Reflections on an American Tragedy: Media Studies of September 11, 2001. (Editors' Comments)

Article excerpt

The phone rang. It was just before nine in the morning, and I was asleep.

That voice at the other end belonged to office mate, Rich Landesberg. Also a broadcast journalist, he hung up as soon as he'd given me the information I needed, done his live shot, so-to-speak. I didn't think twice about the dial tone I heard.

I reached for the remote and turned on the TV, as instructed. And I stayed glued to the television set for the next 14 hours.

That chain of events, that flow of information, placed me somewhere between the groups of college students studied by Kanihan and Gale (Within 3 Hours, 97 Percent Learn About 9/11 Attacks) who found that 44 percent of the college students surveyed learned of the Sept. 11 attacks from television and radio, and 48 percent learned of the attacks from another person. Only two percent of respondents found out about the attacks from the Internet.

Knowing there was going to be a teaching moment someday down the road, I put a videotape into the VCR and pressed record. I knew there would be a lesson in the coverage of what was to become one of the darkest days in American history. Journalism, after all, is at its best when the world is at its worst. I wanted it all on videotape.

My newsroom that day was that of the weekly newscast, Carolina Week, the student-produced newscast from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where I was a doctoral student. As a testament to what Charlie Tuggle, Richard Simpson, several other graduate students and I had built, the undergraduates were already recording feeds and assigning field crews. We didn't have a show for more than 30 hours, so I didn't need to rush in.

The phone rang again at 9:45. This time, I was wide awake.

"What's happening?" the voice on the other line said.

"New York is apparently under attack," I replied. "Where are you?"

"In my office. What can you tell me?"

That voice belonged to my brother, Paul, a marketing executive in the garment industry. He was in his office on the 38th floor in midtown Manhattan. He could see the smoke rising from the tip of Manhattan. He didn't have a television in his office--anywhere in his office. He figured I would know what was going on, and he had friends who worked down in the financial district.

So as I listened to network coverage out of New York City, I reported it from my apartment bedroom in Chapel Hill over the phone to my brother in New York City. My brother was scared and upset. He wasn't alone. And I was relying on television for my information. I wasn't alone either, as Stempel and Hargrove (Newspapers Played Major Role in Terrorism Coverage) found in their survey of more than 1,000 adults that 91 percent said television news was a useful source of information about the terrorist attacks.

Just then, one of my roommates, Betsy Spackman, burst through the front door and bolted up the stairs to her bedroom. She raced for her phone and frantically started dialing. I tried to calm her down as she was fighting hysteria. We had only been roommates for a month, not long enough for me to know that much about her family. Not long enough for me to know her father worked where the third plane had crashed the Pentagon. Finally I got a second phone number out of her and started dialing it myself. Back and forth she and I went.

"It's still busy!" she cried.

"That's good news!" I shouted back from my own room.

It felt a little bit like we were madly making calls to a radio station to win concert tickets. But not quite. She was hungry for information and frustrated by the lack of it online. Randle, Davenport and Bossen (Newspapers Slow To Use Web Sites for 9/11 Coverage) found in their study that my roommate was probably not alone. …