Coverage of Terrorism

Nieman Reports, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Coverage of Terrorism


Through the night of September 11,2001, photographer Peter Turnley took refuge in a second-floor office in a clothing store, its windows blown out by the force of the attack on the World Trade Center. As he tried to absorb what he was seeing, he documented the devastation. At dawn, he moved close to the site and fastened his journalistic eye on faces whose expressions evoke our feelings of loss. From covering war, Turnley knew that "the most important pictures ... are after the battle, when one sees the human impact."

This photographic glimpse at the human impact of that tragic morning opens Nieman Reports's exploration of the challenges journalists confront as they tell the stories of that day and report on its still-unwinding reverberations.

"Language always matters," writes Trinity College professor Beverly Wall, as she examines difficulties journalists have in finding words adequate to describe what happened on that September morning. "When journalists' impulse is to describe a news event as `indescribable,' perhaps they should pause and remind themselves that language does matter and the exacting search for words should not be abandoned."

Ted Gup, author of "The Book of Honor: Secret Lives and Deaths of CIA Operatives," takes us inside the tension between government and the press when secrecy is employed as part of a wartime strategy. "It is precisely in times of such crises that reporters should be wariest of government invocations of secrecy," he writes. Stanley W. Cloud, former Washington bureau chief for Time and one of five journalists who, after the Gulf War, negotiated an improved way of handling pool coverage of U.S. military combat, writes about the interaction of the Pentagon and the press. Maud S. Beelman, who directs the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and covered the wars in the Balkans for The Associated Press, contends that "For reporters covering this war, the challenge is not just in getting unfettered and uncensored access to U.S. troops and the battlefield--a long and mostly losing struggle in the past--but in discerning between information and disinformation." Nancy Bernhard, author of "U.S. Television News and Cold War Propaganda, 1947-60," reminds us of a time during the cold war when Harry Truman asked journalists for "ideological support for the national security state" and, as she writes, "none of the assembled newsmen blanched at this enlistment to propagandize." As James Bamford, author of "Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency," examines the Bush administration's crackdown on civil liberties and the limitations on press freedoms--some of them self-imposed--he finds "potential for good, penetrating, investigative reporting." But, he writes, "The question is, is the media up to these investigative tasks? Judging from past performance, the answer is not likely."

Bamford uses media coverage of anthrax as one example of how the press is failing the American public. Philip Caper, a physician who lectures at the Harvard School of Public Health, explains how reporting on anthrax and related public health issues could be handled more responsibly by journalists. And Stanford journalism professor and former St. …

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