A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott and Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana

From Great Tragedy, Humanity is Found: 9/01

Where were you when you learned that:

  • President Kennedy was assassinated? (One of us was just back from lunch in Laredo, Texas; the other was in class in Hyattsville, Maryland).

  • The space shuttle Challenger exploded? (One of us was in the darkroom in the Journalism School at Indiana University; the other was attending a committee meeting at Utah State University).

  • The Federal building in Oklahoma was destroyed by a terrorist's bomb? (One of us was teaching a class at California State University, Fullerton; the other can't remember).

  • The World Trade Center's Twin Towers were attacked and destroyed? (We were in bed listening to NPR News on the radio in Missoula, Montana).
  • These were moments of incredible historical significance, and yet deeply personal. These were personal moments because reporters and visual journalists made us feel those stories. These were moments destined to be forever a part of our visual memory. And soon, after hearing of each tragic news event from a teacher, a friend, or Bob Edwards, we quickly found a television set because we wanted to see, we needed to see, pictures.

    The moments from those events we most remember are the ones that communicated our enduring humanity--the saluting John F. Kennedy Jr. during his father's funeral, children in a classroom crying over the death of their teacher, Christa McAuliffe, Chris Fields gently carrying Baylee Almon after the Oklahoma City bombing, and two dust-covered firefighters hugging each other after both realizing they had survived the collapse of one of the Trade Centeršs towers.

    But conversely, there are some news stories we see, read, and hear that don't make us feel.

    Critics cry sensationalism, politicians cry favoritism, and readers cry paternalism when we are inundated with a constant barrage of misinformation and trivia pursuit from stories that take up too much time. Take your pick of scandals, botched investigations, and personal tragedies with these men in the news--Richard Jewel, OJ Simpson, and Bill Clinton.

    A recent example comes to mind. When Chandra Levy, a Washington DC intern romantically linked to California Representative Gary Condit went missing and was feared dead, over several weeks, ABC's "World News Tonight" aired 14 minutes and NBC's "NBC Nightly News" aired 60 minutes about the case. CNN covered the story exhaustively with hourly updates on most days. But CBS only ran one, two-minute story.

    Ironically, anchor Dan Rather and CBS News were criticized for not covering the Levy case. Some industry critics complained that the story had to be covered and so couldn't understand CBS's refusal to air reports. In defense, Rather responded, "What we were seeing, what we were hearing, wasn't always solid. Often, it was rumor or gossip. We chose not to report that until we had something that we thought was important to the story. Without passing judgment on anybody else, I've tried to stand for what I believe in--decent, responsible journalism." Sensational gossip masqueraded as news never propels a people to do the right thing.

    But sometimes we need totally saturated, 24-7, sensational coverage because of the nature of the story. The attacks upon the World Trade Center and the Pentagon are examples of stories that are no doubt sensational, yet unite us all out of concern and interest. And journalists should know the difference between the two.

    From the morning of September 11, radio, television, and print media sources along with their website counterparts all went to work to try to inform and explain the horrific personal carnage and destruction that was unleashed against thousands of innocent Americans. Reporters gathered as much information as quickly as possible during the confusing and unbelievable first hours of the attack. With the north tower of the World Trade Center already on fire from a previous direct hit from an airplane, viewers on television saw live and unedited video footage of a commercial airplane slam into the south tower and then witnessed the collapse of both 110-story structures. Thousands were killed and many more were injured. The visual messages seemed more appropriate for a Hollywood movie than actual events.

    In fact, it was those striking, unforgettable visual messages that make this story so compelling and memorable. President George W. Bush acknowledged the power of visual communication in his speech to the country the first evening of the tragedy, "The pictures of airplanes flying into buildings, fires burning, huge structures collapsing, have filled us with disbelief, terrible sadness and a quiet, unyielding anger."

    The major television networks all agreed to suspend their competitive nature and share all footage they gathered at the various scenes of destruction and chaos. Professional and amateur video became a shared community resource. National Public Radio (NPR) News and other radio and television stations broadcast continuous news reports. Several newspaper editors quickly printed special or "extra" editions. Internet traffic on the World Wide Web slowed as information was sought online. In an ironic response to the fear that new media might replace the old, the search engine Google suggested that those who wanted more information should simply listen to the radio or watch television. And although the news reports were sometimes repetitious and incomplete, the earnest efforts of all those involved in reporting the stories outweighed any criticism that might be contemplated.

    The challenge of media presentation and analysis is to know when coverage is proper and necessary and when it is gratuitous and shameful.

    The visual impact of seeing a 757 commercial airliner slam into a building, the telephoto shot from across the river of the Twin Towers bellowing smoke, the incredible destructive power of buildings collapsing in a hail of concrete, steel, dust, and death, and the ash-filled post-apocalyptic scene of smashed cars, steel girders, and dust-covered rescue workers and photojournalists are images that make the front pages of newspapers and websites around the world.

    Pictures. Moments. Emotions. But is every possible moment fair game when the news event is so catastrophic? Is it acceptable journalism to show a woman waving a scarf out of one of the windows of a tower? Is it acceptable journalism to print a desperate soul falling from one of the fiery towers to certain death?

    One of us says yes because that is our job and that is what we do; the other one says no because even the most public act demands some consideration for the privacy rights of these victims and their family and friends.

    We will no doubt continue to argue the issue of privacy in future columns, but fortunately, it will forever be the tiny moments, and not the most tragic ones, we will remember from this story--a doctor borrowing a suck of air from a firefighter's air nozzle, a man and his mother hugging after being lost then reunited, and the mental images evoked by the e-mail sent to the NPPA listserv by Steven E. Frischling, a photojournalist for Corbis Sygma out of Amherst, Massachusetts (used with permission):

    "This scene is the most horrific thing I have ever seen in my life, just totally inconceivable. The destruction, the loss of life, finding out shooters were injured, and a firefighter and a medic I knew killed (or believed to be dead). The entire drive down I had no idea how bad it could be, and the entire drive back just wondering how it could have been that bad.

    "Covered in ash and having yet to sleep or bathe I stopped by my daughter's day care to see her, and since it was nap time just to kiss her and look at her. I am so grateful that the destruction was not "here," but it still happened in my "home," and I am just devastated physically (burns on the back of my neck) and emotionally.

    "I do not think I will be sleeping for a while, I think the sounds and the smell will linger very much longer for me as I block the images from my mind.

    "Be grateful for what you have and remember the sun will rise tomorrow."

    This is our job. This is what we do. But we also know that the greater the tragedy, the greater is our capacity to find humanity within the tiniest moments we capture with our machines, our eyes, and our hearts.

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