9/11 and its impact on broadcast journalism

Today marks the anniversary of the horrific attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Often described as ‘this generation’s Pearl Harbour’, the legacy of 9/11 is obvious when it comes to Western foreign policy. However, what is less discussed is how September 11th changed television, in particular broadcast journalism. In the same way that the attacks shaped geopolitics, they have also created the world of TV news we are used to.

One of the major effects of the terrorist attacks on America in terms of news was to not only validate the necessity of 24 hour news networks, but to make them all but essential for news networks to adopt. Rolling news coverage, which we are so used to now, was rare and reserved for only the most serious and tragic of events; 9/11 was only the second time that television networks suspended commercials and entertainment programs, replacing them with more coverage of the attack on America. Coverage extended for over 70 hours on some networks, and attracted up to an average of 50 million viewers a day – highlighting the importance of rolling news particularly when national tragedies strike.

The competitive nature of broadcast journalism reached new heights on 9/11, due to the increased pressure to not only break the latest news, but to do it first. Fox News adopted a new method of keeping viewers informed with a ‘news ticker’, which crawled across the screen displaying continuous updates on the event. Since 9/11, news tickers have become ubiquitous in broadcast journalism and are present on almost all news networks.

News ticker appears at 02:03:00

Finally, 9/11 also acted as a reminder of how the pressure and stress of journalism can impact reporting and the journalists themselves. Anchors who spent hours covering the story began to suffer fatigue and mistakes soon crept into broadcasts; reports that a fire had broken out the National Mall later turned out to be false. Moreover, journalists exposed to the footage from Washington and New York have been found to suffer later from anxiety, alcoholism, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The pressure on reporters to remain professional resulted in some being worn down to the point that they at times struggled to conceal their emotions. For example, Dan Rather, reporting for CBS on the day of the attacks, became visibly emotional as a brass band played the American national anthem at Buckingham Palace. He told the New York Times in 2001:

When that was on air, there was no way that I could fight back the tide of emotion that welled up in me. I certainly have the red beating heart of a journalist. But I also have the red beating heart of an American. There is no way you can be on the air for as long as this, as demanding as this is, and not have your emotions show through. I am not a robot.

Even years after the atrocities in America, the effects of the attacks remain, whether they are in geopolitics and international relations, the style of reporting adopted by broadcast journalism and the emotional scars still felt by some journalists who reported on that tragic day.

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