A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Sensitivity on deadline

By Quill

This is the 11th in a series of case studies exploring how top media managers make difficult decisions.

This Media Leaders’ case study is based on events that occurred on Sept. 11. Although we normally base our case studies on real-life situations, we usually alter the situations to fit the ethical or managerial decisions we wish to present. However, in this cases study, the events of Sept. 11 need no embellishment to focus on the ethical questions that surfaced.

No events since the bombing of Pearl Harbor have affected the entire country in the way that the terrorist attacks have. The news unfolded very quickly and under conditions that reporters have not faced before.

Cell phones were not working in New York, so many reporters and photographers were hitting the street with little or no contact with editors and managers. The very symbol of American military strength was smoldering, as top government officials were being taken to secure spots, making them inaccessible to reporters. Live coverage of horrific scenes provided little time for newsroom managers to discuss the ethical implications of having little verifiable information or showing scenes that potentially could include body parts or people dying. Reporters in the field were using their experience to make decisions, often without discussion or even much time for reflective thought. While survivors of the attacks were fleeing the scenes, reporters were headed straight into a life-threatening situation. It was: Get the story, and get it to the audience any way we can.

Now that some time has passed, media actions on Sept. 11 should be discussed. This case study does not attempt to criticize the coverage of the events of that day. Rather, it presents some of the dilemmas that face reporters and newsroom managers during crisis coverage. Our hypothetical scenario is not based on any one newsroom’s experience; it is a collection of anecdotal incidents and ethical dilemmas culled from talking to reporters who actually covered events on Sept. 11. See if you agree with the views of our Media Leaders Forum panel members who responded to this case about Sept. 11.


As the head of news programming at the upstart American Communications Company (ACC), Giang “Jane” Nyugen faced a constant struggle to increase viewers at the sixth-rated news program in the nation. As a whole, ACC provided a variety of programming aimed at the coveted 18 to 29-year-old demographic. Its news budget was limited, but Nyugen was still able to provide a morning program and an evening newscast. ACC is headquartered in Chicago, with small satellite offices in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, and Washington, D.C.

ACC’s morning broadcast on Sept. 11 began in its usual manner. After a brief segment of national news, the show switched to special interest segments aimed at ACC’s target audience. In the last few minutes of the show, the assignment desk notified Nyugen that a plane had crashed into the building at One World Trade Center.

Nyugen called Chris Jackson, the bureau chief in ACC’s New York satellite office. The office was on an upper floor of a building on Wall Street, just blocks away from the plane crash. Jackson dispatched Sandy Donald and Alvin Day – a reporter and photographer – to the scene. Jackson also set up to go live from his studio. From his vantage point on the 40th floor of his building, he was able to see some, but not all, of the World Trade Towers. Jackson could see the smoke coming from Tower One, and he used the scene as a backdrop for his live broadcast of the events. Just as he began his report, viewers could see the second plane crash into the southern tower.

After the second crash, the morning anchors in Chicago speculated about the coincidence of the two crashes. They quickly assumed that the disaster was the work of terrorists and mentioned Osama bin Laden as one of the few terrorists capable of achieving that magnitude of destruction. While Nyugen listened to the anchors’ speculation, she was forced to decide how to cover the rapidly emerging story.

Back in New York, Jackson continued to report from ACC’s offices. At street level, Donald and Day were amazed at the emerging scene. Thousands of panicked New Yorkers were fleeing the burning Trade Towers. Day set up his portable live-shot antenna and began shooting the scene from the ground. Donald attempted to call Jackson, but cell phone service was disrupted due to the crash. ACC, a minor player in the news scene in New York, had a transmission tower positioned on the Empire State Building instead of the more desirable location atop the World Trade Centers. The live truck was parked in a garage less than two blocks from the Twin Towers.

The combination of the location of the signal tower and the proximity of the parking place proved fortuitous on Sept. 11, when the crashes prevented many other news outlets from broadcasting live from the scene. Day was able to start beaming a signal back to the New York office, which in turn sent the signal to Chicago. Moments after the two incidents, ACC was the only broadcast outlet with live pictures from the scene.

As Day focused on the flow of people away from the Twin Towers, he couldn’t help but shoot the rubble from the crash strewn across the courtyard between the towers. While Day consciously attempted to avoid shooting the human remains scattered among the destruction, he was unable to completely avoid capturing images of the tremendous loss of life while shooting the scene.

While Day picked his way through the rubble, he noticed a series of dull thumps to his left. He turned to identify the source of the noise and captured the footage of a body as it crashed to the pavement. Day traced the path of the body and shot footage of paper and building fragments as they rained upon the courtyard.

Before he could fully assess the nature of his video, he captured another body as it descended from the upper reaches of the burning Tower One. He followed it with his camera until it disappeared behind a large statue in the courtyard. The statue obscured the final second of the descent, but the thud as the body hit the ground was still audible above the din.

Less than 20 minutes after setting up the live shot, police forcibly removed everyone from the area surrounding the Trade Centers. Donald and Day set up outside police barricades two blocks away and were able to conduct several interviews with eyewitnesses to the events. One tourist had a videotape of the second plane crash; he happened to point his video camera up just in time to capture the second plane striking the southern tower. Donald convinced the tourist to let him borrow the tape to play on the air.

Because ACC was the only news outlet with the ability to go live near the scene, it was able to immediately broadcast a street-level perspective of the towers as they collapsed. The live shot also captured the abject fear on the faces of people as they hurriedly evacuated the scene. ACC’s Washington Bureau was on the scene at the Pentagon and was able to show viewers the destruction in the nation’s capital. The FAA ban on flights prevented ACC from sending a crew to cover the crash scene in western Pennsylvania.

At 11:30 a.m., Nyugen received a call from her counterpart at CBS. CBS’s Pittsburgh affiliate sent a team to the crash site in western Pennsylvania and was broadcasting from the scene there. Because of communications problems, however, CBS’s coverage in New York was limited to distant shots of the scene and reporting from the studio. The CBS executive proposed sharing video to compensate for the shortcomings in both networks’ coverage. Within minutes, ABC, NBC and CNN called with similar requests.

After the initial burst of news surrounding the crashes, reporters scrambled to find new angles to the attacks. As Donald searched for potential interviewees, a man walked past her position near a police barricade. Donald stopped the man – who appeared extremely distraught – to inquire about his situation. The man said that he was a firefighter scheduled to work that morning. His young child was ill, so he had arranged to report for duty late that morning. When he learned of the crash, he knew that his fellow firefighters would have been the first called to the scene. He reported in to assist but discovered that his group was already on the scene. When the towers collapsed, he was certain that all of his co-workers had been inside.

The firefighter broke down in tears during the interview and left without giving Donald an opportunity to get any background information. Donald repeatedly asked the man for more details about his identity, but the firefighter refused to disclose his name or the firefighting unit. Day transmitted the tape to the New York office, but it was up to Nyugen to decide whether to use the tape.

Donald interviewed several more passers-by before turning her attention to the police stationed at the barricade. While talking to one officer, she distinctly heard the dispatcher directing police officers to the location of some trapped victims. The dispatcher said that police received phone calls claiming that people were trapped in the collapsed lobby of one of the hotels near the Twin Towers.

When Donald questioned the police officer about the reports, he said that central dispatch had been receiving calls all morning. Donald knew that her own cell phone did not work after the crash, but was not sure that other cell phones were unable to get service. The police officer also repeated reports that firefighters could hear some people knocking from within the wreckage. Donald wanted to share this information on her next scheduled live shot but checked with Nyugen before including the information.

THE RESPONSES: How the leaders handled the case

As the events develop, how much speculation by your anchors would you allow on the air? Does the media have a responsibility to temper the speculation right after a major event? Since most viewers were leaping to their own conclusions, should the media do what they can to put the events into context – even if that context involves speculation?

Bill McCloskey (Director of Media Relations, BellSouth, Washington, D.C.): Speculation by anchors doesn’t belong on the air. But the line is thin. Certainly a reporter can report that a Boeing 737 can carry up to xxx passengers, or that xx,xxx people work in the World Trade Center every day, but to add those figures up and come up with a number of potential dead isn’t reporting, it is speculation. The media has a duty to avoid speculation all the time, not just after a major event. There is very little that can be done to control what an interview subject says during a live interview, but it is the reporter’s responsibility to point out that something said by the person being interviewed is only speculation. Events can be put into context without speculation.

Arlene Morgan (Assistant Dean, Columbia Graduate School of Journalism): I would keep the speculation to a minimum and send out continual on-air reminders that no one knows what is going on and that the speculation is only that. In the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, Islamic terrorists were suspected and that turned out not to be the case. We need to tone down that type of rhetoric and remind viewers that what they hear from the “talking head” type of shows is not news. Stick to the facts. One of our jobs is to keep the viewers from jumping to false conclusions. In this case, TV has an important responsibility to keep the hysterics and speculation out of the coverage, especially in view of the retaliation some people on the street could take against innocents who are the subject of the finger-pointing. I refuse to be led by the viewers. It is our job to lead them with facts, not pander to their fears.

Keith Woods (Associate in Ethics, The Poynter Institute): There is a level of on-air speculation – that which mirrors the thoughts of the public – that seems appropriate. The nation, for example, certainly would wonder aloud whether the plane crashes were intentional acts after the second crash. Even the inclusion of bin Laden in the speculation – given his suspected role in a previous attack on the Trade Center – has journalistic value. But all speculation must be followed by earnest reporting and the repeated message to the public that speculation is not fact.

Doug Clifton (Editor, Cleveland Plain-Dealer): A limited amount of “informed speculation” is permissible and, perhaps, even desirable to put things in context. But the speculation must be based on undisputed, credible facts. For example, it was reasonable to speculate that the planes targeted by the terrorists were chosen because, as transcontinental flights, they carried a maximum amount of fuel. It would have been inappropriate, in my view, to speculate that survivors were trapped in a nearby hotel based on an overheard police radio conversation that was prompted by a citizen call of dubious origin.

James E. Shelledy (Editor, The Salt Lake Tribune): Some speculation is permissible if it is made clear that it is just that. The news media ought always attempt to put events into context, even if it means withholding context until more facts are available.

Should ACC broadcast live from the scene immediately after the event? Does the station’s position as the only major news outlet with the ability to air live influence your decision? Does the potential for capturing unappealing images – including falling bodies and mangled body parts – influence your decision? Does the safety of your staff affect your decisions regarding coverage?

McCloskey: If the live shots are newsworthy, and the ones in this scenario certainly were, of course you go live, whether or not the competition has that ability. Shots can be framed in a way to avoid live coverage of bodies flying through the air, etc. Edited tape can easily be rolled into the live shot. The safety of the staff is always a prime consideration for a news director. And, most times, the staff on the scene are in the best position to determine when their safety is threatened, and they should get out if it is unsafe.

Morgan: I think this could go out with a 30-second delay. Sure, [the station’s position as the only outlet with the ability to go live] is an important aspect to this story, one of the biggest in the nation’s history. People are glued to their TV sets when a news event like this happens. The closer you can get to the actual time sequence, the better. But we also have the responsibility to edit the story. This is one of the most troubling aspects of this event. How do you go live and stay sensitive to the horrific events that are going on around you? This is where I think a 30-second delayed broadcast is the best choice. This would allow me to edit out disturbing scenes of falling body parts and thumping bodies that are just too sensational and overwhelming. Just because something exists does not mean we need to show it in all of its graphic detail. Would I use a faraway shot of a body falling from a window? Maybe once to show how horrible the event was. But I would never show close-ups of such as scene. I would order my people out of the scene as soon as it became apparent how dangerous it was. It does no one any good to get killed on the scene.

Woods: Live pictures of tragedy are always risky, but given the magnitude of the event and the worldwide interest in each unfolding second, ACC is almost required to provide live reporting, especially because of the exclusive footage it can broadcast. The journalists should do what they can to minimize the chances that falling bodies or fallen body parts will end up on the air. The safety of the news crews is, as always, a high priority.

Clifton: Yes, ACC should broadcast live, with a five-second delay. Five seconds doesn’t allow carefully considered judgments to be made, but it does allow response to previously agreed upon decisions, e.g. no death or dying in real time. Being the only station with the ability to cover live shouldn’t be a consideration. The question is do we cover live or don’t we? Staff safety is always a consideration in covering news, though covering dangerous events is intrinsically hazardous and a certain risk comes with the responsibility of covering the news. Reasonable precautions can be taken without severely compromising the ability to cover the news.

Shelledy: There is nothing wrong with ACC broadcasting live from the scene. It is a true picture of what is occurring, even if the context is missing. ACC’s exclusivity does not alter my decision. If it is permissible for five stations to broadcast live, it is permissible for one to do so, as well. Which images to broadcast is up to the news director. The safety of the staff must be the highest consideration.

Are you willing to share your video with other stations? When does the magnitude of an event outweigh the competitive nature of the business? If you choose to share video, does that include live shots and/or video obtained from other sources (like the tourist video)?

McCloskey: I would share the video, insisting on visual and oral credit. I allowed [a similar agreement] when [I was] news director of WASH-FM in Washington, and we had 105 hours of exclusive interviews of hostages and prisoners in a cellblock escape attempt. We found that people heard the tape elsewhere and then tuned to us to get the story firsthand. One network refused to credit us as the source of the tape, and we cut them off. (Sorry, Walter.) Once you allow sharing, it would be pretty hard to not share everything, especially if the competition is getting the tape by simply monitoring your air signal. But all of these ground rules need to be agreed to. Someone from one of the other departments can negotiate and enforce the ground rules, leaving the news director to direct the coverage.

Morgan: Sharing video is the right thing to do, but I would certainly want a credit for it. War always outweighs the competitive nature of the event. This is not the time to play “scoop” journalism. I would share everything that relates to the actual breaking news, again with the stipulation that my station be credited. The public’s need to know is, to me, more important than any competitive situation on breaking news. I might save some of the on-the-street interviews or excerpts from the tourist video to make my broadcast more exclusive.

Woods: There are several levels of responsibility and opportunity here. At the highest level – the live footage of a national icon under attack, burning and collapsing – ACC has a responsibility to the public to share its footage (or footage obtained from other sources such as the tourist) with other networks. Just down from that level, though, where interviews with fleeing New Yorkers and visitors are involved, I don’t think ACC has any responsibility to surrender its work to others.

Clifton: I would be willing to share the video so long as it is credited. A broadcaster shouldn’t have a greater obligation to share philanthropically than a newspaper does. Sharing video produced by someone else would depend upon your agreement with the person from whom you obtained the video. This is as much a legal, contractual question as an ethical one.

Shelledy: Under these horrific circumstances, competitive edge ought not to be of high concern. Enterprise reporting does not need to be shared, however. As a rule of thumb, share what any dufus with a cam recorder could have gotten if he or she had been in the right spot at the right time and knew which button was “record.”

Would you air the interview with the off-duty firefighter? Do you allow any reports of trapped victims at the site? How do you balance the need for “color” from the scene with the need to verify the information you broadcast?

McCloskey: The interview should be aired and color provided, again, with the anchor or reporter making it clear whether the person being interviewed really is in a position to know what he or she is talking about and point out that the verification process is underway, which is the media’s job.

Morgan: I would air the interview with the off-duty firefighter. His words and loss reflect key elements of this story. I think the ongoing nature of this story indicates the need to do this to report the drama of the rescue scene and operation. As in any story of this nature, there are a lot of rumors, secondhand quotes and hearsay. You must qualify that is what you are reporting as you go along to ensure that your viewers understand that. As someone who lives in New York and was in the city on Sept. 11, I know how important it is to keep the public from getting hysterical. A key element to the coverage involves saying what is known as fact and what is not.

Woods: We’ve seen enough examples from major tragedies such as Columbine that there are always unscrupulous people willing to exploit the pain of others for the sake of 15 minutes of fame. As long as that’s so, journalists should be extra wary of using unverified (and unverifiable) information on the air. The supposed off-duty firefighter’s tale, while touching, is not breaking news and should be held until verified. Diligent reporting about the “trapped victims” would allow viewers to see the drama unfold firsthand, beginning with the dispatcher’s alert, and that reporting might include informing people that the reports, ultimately, were untrue. In a story such as this, with so much indisputable fact all around – buildings collapsing, heroes emerging, world politics shifting – there’s no good reason to fill air time with questionable “facts.”

Clifton: How certain are we that the off duty firefighter actually is one? Absent some kind of verification, I would be leery of using his very dramatic story. Certainty of information you broadcast needs to rise in direct proportion to its dramatic impact. Thus, reporting that live victims are trapped in a fallen building needs close to total verification before reporting it live.

Shelledy: I would air the interview with the firefighter. It fit the situation and was compelling. Sharing emotion and grief, if rendered voluntarily, at times like this is good journalism. He should not have harassed the man. His name was not important in this circumstance. I would be careful about unconfirmed reports of trapped survivors. It gets up hopes – probably falsely. Verifying facts can not be balanced against the need for “color.” No facts, no color.

This case was written by Craig Freeman, Judith Sylvester and Renita Coleman, faculty members at the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University.