hours of the first plane crash, 97% of Americans knew the country was under attack. Compare this to the Challenger disaster, when 50% of the country knew what was happening within a half hour. President Kennedy’s assassination was the only breaking news to come close to 9/11–92% of Americans knew their president was dead within the hour.
From that day forward, I was drawn in. I woke up at least an hour early on school days for local news, got ready, watched the first 15 minutes of the “Early Show” and made Dan Rather an evening ritual. I watched different stations and networks to see how they covered certain stories. I remember the spring day in 2003 when President Bush announced plans to take military action against Iraq. I watched Fox. I watched CNN. I remember the kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart from her Salt Lake City, UT home and I’m pretty sure I’ll never get over my weird obsession with watching the Weather Channel during hurricane season. I’m not sure if it was a sudden interest in current events, realizing that news people were “real” during the 9/11 coverage or subconsciously analyzing the decisions newsrooms made that day. Perhaps it was all three.
Yet somehow I never considered news as a career until I was a senior in high school.
Flash forward to my junior year in college. I’m wrapping up my journalism degree at UNC and as a final project, asked to analyze the news coverage of the very day that wrapped me into the industry. For the first time since 9/11, I went back to watch those first few hours on all of the networks. If you haven’t done it, you should. Now, more than 12 years ago, it’s still the most chilling thing I’ve ever seen.
By 8:48:08 (90 seconds after the first crash), two New York City stations (one radio, one television) were on the air with news of the first crash. Twenty-six seconds later, CNN became the first national news network to report the news. They cut into a commercial and wouldn’t hit another for at least four days.
Other networks rapidly followed suit. Most were focused on the north tower at 9:03 when Flight 175 crashed into the south tower for all of the world to see. Something unprecedented in news.
We saw things on television that day that we will never see replayed now on the networks. For obvious ethical reasons, of course. But what were the filters then? There were, but not many (people jumping from WTC was not live). I can’t imagine anyone in any network newsroom being able to turn on the habitual filter we’ve, unfortunately, grown accustomed to.
One thing was certain that day: most Americans turned to television news. A dozen years ago, it was the most relied upon source for breaking news. And not only did we turn to news, but we approved. In a poll conducted in the months following the attacks, 89% of Americans believed the media did a “good” or “excellent” job covering the news. What I found more surprising is that most of those initial reports were accurate.
I don’t know that we would get that kind of approval today. Well, I know we don’t. Critics jumped all over the news networks following the December 2012 tragedy at Sandy Hook and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings–whether it’s being “first to report” something or falsely attributing “sources.” Even one of the faces of news, CBS News anchor Scott Pelley, slammed his own network for its news gathering methods during both stories.
He went on to blame the internet.
“Never before in human history has more information been available to more people. But at the same time, never before in human history has more bad information been available to more people.”
These are the concerns I face every day. I fear too many in the industry aren’t cognizant of the issues we face. News will always be around. So will reporters, producers, stringers, photographers and blank rundowns. But the public trust, credibility and approval ratings for news agencies will not. There are easier and more convenient options for the news audience. But none of them have the track record television news does.
So as we face another major, developing national news story, I hope to be a part of those in the media who get it right. And I hope you’ll be watching.
For more info on 9/11 news coverage:
Chermak, Steven, Frankie Y. Bailey, and Michelle Brown. Media Representations of September 11. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger Publishers, 2003. Print.
Elsis, Mark R. 911 Timeline. Lovearth.net, 9 Sep. 2002. Web. 3 Apr. 2010 <http://www.911timeline.net/>.
Grusin, Elinor K., and Sandra H. Utt. Media in an American Crisis. Lanham, Maryland: UP of America, 2005. Print.
Profita, Hillary How the Evening News Broadcasts Have Changed Since 9/11. CBS News, 11 Sep. 2006. Web. 2 Apr. 2010 <http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-500486_162-1994074-500486.html>.
September 11 Television Archive. Internet Archive, 11 Oct. 2001. Web. 20 Mar. 2010 <http://www.archive.org/details/sept_11_tv_archive>.
Terror Coverage Boosts News Media’s Images. The pew research center for people and the press, 28 Nov. 2001. Web. 1 Apr. 2010 <http://people-press.org/report/?pageid=11>.