Journalism

On keeping one’s head in time of crisis

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, I became one of only a handful of the 150-plus professors at my university who did not cancel their morning classes. I did not for two reasons.

First, students needed the familiarity of routine in which to find some measure of comfort and counsel. They needed to be seen by adults who could determine which of them really needed the help of the university’s counselors.

Second, I teach journalism, and my two morning classes were both news writing. The tragedy of that day provided, sadly, the rarest of teaching opportunities.

As the students walked down the hallway toward my classroom, I watched their faces. Before each class, I sent several who were in tears to the university’s counseling center. In each section, I asked if any students had friends or family anywhere in Manhattan or Washington, D.C. Then I gave students a deadline writing exercise of little consequence.

When all had finished, I turned on the TV in the classroom. They watched Aaron Brown of CNN standing on the rooftop of a high-rise building with the burning Twin Towers in the background. This is what I told them:

All over campus, people are confused, hurt, sad and angry. Professors are just as confused; most have canceled classes. The university’s president has yet to speak to us en masse. [He never did that day, by the way.] You’ve just done an assignment under the most extraordinary pressure you’ll ever have as a student here. Some of you chafed, some of you teared up — but you all did it. I’m proud of you.

That’s Aaron Brown of CNN on the screen. You think he wants to be there? He knows people in New York, perhaps in the Towers; he has fears and concerns of his own for their safety and well-being.

But he’s there for one reason, and it’s the most fundamental truth of being a journalist: When all other people are losing their heads, journalists must keep theirs. Journalists, too, of course, need to cry and process privately their own emotions. But in the heat of the moment, people need journalists who are professionally cool and competent. That’s what we do, and that’s what I hope you learned today.

In September 2004, Brown spoke at Cornell University and said he found covering the terrorist attacks that day exhilarating. “But people forget that people who do what I do are both reporters and citizens,” Brown said. “As a citizen, a father and a New Yorker, I was, and remain, heartbroken by what happened that day.”

I’m proud of what my students learned that day. In the midst of tragedy almost too large for them to comprehend, they learned at depth what it means to be a journalist. Aaron Brown demonstrated what journalists did all over America that day — stay calm and tell what happened and why.

When I read the incessant attacks on mainstream journalism (including some of my earliest posts) as outdated, outmoded and increasingly irrelevant, I chafe. In terms of telling people what they need to know in times of crisis, who can do as good a job as the 55,000 journalists in the newsrooms of American dailies trained to keep their heads while everyone else loses theirs?

12 replies »

  1. I’m a broadcast journalist in Houston and was in between jobs on this day six years ago.. I remember hearing the “excitability” in Ashleigh Banfield’s voice when she was still with MSNBC. I remember being unnerved by it.

    Your’e right…Aaron Brown had the Xanax in his voice, his approach that day. It was a day we–the shell shocked nation that we were–needed sedation.

    I remember other aspects of that day with vivid recall.

    As I entered the fourth hour of being glued to my TV, I was desperate to find something redeeming rise from the ashes of the WTC, the Pentagon and in that field in rural Pennsylvannia.

    I believe I saw the Phoenix…for a little while, anyway.

    I wrote about it in my blog , too.

    I’ll never forget the significance of Septemeber 11th.

    I can’t even see the date of November 22nd without thinking of a young president, his lovely First Lady, an easier, more innocent time and the cold, windy day in Dallas that seemed to stop time, progress and life as we knew it.

    LK
    lauriekendrick.wordpress.com

  2. Denny wrote: “’m proud of what my students learned that day. In the midst of tragedy almost too large for them to comprehend, they learned at depth what it means to be a journalist. Aaron Brown demonstrated what journalists did all over America that day — stay calm and tell what happened and why.”

    I’ve heard a lot of blather about “the teaching moment” in over 3 decades in the classroom, Denny.

    This is the best use of it I’ve ever encountered. Bravo, my friend and colleague….

  3. There’s only one important question concerning the attacks, did the US gov’t allow/participate in 9/11?

    The answer to that query would explain the illegal wire-taps, suspension of habeas corpus, banning of books like “America Deceived” from Amazon, detaining of dissenters in fences miles away from events, and multiple wars based on lies.

    How can the gov’t be innocent in 9/11 when we have caught it lying so many times (WACO, Ruby Ridge, no WMDs, USS Liberty, Operation Northwoods, Gulf of Tonkin, Pearl Harbor, ETC.)?

    In law, if you determine a person lies ONCE during his testimony, it can be assumed that he lied in the remainder of his testimony. How come we do not hold the gov’t to the same standard as it holds us to?

    The gov’t lied to us about Iraq and more Americans have died there than in 9/11. If the gov’t lied about Iraq then why is everyone so reluctant to believe that the gov’t lied about 9/11?

    Final link (before Google Books bends to pressure and drops the title):
    http://www.iuniverse.com/bookstore/book_detail.asp?&isbn=0-595-38523-0

  4. 4. Jeff – Unfortunately, greed, lust for power, fear, and stupidity explain everything you mentioned in paragraph 2 and offer significantly simpler explanations than government and/or corporate conspiracies. I have no doubt that conspiracies of one kind or another do exist (greed and lust for power being the prime motivators), but the kind of conspiracy you’re discussing here is not credible. It makes for a good story, but that’s about it.

  5. “In September 2004, Brown spoke at Cornell University and said he found covering the terrorist attacks that day exhilarating. “But people forget that people who do what I do are both reporters and citizens,” Brown said. “As a citizen, a father and a New Yorker, I was, and remain, heartbroken by what happened that day.”

    I remember when I first saw an atomic bomb go off. Sometimes I feel guilty that it was used in Japan, I felt exhilirated when I saw one on tv explode. Similarity?

  6. #8. thenewg – Interesting point. I watched Hitler speak in my History of Fascism and Nazism class in college and I was still sucked in. Even knowing what he’d done after that speech and being unable to understand the german and without subtitles, I was still sucked in. It remains one of the scariest examples of the power of politicians with charisma I’ve ever (indirectly) experienced.

  7. I remember nearly getting beat down by a black female student here because I made comment about Bill Clinton, who apparently was ‘her man’. I joked that he wasn’t only hers, which sparked outright defiance; she almost dared me to say the next word.

    I marveled as well how on individual that one may never meet has such power and influence over individuals. I asked my (white) professor why is it that masses of humanity follow one leader, the phenomenon of leadership if you will.

    I vaguely remember him saying something along the lines of not being able to realize qualities in you, and then projecting them outward to someone else.

    Like the song Stairway to Heaven says, “It makes me wonder…”

  8. After that crash course (no pun intended) in journalism, your students should have gotten their degree the next day!

    Nice work, Dr. D.

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