Air of Uncertainty: Coverage of Potential Health Problems near Ground Zero Was Slow to Develop, as Many News Organizations Simply Accepted the Reassurances of the EPA. the Episode Underscores the Difficulty of Covering Questions with No Clear Answers

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On the morning of 9/11, columnist Juan Gonzalez of New York's Daily News was in Brooklyn, covering the city's mayoral primary, when he heard about the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. He headed on foot toward lower Manhattan, crossing the Brooklyn Bridge as the second tower collapsed. Arriving at Ground Zero, he began interviewing people. "It was pitch-black in lower Manhattan in the middle of the day," he remembers. "It was obvious there was a lot of pretty nasty stuff in the air." He would be the first to report on just how nasty it was.

Newsday's Laurie Garrett was on the Brooklyn Bridge when the towers collapsed. "You saw this massive amount of stuff coming down," she says. It struck her as odd that people were spitting out the dust and blowing their noses, but not coughing. She wondered why.

Christine Haughney, a 1999 Columbia University J-school grad who works as an editorial aide in the Washington Post's New York bureau, raced to the scene via subway Almost instantly, she was coated with soot. Later, when Bureau Chief Michael Powell told her to follow the air pollution angle, she eagerly agreed. "It seemed a logical story," she says.

Andrew Schneider, deputy assistant managing editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, listened carefully as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christine Todd Whitman proclaimed two days after the attack that "there appears to be no significant levels of asbestos dust in the air in New York City." He'd seen photos of the scene and knew a lot about toxic materials. "What everybody was saying didn't make sense," he says.

In the first weeks and months after the disaster, questions about health concerns from the World Trade Center collapse took a back seat to reporting on global terrorism, heroic acts and the loss of life. As time wore on, however, it became the story of concern to tens of thousands of New Yorkers and others.

Yet coverage has been inconsistent, ranging from repeated reassurances that the air is safe to fearsome headlines about toxins and cancer. That disparity--along with early suspicions about bias and motives on the part of government and the media--left Manhattan residents distrustful of what they were told. And hungry for answers that may not be known for years.

Not since the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania have reporters and government officials faced such an Everest-size task of communicating complex information to a frightened public. As at TMI, officials in New York were loath to concede they were in the dark, and as a result, offered erroneous and misleading information about the situation. Like TMI, the best stories often lay hidden in inconsistent statements and arcane technical data--awaiting discovery by curious reporters.

All too often after 9/11, however, journalists simply accepted the party line from city, state and federal officials. With a few notable exceptions, the New York media took months to zero in on a story that touched the lives of thousands. "This was as difficult an environmental health assignment as you can get," says Eric A. Goldstein, who tracks air-quality issues as head of the Natural Resources Defense Council's New York Urban Program. The subject was extremely complex, but it also was politically delicate. "How far should the media go in highlighting facts that raise uncomfortable ambiguities on health issues at a time when America seemed to be under attack?" For both reasons, says Goldstein, who followed government response and related news accounts, "it took a while [for the media] to get their bearings."

Jonathan Bennett of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health, a coalition of labor unions and worker safety activists, also tracked the coverage; he has been e-mailing news stories and government documents to more than 300 reporters since shortly after September 11. "A lot of important information hasn't been well communicated to the people who needed to have it," says Bennett. …