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School of Communications hosts forum
examining terrorist attacks

About 150 members of the Elon community attended a seminar titled, "Good News, Bad News: Media Coverage of the Terrorist Attack," Sept. 20 in Yeager Recital Hall. The seminar was sponsored by the Elon School of Communications.

Paul Parsons, dean of the Schoool of Communications, led off with a look at the role of the media in informing Americans in troubled times. "Our media do indeed have many faults," he said. "But in a time of crisis, we turn as a people to the media for information, insight, commentary and comfort. Television is our national gathering-place in time of crisis." Elon Forum on Media Coverage
of the Terrorist Attack
Parsons pointed out that journalists are "historians in a hurry," and as such are likely to make mistakes and are often forced into making significant ethical decisions on the fly. For example, he said, some media organizations were criticized for publishing photos or showing video of victims of the New York attack Sept. 11 falling or leaping from the burning buildings. "These were disturbing images," he said, "and there were many reasons not to show these images. But one compelling reason to publish kept coming forward: It was the awful truth. Most images were of twisted metal, broken buildings and frightened survivors. The most horrific part of this tragedy is the loss of life. The reality of victims falling or jumping from the towers did what no other image could do in capturing this human tragedy. CBS showed it; ABC decided not to. NBC and Fox showed a body falling once, and decided not to do so again. The point is, journalists continually are making ethical decisions in the heat of the moment, trying to tell the awful truth in an appropriate way."

Steve Beckner, a financial journalist who lives in Mebane, N.C., was in New York City Sept. 11 covering an economic conference at the Marriott Hotel adjacent to the World Trade Center at the time of the attacks. He told the audience at the Elon forum about the "indescribable carnage" wrought by the attacks. "Seeing it in person is something I'll never forget," he said. Beckner was in his room at the hotel at the time of the attacks. Not realizing the gravity of the situation, Beckner said he took the time to take a quick shower before leaving his room. "When I got outside was when I realized what was happening," he remembered with sadness. "There were police and firemen, and they were yelling at us to run and not look up, because there was glass and debris falling from the sky."

Faculty members from the School of Communications also participated in the forum. Ray Johnson discussed television's coverage of previous disasters, including Pearl Harbor and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. He illustrated through the use of a tape of NBC's coverage of the JFK assassination that television networks did not have the capability to truly cover breaking news stories in 1963. "The networks found out from the Associated Press," about Kennedy's assassination, Johnson said. Frank McGee, an NBC anchor at the time, was forced to hold up an AP Wirephoto of the shooting on the air - it was the network's only visual of that attack. Johnson pointed out that within days of this incident, television engineers, executives and reporters were working to make live television coverage of major news events work better. He cited the complete coverage of Kennedy's funeral as one giant step toward the future.Elon Forum on Media Coverage of the Terrorist Attack

Brooke Barnett discussed the role of pictures and video in today's coverage of news. She noted that "pictures and images often are an entry point for a story," attracting potential readers or viewers. She noted that news organizations often make judgments on whether or not to use a particular image, because "video can make viewers angry, feel fear or induce disgust."

Barnett also acknowledged the syndrome of "compassion fatigue," where viewers become numb to images because they have seen them so often. "We've seen so many atrocities, it seems the more we see, the less we're affected," she said.

Connie Book addressed the media's responsibility in covering major events such as the terrorist attacks. She explored the possibility that the media "are a terrorist's best friend" by providing the coverage they seek. She said the terrorists knew that crashing a second plane into the World Trade Center approximately 20 minutes after the first would allow television networks enough time to set up cameras, so that they would capture the second plane crash live. In these attacks, the media became the terrorists' unwitting partners, Book said.

Parsons said that above all American journalists strive to play their assigned role - one that is key to a democracy. "America's media operate in a capitalist system," he said. "They - like airlines, computer companies, family businesses - need to make money to survive. So why did newspapers all over the country rush out special editions with no advertising underwriting the expense? Why did NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox and other networks drop all commercials for four days of continuous news coverage - at a cost of $100 million a day in local and national advertising? It's because America's media aren't just any other business in society. They hold a social responsibility to inform and comfort a grieving nation."

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