What Did TV News Really Learn From 9/11?

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.

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.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be reached at 973-701-1067 or mailto:[email protected]. You can read his other columns here.

Comments (5)

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kendra campbell says:

August 12, 2011 at 3:55 pm

In the past ten years local news has expanded probably 25%. Unfortunately the quality has decreased about 50%. Most local newscasts are now defined by crime, car wrecks. mayhem, and weather hype. Whatever is easy! The commercial load has increased about 25% – with most stations airing 10 – 11 minutes per half hour. Demographic ratings in primary newscasts have decreased about 35%. It’s not a pretty picture.

    len Kubas says:

    August 12, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    what are the empirical measurements of “local news quality?” Mostly, I don’t think you are paying much attention, since there is much less “crime, car wrecks and mayhem” on tv news than ever before. Have you ever read or heard of the book “If it bleeds, it leads” published in 1976 or so? There surely is much more show business/celebrity gossip on tv news than ever before, and much of that is quite easy to “do.”

    Teri Keene says:

    August 12, 2011 at 8:16 pm

    Much less “crime, car wrecks and mayhem” on tv news? You obviously don’t live in a big city.

    len Kubas says:

    August 12, 2011 at 10:02 pm

    top 20 mkt, and I tend to watch tv from the adjacent market, which is a “top three”

Todd Barkes says:

August 12, 2011 at 4:07 pm

Make free over-the-air more ubiquitous and the equation changes. Mobile DTV done right provides added opportunities. At the same time, the dynamics of broadcasting need to change, and that requires regulatory and technological freedom!