Stages of a Crisis and Media Frames and Functions: U.S. Television Coverage of the 9/11 Incident during the First 24 Hours

Article excerpt

Much research is devoted to determining how news media frame information so that it affects audiences' understanding and interpretation of issues. A number of studies also look at media functions under various situations. On September 11, 2001, continuous television coverage of the most aggressive terrorist attack on America to date began within seconds of the initial plane crash into the World Trade Center. This provided a unique opportunity to understand how television media cover a crisis of unprecedented magnitude. This study looks at how television outlets framed 9/11 during the first 24 hours, the functions they performed in the national crisis, and how the stages of the crisis affected coverage frames and media functions as unfolding events brought attention to new issues.

Literature Review

When the social order is seriously disrupted, people usually want more information than the media can provide (Neal, 1998). During crises, the public becomes almost totally dependent on the media for news that may be vital for survival and for important messages from public and private authorities. They look to the media for information, explanations, and interpretations (Graber, 1980, p. 228). For example, after President Kennedy's assassination, public uncertainty about the future of the U.S. government resulted in greater need for interpretation, explanation, and consolation (Schramm, 1965).

Media Functions in a Crisis

The National Research Council Committee on Disasters and the Mass Media (1980, p. 10) postulated that the press performed six 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 the purpose of future preparedness; 5) taking part in long-term public education programs; and 6) defining slow-onset problems as crises or disasters.

Researchers say the media have many functions depending on the audience's needs. For example, in addition to transmitting information, the media perform a "social utility function" (Dominick, 1996, p. 47) by providing companionship and emotional support in the absence of other human beings. Others (Entman, 1991 ; Hertog, 2000; Iyengar & Simon, 1993; Ungar, 1998) found the media performed different functions within different crisis situations. The selection of issues and the emphasis they receive tend to differ among media, but all forms of media include information on the primary issues (Lowery & DeFleur, 1995, p. 341). When dealing with breaking news, such as a crisis, the change in reporting routines affects the type of information that journalists disseminate. Journalists who covered the breaking news of the 9/11 terrorist attacks were found to assume multiple roles in delivering information. The content of breaking news reported live was fundamentally different from the content of news stories that were produced with more time to check for violations of journalistic standards (Reynolds & Barnett, 2003).

Graber's notion that there are three stages of media coverage of a crisis seems to reaffirm the media functions listed (1980, p. 229). During the first stage, media are the primary information source not only for the general public, but also for public officials involved with the crisis. Media's key roles are to describe what has happened and help coordinate the relief work. Their top priority is to get accurate information, which relieves uncertainty and calms people (pp. 233-234). In the second stage, media coverage focuses on making sense out of the situation. Plans are formulated and implemented to address the needs of the victims and repair the damage. Graber says the third stage overlaps with the first two. In an effort to provide context, the role of media is to place the crisis in a larger, longer-term perspective.

Studies found between-media difference in U. …