A Quaker Perspective On Media Coverage Of The 9/11 Tragedy Anniversary
by Dana Kester-McCabe

Most people 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 of times.

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?

Some 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.

Some Notes:
The number 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 coverage (3)

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)


Storytelling
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.

People wanted - 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.

Commemoration
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.

The people 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.

Faith Into Action
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.

Acting with 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:

Storytelling
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?

Commemoration
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?

Faith Into Action
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?"

These links offer additional perspectives relative to this anniversary.
PBS' FRONTLINE: Faith & Doubt At Ground Zero
CAUGHT 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 Americans.
9/11 - SANITIZING THE NEWS: USC Annenberg Online Journalism Review covers the coverage.
Videos 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.

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Copyright 2002 - Dana Kester-McCabe - All rights reserved.
Published with the author's permission by
Faithful Witness - Journal of the Friends Media Project