Media covers attacks admirably

It has been almost 50 years since Nov. 18, 1951. On that day, CBS premiered its groundbreaking “See It Now.” With Edward R. Murrow at the controls, the show’s maiden broadcast presented viewers simultaneous live video of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and the Golden Gate Bridge 3,000 miles away. “We are impressed,” Murrow said, “by a medium in which a man sitting in his living room has been able for the first time to look at two oceans at once.”

During the last week, that same medium impressed on us images of buildings collapsing in flames, rescue workers racing to the scene, funeral processions for fallen heroes, a president rallying the nation from amid the rubble and an endless stream of commentators telling us what all this means. And while the presses still run for the print organizations, the continuous, live, on-scene coverage is changing the way the public gets news of major events.

The broadcast media have advanced remarkably since the last day of infamy, when Americans had only sparse radio reports updating them on the calamity, and in this crisis the major radio and television networks performed their work, for the most part, admirably. To be sure, the early announcement by some stations that the attacks were definitely the work of terrorists is disturbing, CNN’s rush to broadcast footage of artillery fire in Afghanistan could be called irresponsible, and news organizations should be red-faced after playing up the false report of five survivors rescued from a sport-utility vehicle under the World Trade Center.

But most of the time, the newscasts avoided groundless speculation and sensationalism. Even Fox and CNN, battling for domination of the 24-hour news market, shared footage with each other and the Big Three broadcast networks.

Robert Thompson of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television has it right: “What we were seeing was not a lot of jockeying for future position, but a bunch of news organizations trying to stay on the air and do good journalism.”

Yet this new journalism brings its own set of problems. Even as continuous news broadcasts head off rumors and prevent the panic fostered by lack of information, viewers must be reminded the line between informative video and entertaining video is thin. Seeing the footage of the planes impacting or the buildings collapsing enough times can numb us to the true horror of what has really happened – as ABC News President David Westin realized Tuesday when he ordered his network to stop showing footage of the World Trade Center plane crashes and collapse.

In the end, perhaps there is still something special about the cold (though oddly reassuring) reality of a newspaper headline to take away the entertainment and, out of the updates and recaps, lay plain the news itself.