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Sept. 11 coverage assessed by BP journalism conference panel

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–“Should we be in the business of sanitizing the horror?”

The inaugural Baptist Press Student Journalism Conference featured a panel discussion by veteran Christian journalists who tackled such questions related to mass media coverage of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C.

Speaking to more than 160 people from 28 universities and colleges, the panel, chaired by Matthew Melton, Lee University’s communication department chair, focused on coverage provided by mainstream media sources, Internet websites and widely circulated rumor-driven e-mails. The two-hour discussion was held on the second day of the Sept. 27-29 conference in the SBC Building in Nashville, Tenn.

Veteran journalists from across the country, each with a different news perspective, comprised the panel: Steve Massey, Idaho editor of The Spokesman-Review, Spokane, Wash.; Cynthia Williams, weekend anchor for WSMV, the NBC affiliate in Nashville; Joni Hannigan, Baptist Press correspondent and Atlanta-area high school journalism teacher; Todd Starnes, Baptist Press assistant editor; Phillip Todd, veteran print journalist and journalism/public relations professor at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee; Colleen Rudy, former news anchor for KFMB, the CBS television affiliate in San Diego; and Ed Plowman, senior writer for religion and investigations at World magazine and adjunct journalism professor at Regent University.

“The terrorist attacks really thrust the news media back into its extremely traditional role initially,” Massey said during a designated time for each panel member to grade media coverage of the terrorist attacks. The media reported “those very basic details that people needed to know,” Massey said, so people could come to an understanding of not only what happened, but also, more importantly, “What does that mean for me?” and “How can I help?”

When the media “was in the crucible of trying to figure out what was going on, I think the media performance was quite good,” Massey said, adding he understands “there were plenty of examples of where it wasn’t [good].”

“[W]here we have slippage is as we’ve gotten away from that [crucible],” Massey said. Other panelists, commenting on the same point, agreed that initial coverage was good but quality started to decline as the “so-called experts” were brought in and unsubstantiated rumors were reported in keeping 24-hour live coverage going.

“The news media overall has done a very responsible job,” Williams said, adding she was “so proud” of the quality of work coming from her peers.

Concerning both the live and still pictures of people who jumped from upper floors at the World Trade Center towers rather than die from the smoke and flames, opinions differed. “I don’t want to see that. I have not seen it anywhere, and I’m so grateful for that,” Williams said. On the other hand, Gibbs Frazeur, a photojournalist workshop leader from the Atlanta area, sitting in the audience, wondered, “Should we be in the business of sanitizing the horror?”

As a Christian photojournalist, Frazeur said he feels a responsibility to let people know what happened Sept. 11 “wasn’t just a building being ruined. Many lives were lost” in varying ways as a result of the terrorists’ actions.

Hannigan, a former member of Navy intelligence, agreed with Williams about the broadcasting and printing of the more gruesome images from the terrorist attacks. “I think the shock factor of what was happening was strong enough,” she said, adding she was “displeased to receive a Powerpoint [e-mail attachment] a few days later that actually had some of those shots because now those images are permanently, indelibly etched in my mind.”

Overall, Hannigan said she was “gratified to see reporters stop, think, reflect and then proceed with their questioning in a matter that’s not inflammatory toward the people who are trying to keep America safe, but at the same time hold them accountable, which is part of our role [as journalists] — to make sure they’re accountable to the citizenry.”

Starnes, who was part of a team of Baptist Press journalists and photographers who went to New York City immediately after the attacks, said he was impressed by how the story as a whole “truly impacted all of us as journalists. In a way, it put us on a new playing field” since journalists are taught to detach themselves from the story so they can objectively observe and report. “We couldn’t do that, even during the days after the tragedy occurred,” said Starnes, adding he noticed many reporters sitting down on the curbs, holding their head in their hands, looking weary and weathered.

For non-Christian journalists “this was a devastating tragedy,” Starnes said, “because they don’t know the hope that we have [in Christ].” Starnes said he and other team members, when asked by colleagues for their opinion on the tragedy, “have been able to share in a very sensitive way how our faith in Jesus Christ sustains us as journalists.” He said he thought both the national and local media in New York “have done a remarkable job. They have sought out any glimmer of positiveness in stories.”

Todd, the Oklahoma Baptist University faculty member, said, “I was impressed with the initial coverage,” but “since then it’s deteriorated to some of the most low-life, bottom of the line garbage and half-truths, except late at night and in the back pages of the newspaper.”

What he termed “real journalism” is happening, “but it’s not going on during primetime” and it’s not making it to the front pages of the daily newspapers, such as retractions to the numerous rumors reported when everyone was eager for news in the first few days.

“I’m seeing a lot of good, but I’m seeing a lot of bad,” Todd said, “and I think there’s a lot for us to learn as professionals and students of the discipline in watching both the successes and the failures. Let’s hold ourselves to some higher standards.”

Rudy, the TV veteran, said the coverage by the national TV media “was incredible,” especially the images which “said everything. Nothing needed to be said verbally.” She was impressed with the professionalism of the journalists as they did not “try to evoke any more emotion than was already there. It was already horrific.” She said she saw some of the “best journalism ever” during coverage of the terrorist attacks — at the beginning. “Since then, trying to get to the truth has been difficult” since some key people aren’t talking, “but people have a right to know.” She described the entrance of “the experts” days after the attacks as the beginning of the deterioration of the quality coverage as they “said some ridiculous things” about why the attacks happened and what should be done.

Plowman agreed with Rudy, “and then some,” he said, on the initial coverage. “Television has the power to put us there,” he said. “We all shared in that experience.”

A Kansas City student’s question intrigued the panelists, “Are we in danger of becoming pantheistic now in America” since the media and politicians are “not wanting to offend anyone’s religious beliefs?”

Hannigan, who said she encounters a variety of people from differing religious beliefs daily at the public high school where she teaches, said it is very important for Christian journalists “to learn the difference between tolerance and acceptance.” While staying objective with the facts she must present, Hannigan said, “I cannot be truly objective if it means forgetting who I am.”

Williams said she has learned “rather than isolate myself” from people of different religious beliefs, “I’m to insulate myself with the Word of God.” She said she asks God to use her in every news report and feature story she presents.

“It is so important for us to realize that people are so open now,” Williams said. “They don’t see me as a news reporter and anchor on TV anymore.”

Instead, people are asking her, “‘Cynthia, can I go to church with you? I am so scared,'” she said about people who see her around town now. “If we miss that opportunity to bring people to Christ, I think that we have just failed miserably.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: MAKING HER POINT, POWER LUNCH, QUESTIONS, LISTENING INTENTLY and PLOWMAN RESPONDS.

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  • Debbie Moore