Remember all those predications in the wake of the disasters that TV news would finally get serious — that more sober local newscasts would turn their attention to public affairs and that the networks would increase their coverage of happenings in other parts of the world? It might have happened at first, but it didn’t last. Time and the economy has taken its toll and much TV news has gotten thinner and more parochial, while enterprise reporting has diminished. But there may be a positive change: stations are better prepared to cover events of 9/11’s magnitude. Let’s hope they don’t need to.
What Did TV News Really Learn From 9/11?
TV news was so deeply involved in covering the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and those attacks were so traumatic that you would expect TV news was significantly changed by the experience. But has it?
Certainly, those broadcast reporters on the scenes of the attacks were personally affected, perhaps scarred, especially those in New York who were right behind the police and firefighters in racing downtown, while everybody else was streaming uptown.
As part of our series on 9/11 this week, Carol Marin, then a reporter for CBS News, told TVNewsCheck‘s Contributing Editor P.J. Bednarski the story of her escape in New York, and there are many similar tales. For more, I recommend Covering Catastrophe: Broadcast Journalists Report September 11 (Bonus Books, Chicago, 2002). It’s a wonder that only one journalist, freelance photographer Bill Biggart, was killed there.
TV news itself has been rightly praised for its performance on 9/11, sifting the truth out a heaps of information and providing a reassuring presence throughout the ordeal. The coverage was, by no means, perfect. Some misinformation did, inevitably, get through the sieve.
Stations and the networks also dutifully followed up, with countless stories about the heroism of the first responders and ordinary people, the survivors and victims, the government’s response and the relenting grief.
Over the years, TV news has also furnished documentaries that attempt to more fully explain what happened and why and they have helped to commemorate each anniversary. For the 10th, the ceremonies will be more elaborate and extensive, and so will TV’s role, according to another of our stories.
But what about all those predications in the wake of the disasters that TV news would finally get serious — that more sober local newscasts would turn their attention to public affairs and that the networks would start covering happenings in other parts of the world so if we are attacked again we don’t have to stand around asking ourselves why others would indiscriminately kill us just because we are Americans.
You could argue that the broadcast networks did step up. They mobilized and marched off to war with the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and they have played closer attention to the volatile politics of the Middle East and North Africa. With their coverage of the revolutionary movements in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria and Yemen this year and earlier in Iran, the networks demonstrated that all their editorial decisions are not always guided by an American tank.
But they still don’t provide the everyday coverage of world affairs that sometimes lead to the crises. It still takes a disaster or riots in the streets to get their attention. Nobody will confuse ABC, CBS or NBC with the BBC.
Those who hoped that 9/11 would compel TV stations to improve have to be disappointed. If anything, the content has gotten thinner and more parochial. Newscasts may be relying even more heavily on the easy, sensational stuff — crime, fires, accidents. And enterprise reporting has diminished, even though technology has been enabling stations to do more with less.
Fact is, there are forces far more powerful than Al Qaeda ever was shaping local TV news. They are bloodless economic ones, which have been demanding that stations produce more news for more platforms on tighter budgets.
These forces include the recession of 2001, the flipping of stations with private equity money, the merging of TV newsrooms within markets, the rise of the Internet, the proliferation of smart phones and tablets that give people a whole new way of watching TV, cable’s incessant nibbling away of the broadcast audience and the recession of 2007-09.
Against these forces, the best of intentions after 9/11 had no chance.
But there may have been one positive change in local news as a result. Barbara Cochran, then president of the RTDNA and now a J-school professor at the University of Missouri, says that the attacks raised the consciousness of stations.
“They are a lot more aware that something surprising and terrible can happen at any moment and you have to be prepared to cover it. People had to think of a whole new set of possibilities. Because there has been no second incident on American soil, it may not be top of mind as it was in the years immediately following, but it’s still there.”
Of course, we won’t know if stations are truly ready until that “second incident.” And I, for one, would rather not find out.