This Just in ... How National TV News Handled the Breaking "Live" Coverage of September 11

Article excerpt

This study identifies the different roles that journalists assumed in breaking news coverage of the September 11 terrorism attacks and explores how a change in traditional reporting routines might affect the type of information broadcast journalists disseminate. The first five hours of breaking news coverage of the September 11 attacks on CNN, ABC, NBC, and CBS is examined through content analysis. The data show that journalists who broke the news of September 11 assumed multiple roles to deliver information including that of expert and social commentator; they reported rumors, used anonymous sources, and frequently included personal references in their reporting.

Little more than a week after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,1 a Pew Research Center report showed that the media's approval ratings reached a record high.2 An unprecedented 89% of Americans gave the media a positive rating for their reporting efforts, and 63% said they could not "stop watching the news" after the attacks.3 The Pew report also found that 90% received news about the terrorism attacks from television.4 In an attempt to better explain these high public approval ratings, a recent study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism observed that "solid sourcing and factualness dominated" the early coverage of the September 11 attacks and that in the earliest days of coverage the "media tended to avoid interpretation."5

The PEJ study did not examine the immediate, breaking news coverage that began appearing on national television news after the first airplane crashed into the World Trade Center (the study examined September 13-15). Would a content analysis of national television news coverage of the event as it unfolded produce the same results? That is the primary focus of this study: to examine what role reporters played in the unfolding breaking news coverage of the terrorism attacks and to explore how a change in traditional reporting routines might affect the type of information that broadcast journalists disseminate. This content analysis of the first five hours of breaking news coverage of the September 11 attacks by CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC will explore how journalists function in a breaking news situation. Previously published studies about breaking news have focused on local television news and its heavy reliance on "live" shots, even when no breaking news is really happening; the role of the World Wide Web in the incidental delivery of breaking news; a journalist's use of electronic databases when gathering information on a breaking news story at newspapers; and, the role that pagers play in the delivery of breaking news.6 This study explores how breaking news might directly influence content and help shape the role of journalists.

A Hierarchy of Influences

The study of the social structural context of press practices is often called media sociology.7 According to Shoemaker and Reese, the study of media content is important because it is the basis for determining media impact and predicting media effects.8 Studying content also serves as an indicator of other underlying forces in communication content, allowing scholars to learn about the people and organizations that produce media content.9 "There is potentially much to be learned about the culture, values and living ideology of a society from the totality of mass communication content."10

Shoemaker and Reese have devised a levels of analysis or hierachical approach to the study of influences on media content.11 Those levels include, from the top (macro-level) down, the ideological level, the extra-media level, the organizational level, the routines level, and the individual level. This article uses the Shoemaker and Reese hierarchy to explore how breaking news functions differently than traditional news by focusing on the ideological, routine, and individual levels. Shoemaker and Reese consider the ideological level the outermost level that subsumes all of the others. …


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