Sensationalism of 9/11 video coverage


Today marks the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, an event that changed America in so many ways – with news coverage being one of them.

The live coverage of the jets hitting the World Trade Center in New York City exposed millions of Americans to the horror that was happening, in real time, during the terrorist attack. News networks did not have time to plan a way to present the footage in any scripted manner; it didn’t matter if you were the anchorman of NBC or a stay-at-home mother watching the TV in her kitchen as she made her children breakfast. We were all faced with a crisis, and we were all able to see it unfold before our eyes – and that’s the kind of sensationalism that has impacted news coverage and shaped the way viewers react and commemorate certain events in the past 14 years.

Certainly the 9/11 attacks would still be a landmark event in American history, regardless if they had been caught on camera or not. However, the sensational – and horrifying — footage had so many immediate implications on the nation, both for the viewers and the media.

In the days after the attacks, David Westin, president of ABC News, ordered the the video not be repeated continuously so as not to disturb viewers, especially children. This type of decision raises the ethical question that journalists have been faced with time and time again, about where to draw the line in terms of how much we expose to the public. This applies to not only disturbing content, but content that threatens national security – which also became a major issue in the aftermath of 9/11, which I won’t get into here.

But where is that line? There is no definitive answer, but most would agree that even if coverage is shocking and violent, the viewer has the right to see it. In cases like 9/11, there really is no warning for such a catastrophe, and in live situations, there really is no opportunity for such a question to even be considered. In fact, in the past week or so, the nation has been abuzz about the live coverage of the shooting of two journalists by their former co-worker while broadcasting for WDBJ. The entire event was caught on camera and aired live without warning. And that coverage – that immediate visual access to the gruesome tragedy – completely changed the way the news was handled and perceived. The live video element of the story created a sensational wake following the incident that has sparked debate about the nation’s gun laws and other security issues. People are shot and killed every hour of the day throughout the world; but it was the live coverage of the event that made this one particular incident so sensational.

In this day and age, the landscape for journalism is constantly evolving with the developments of new technologies that give way to new platforms of communication. Video footage has been the leading form of journalism that has created lasting reaction in the past decades, and with technologies like smart phones and online platforms like social media, content has become immediately accessible to almost everyone. The footage of the 9/11 attacks that was recorded 14 years ago today is a landmark for broadcast journalism to show just how lasting the impact of visual news coverage can be.