The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington unquestionably were the biggest news event of this still-new century; they rank among a thankfully few others as the biggest in the history of mass media. In the enormity of such a calamity, in the rush to report new shreds of information, ethics sometimes suffer. And yet, for the most part, the media behaved responsibly, keenly aware of the importance of their credibility and compassion. Everybody wanted a piece of the story. But journalists, like everyone else, were stymied. They knew what they should be doing: “Our highest ethical calling is to seek truth and report it,” said SPJ Ethics Committee co-chair Gary Hill, who is the director of investigations for KSTP-TV in Minneapolis. But that was difficult. Air travel was shut down. The media’s usual response – to get as many reporters and cameras to the site as quickly as possible – was simply out of the question. Besides, the world’s most concentrated pools of reporters and communications technology were already at ground zero, so there was no shortage of coverage. Another ethical principle was always a consideration: Minimizing harm. Days later, when movement was again possible, there was little new left to say. There were thousands of individual stories to be told, yes, but the nation was numbed. A reporter had to ask: What can we add? Isn’t it better, sometimes, to simply stay out of the way? But after an instant response that was thorough, appropriately restrained and responsible, we sifted through the rubble for something new. Al Neuharth, founder of USA Today, said in his weekly column: “News became king again – at least for a few days – in print and on the air. “Advertising and entertainment took a secondary seat. Scandal and gossip virtually disappeared … . “Bill Clinton and Gary Condit may have brought out the worst in the media, as many critics have charged. But Osama bin Laden – or whoever staged Tuesday’s terrorist attacks – brought out their best.” SPJ President-elect Al Cross, in a statement circulated by SPJ, urged journalists to keep things in perspective. “Part of the attackers’ apparent motive is to demoralize and disrupt American society,” Cross said. “If we exaggerate the impact of these tragedies, especially in communities that are not directly affected, we are aiding and abetting that motive.” The inevitable and infinite flood of rumors, false leads and unsubstantiated “facts” was carefully evaluated by the credible media, at least in the beginning. But there were missteps. “It is critically important that journalists not provide tinder for the flames of error and bigotry,” said SPJ Ethics Committee member Peter Sussman. “We must be scrupulously clear in providing the context for any potentially inflammatory reporting, and we must double-check the reliability of all information before putting it out in the public arena, where it will surely have a life that outlives its presumed validity.” There’s also a part of the SPJ Code that says journalists should avoid stereotyping, avoid imposing their cultural values on others and “support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.” As Sussman put it: “Overwhelming public passions do not make fine distinctions. In this case, the harm is being done to nationals of various countries and members of certain ethnic and religious groups as well as to individuals.” As a statehouse reporter, my piece of the action was frustratingly small: Reactions from politicians; governors and mayors closing government buildings, reopening them, calling for moments of silence and prayer. As all huge stories are, it was a television story at first. Local stations as well as national networks devoted all of their air time to the devastation. The print media have more of a historian’s role, to try to put such a monstrous deed in context. I don’t know who wrote this. It was circulated through The Denver Post’s e-mail by an employee I do not know. She said it was written by “a friend.” It was eloquent, and strangely comforting: “Yesterday, watching the news, I was horrified, unable to look away. I saw tapes of the second plane hitting the WTC and the first tower collapsing. I was watching live when the second tower fell. And yet somehow, what I saw never connected with me emotionally; it was so much information, with so little context, that it just seemed like a wind rushing past me. “Today, sitting with a newspaper, I’m reading articles about passengers with cell phones who made last calls to their loved ones; about firefighters charging up the stairs of the south tower even as it collapsed; about New Yorkers watching, aghast, as the clouds of ash and smoke and dust overwhelmed them. I’m seeing photos of rescue workers dragging people from the Pentagon, of Palestinians rejoicing, of workers clutching one another in the windows of the WTC. “And today, only today, reading accounts of what I saw with my own eyes yesterday, I find myself moved to tears. Only on the printed page, not on the phosphor-dot screen, do I find an understanding of what took place; only there is the air full of smoke, the smell of burning fuel, the choking dust, the sound of sirens.”
Fred Brown is capital bureau chief and political editor for The Denver Post. He is co-chairman of SPJ’s Ethics Committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.