Televised Tragedy

In the rush to cover last Tuesday's attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., the nation's major news sources grappled with journalistic dilemmas: How best to document the developing story? What ethical boundaries should be observed? Television news divisions arrived at various conclusions, and the onscreen outcomes produced several successes and failures.

The Cable News Network proved the best resource amid the dynamic chain of events. Though the least watched among the four major players, CNN set the industry standard, immediately initiating full-scale coverage supplemented with appropriate features on related interests.

While the major broadcast networks relied on their primetime patriarchs to quote Abraham Lincoln and comfort the public, CNN provided the most thorough and objective continuing coverage, all without the benefit of local metropolitan news affiliates. (MSNBC, with its hybrid big-net/small-venue identity, was marginally superior to its broadcast brethren.)

The quality of CNN's efforts stems from its philosophy on television journalism. The appeal of the network's coverage has long rested in its breadth, not upon prominent personalities. The archetypal Walter Cronkite imitators on the major networks each assume paternalistic roles in their presentation. But if the nation needs solace, it's unlikely Dan Rather will be its shoulder to cry on.

From an ethical standpoint, the networks imposed important censorships and restrictions. Groundsite coverage was slim, even as the risk to reporters and film crews dissipated. However, early coverage of free-fall suicides from the towers of the World Trade Center proved decidedly disturbing, and replay, particularly on CBS, bordered on exploitive.

However, in sum, the interwoven and cooperative efforts of local, national and international news bureaus produced a near-global synchronicity in information-sharing, a process which, despite flaws, testifies to the industry's professionalism and sophistication.

--By Tim Perzyk


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