9/11 Attack Coverage Reveals Similarities, Differences

Article excerpt

On Sept. 11, 2001, continuous coverage by television networks of the most aggressive terrorist attack on America to date began within seconds of the 8:45 a.m. EST initial plane crash into the North Tower of World Trade Center. Daily newspapers delivered accounts of the same event the next morning. The two different media presented massive coverage of the tragedy with different forms and focuses. The unique situation allows researchers to investigate how television networks and newspapers brought their competitive advantage into full play in reporting news and how the media tackled the complicated crisis situation involving national interest.

By looking at the coverage of 9/11 by eight U.S. major newspapers and five television networks, this study examines how newspapers and television networks differed in their framing of the event, how they used sources and how they dealt with the expected media functions in a crisis situation of unprecedented magnitude.

Literature Review

Media coverage of crisis situations has been studied extensively, (1) and one widely used approach in studying such coverage is framing analysis. Entman described framing as selecting and emphasizing certain aspects of experience or ideas over others. Framing occurs as journalists "select some aspect of a perceived reality and make [it] more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation and/or treatment recommendation for the item described." (2) These frames help journalists develop priorities for information in terms of what seems to be relevant and newsworthy and create agendas. (3) In short, frames are the "story angle" or "hook." (4) A number of studies have focused on news content and how it is framed. (5)

Framing also is important for audience interpretation, evaluation and judgment (6) in that it provides ways for audience members to think and talk about events and issues. Nimmo and Combs--in a study of television coverage of national crises involving the Peoples Temple, Three Mile Island, Flight 191, Mount St. Helens, hostages in Iran and the Tylenol poisonings--found that television news provided information in ways that changed the viewer's understanding or interpretation of events and evoked emotions. (7)

Nacos, who analyzed the content of CBS Evening News and The New York Times' terrorism coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis, the TWA hijacking, the Achille Lauro highjacking, the American air raids on Libya and the destruction of Pan Am flight 103, (8) and other scholars have analyzed news stories about crises. (9)

Graber, for example, identified three stages of crisis coverage. (10) During the first, media's key roles are to describe what has happened and to help coordinate the relief work. (11) In the second, media coverage of events focuses on making sense out of the situation. Graber suggested that the third stage overlaps the first two. To provide context, the media must place the crisis in a larger, longer-term perspective.

The National Research Council Committee on Disasters and the Mass Media postulated that the press had the following functions during a crisis: (1) warning of predicted or impending disasters; (2) conveying information to officials, relief agencies and the public; (3) charting the progress of relief and recovery; (4) dramatizing lessons learned for purpose of future preparedness; (5) taking part in long term public education programs and (6) defining slow-onset problems as crises or disasters. (12)

Other studies have examined the role of sources in framing. (13) Nacos makes the case that media use different methods when covering an anti-American terrorist act than when covering other foreign policy issues. Rather than relying on traditional administrative sources, media call on a variety of sources including terrorists and their allies, families of the victims, and critics of the establishment. …