A Quaker Perspective On Media Coverage Of The 9/11 Tragedy Anniversary
by Dana Kester-McCabe
I know were intent on watching very little TV this September 11.
Being somewhat of a contrarian, I decided that I would watch as
much as possible of the coverage of this tragic anniversary. I wanted
to see if there was something worth writing about that was not covered
by the multitudes of pundits and media personalities. I also wondered
how much my perspective as a Quaker would set me apart from the
rest of the viewing audience. I started the day in prayer and from
there I tried to be as objective as possible - in fact I tried to
be down right analytical. I got ready for the day by writing some
questions that would help me look for trends. I intended to take
thorough notes on the things that I thought were interesting and
I made special forms to track a number of things. I even tried to
rate the level of my emotions through out the day. I probably peaked
at 8:30 in the morning, though I nearly reached that level a number
I had my handy remote control which I used deftly to cruise
from channel to channel comparing what stations did at the same
time. How often did the anchors chitchat - reverently or otherwise
during the ceremonies? How did the different outlets display
the names of the victims?
stations did a better job than others, for different reasons.
In some ways there is an apples and oranges analogy here.
No one station was going to do the best job, because no matter
how hard they tried (and I think they thought they were very
sincere in their efforts) the public was going to judge them
on very, very subjective criteria. During the ceremonies there
was little of the frightening images of last year. But before
and after - they were used through out the day. However, as
I watched, I found that I was not really led to write a critique,
but an observation of what rose up in importance for me as
a person of faith in the communication business. For me, three
themes: Storytelling, Commemoration, Faith Into Action, seemed
to repeat throughout the day.
of times I noticed that they showed the planes crashing into
the World Trade Center (14)
The number of religious leaders speaking during regular news
The number of political leaders speaking (9)
(New York 6, National 3 - including the President, Foreign Leaders
0 - England's Tony Blair was shown at a memorial though anything
he might of said was not broadcast here.)
The number of news and entertainment personalities interviewed
or participating in ceremonies (10)
The number of survivors and their families interviewed (I lost
count after 20)
The number of times I started to cry (12)
A great deal of the coverage involved reporters talking to reporters
about their experiences of the day. Survivors and their loved ones
have had many chances to share their experiences and this anniversary
was yet another opportunity. I am sure that even with almost wall-to-wall
coverage in the last year, there are still many amazing stories
left untold. The shear volume of people involved either as participants
or witnesses is staggering.
- in fact needed - to share what they had gone through. And, even
amidst the overblown hype and instances of profiteering by corporations
and politicians, the public by and large wanted the level of coverage
that they got. If anyone wanted an opportunity to witness a sampling
of the heroism and sacrifice that happened that day, they had ample
chances. Anyone who did not want to see it simply turned the TV
off. But according to Neilsen ratings, viewing numbers were up slightly
for all channels on the evening of the memorials.
All of this
has brought home to me that people were not driven only by some
sort of morbid co-dependent empathy, but rather a sincere compassion
and desire to unite with their community in healing. Sharing the
stories helped. I had expected to spend my time documenting subtle
but intentional anti-Arabic sentiments and pro-war provocation.
Even on the most conservative channels I sampled this did not happen
at the level I was worried about. The ability of the stories to
connect us as people was impressive.
My only wish
was that a broader spectrum of ethnicity had been portrayed. If
you look at the statistics, there was a clear majority of middle
aged - middle class white males who died. But this was a truly international
tragedy. People of all walks of life from 26 countries died as a
result of these attacks. It was important that we heard their stories
too - but the moment has probably passed. It will be important to
continue to seek out the stories of how this tragic event affects
the way we treat each other - locally and globally. This includes
both the positive acts of compassion and healing as well as the
experiences of those who have already become the scapegoats.
I was also struck by what seemed to be a universal desire to create
shrines to those who were lost. Burial rites and memorials perhaps
answer a very human need that we take for granted in an increasingly
rational world. They are sometimes thought of as something to get
through in order to begin the process of recovery from loss. No
one wants to forget a loved one. They do want to forget the pain.
And often they want a lasting tribute. We are taught as Quakers
that the lives we lead are the best legacy we can leave. But for
the people who are left behind, there is a mysterious need to have
a place where we can reconnect in some way with those who have departed.
who attended these ceremonies were allowed to make that connection
their last communication with the victims in a way that was very
real. In fact any memorial or legacy is just that: a communication.
The people, who make these shrines, whether they are temporary arrangements
of flowers, flags and photographs, or permanent edifices made of
stone, are creating a lasting communication between the living and
the dead; helping those lives to continue to speak beyond being
one of over three thousand souls who suddenly were taken away uder
such terrible circumstances.
It was also
interesting to me, how the three crash sites provided distinctively
different styles of commemoration. The scene in New York was extremely
personal allowing for the broadest spectrum of participation by
the loved ones, as they filed down a long ramp wearing flowers around
their necks - donated by the state of Hawaii, to leave mementos
at marble "circle of heroes." The site in Pennsylvania also allowed
individuals to interact generously with each other, but it was much more subdued than the others. The music in
both these places felt (to me anyway) to be very much a reflections
of the feelings of the public. These included the mournful strains
of "Amazing Grace" played on bagpipes through out the day and during
the reading of the names a plaintive classical string quartet played
a variety of selections. By contrast, the ceremony at the Pentagon
was much more formal. The hymns and anthems performed there by a military band felt
more like they were meant to inspire a stiff upper lip. I mean no
disrespect in this characterization. But there was clearly a different
cultural influence at work.
Who would not be inspired by the heroic stories we heard during
this anniversary? Even though those who sacrificed so much were
either killed or left deeply scarred physically or emotionally,
we cannot help but want to live up to their example. I know personally
of a number of people who turned their lives upside down in reaction
to the attacks. One joined the Army, one gave up a relatively lucrative
and comfortable job to go back to school and become an elementary
school teacher. Just after our faith in humanity was tested it was
restored in the actions of so many people, who helped with the search,
rescue and recovery efforts.
bravery during a crisis means that you have to have a faith great
enough to act with out question. When the crisis has passed, faith
into action should be easier, but it is often not. Given the time
to worry, to compare, to make choices, we often hesitate. A year
ago, I was in a news room reformatting wire copy and posting it
on a local television news website, so that people in offices with
out TVs would know what was going on. I know they relied on it because
our site traffic was as high that day as during any weather emergency.
I did not think specifically about my faith or God that day. In
retrospect I know that it was my faith that kept me working with
a minimum of tears and a strange absence of fear.
There was talk
of faith through out the day of the anniversary, in very general
terms. Only a few specifically religious ceremonies were covered;
with invocations by Protestant or Catholic ministers. The only religious
leader that I recognized was Reverend Desmond Tutu. I found his
words and presence reassuring, given his work for truth and reconciliation
in his homeland of South Africa. I am pretty sure the Pope also made
a statement, but I cannot recall it. That evening PBS re-ran an edition of Frontline
reflecting on changes in religious life in America since last year.
The biggest surprise for me there was that a Lutheran minister had
endured a lot of hate mail and a call for excommunication by his
colleagues because he appeared and spoke at a 9/11 memorial with
clergy of other religions. I guess have been na´ve in my impression
that our country had the same attitude about religious toleration
that I grew up with in the Religious Society of Friends.
I have to admit
that I was so intent on watching the news coverage that I did not
even think to turn to the only religious channel available on our
cable service. Until I sat down to write this, it did not occur
to me. I guess that in itself says something, though I am not sure
what. I did not expect to find any particular religious point of
view put forth. My intention was mostly to reflect on how the news
coverage would affect me as a person of faith. And I also wondered
how it might inspire me to be a better communicator.
I do not think
being a Quaker made my reactions to the coverage too radically different,
but I have no real way to prove that. I was disappointed that obvious
and enlightening answers did not really present themselves in this
endeavor. For all my efforts to be clear headed and objective, the
emotions of the day still swept over me. I guess I do not feel bad
about that. But, I wanted the day's work to count for something.
Over the last year I have rededicated myself to working in this
field with a higher level of integrity. Maybe that is enough. I
also have a sense that my urge to write this is really a leading
to call for the reflections of other communicators on this topic.
I am not sure I have put forth any great insight. So dear readers,
I present you the following queries and turn this over to you and
the leadings of the spirit as they might inspire you:
Where were you on 9/11?
In the anniversary coverage you saw was the human need to share
experiences served or exploited?
How does reliving that tragic day through video affect you?
How do commemoration ceremonies, the building of memorials and coverage
of these help with the healing of personal and public trauma?
When does coverage of memorials serve as a tool for communicating the
legacy of those who are deceased and as lessons for better living?
When does it reach the level of exploitation?
How did coverage of the event, the stories of heroism and compassion
affect you as a storyteller?
Does the inescapable yet unreal climate of war censor or inspire
you? What work can be done in the media to contribute to an atmosphere
of healing and reconciliation?
Are there other questions that should be asked that would better
"allow Truth to prosper?"
offer additional perspectives relative to this anniversary.
FRONTLINE: Faith & Doubt At Ground Zero
IN THE CROSSFIRE - Three very different Arab Americans living
in New York City after the terrorist attacks.
FACE TO FACE
- An interactive comparison of the aftermath of Pearl Harbor
and 9/11/01 and it's personal impact on Japanese Americans and Muslim
SANITIZING THE NEWS: USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review
covers the coverage.
Available from RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY:
AMERICA'S NEW RELIGIOUS LANDSCAPE, produced after 9/11 and featuring
an interview with Harvard professor Diana Eck and stories about
the beliefs and practices of world religions in America:
ISLAM: How Muslims live, worship, and pray in various communities
RELIGION, WAR AND VIOLENCE: Conversations and interviews with experts
on war, peace, and violence in the name of God.
The Sonic Memorial
Interactive site with personal accounts of the terrorist attacks and their aftermath.
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