The Attack on America
Fall 2001




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By Joe Scanlon

Putting terrorism and its aftermath into context
Disaster coverage specialist, Joe Scanlon, reflects on the quality of the news reports days after the September 11 attacks.

For the second time in my lifetime, U.S. network television dropped all other programming and commercials for four days of non-stop coverage of a major news event.

The first time that happened was in November 1963, when John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated. The second began when terrorists hijacked four jets and crashed two of them into the World Trade Center.

Whatever else the terrorist attack did, it provided a huge boost to the sagging ratings for U.S. commercial television. It did not do the same for revenues. By dropping all commercials U.S. television lost money. The networks — like the travel industry — were one of the economic victims of the attack.

Journalists believe that victims will be dazed and confused and in shock and that there is a real possibility of panic. In fact, in most emergencies, survivors do most, if not all, of the initial search and rescue. Panic is so rare it is almost impossible to study.

The fact that the non-stop coverage had occurred in 1963 was ignored. The material I read described the post-September 11 non-stop coverage as "unprecedented."

Experienced editors know it is always risky and usually wrong to use superlatives. It is never wise to file a story about the first, the fastest, the biggest or to say anything is unprecedented. In my opinion, that lesson was too often ignored in coverage of the World Trade Center attack. That was not all that appeared to me to be overlooked.

Take, for example, the fact that the attack was aimed at New York's financial district and was — or so we are told — masterminded by a sort of super terrorist: Osama bin Ladin.

There had already been a bomb exploded at the World Trade Center and there have been similar attacks on London's financial district, such as the Bishopsgate bombing April 24, 1993 — the incident that led most major U.S. financial firms to prepare plans for a destructive terrorist attack.

One can also reach back much further. On September 16, 1920, Mario Buda bombed Wall Street leaving 30 dead, more than 200 injured and creating fires that caused $2-million damage. Buda was a follower of the Italian anarchist, Luigi Galleani, who bears a fascinating resemblance to Osama bin Ladin in the sense that he opposed the state and capitalism. He is of particular interest to Canadians because after being indicted in 1902 for starting a riot, he fled to Canada for sanctuary before slipping back into the U.S. under a different name.

Suicide attacks are not new either, not even from the air. Suicide kamikaze attacks caused enormous damage to the U.S. Pacific fleet during World War II and suicide bombers are a tragic fact of everyday life in Israel.

It would have been fascinating and instructive if media outlets had looked at the response in London to the Bishopsgate bombing, telling us how firms there recovered from such an attack, and had someone — perhaps an historian — help us understand that terrorist attacks on the U.S. go back a long, long way. It would have been interesting to hear from London and Jerusalem how a citizenry lives in the shadow of repeated terrorist threats and attacks.

But putting the terrorism in context was not the only gap I saw in coverage. The attack on the World Trade Center may have been the most destructive terrorist incident known — though my caution about superlatives makes me worry about that claim — but it was certainly not the most destructive event to hit a major city.

On September 19, 1985, for example, an earthquake magnitude 8.1 struck Mexico City and a second one, magnitude 7.5, occurred 36 hours later. International agencies estimate the death toll at more than 10,000 and as many as 100,000 housing units and countless public buildings were destroyed. On January 17, 1995, an earthquake magnitude 7.2 struck the Kobe area of Japan. The death toll was 5,500 and something like 35,000 persons were injured. About 180,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.

It would have been interesting to learn how those two western cities coped with and recovered from those destructive events. It might also have helped to put New York in context by looking at what happened in Tangshan, China, on July 28, 1976, when an earthquake, magnitude 7.8, killed a quarter of a million people and left only a small handful of buildings in the entire city standing. It would have been helpfull — and some did do this — to compare it to the far more destructive incident — in terms of impact on a single community — that occurred in Halifax on December 6, 1917 when a munitions' shop explosion killed or injured one-fifth of the city's population in a few seconds and started thousands of fires in the city's North End.

Another concern I had was the continual use by reporters of words like "chaos" and "pandemonium" and "panic". Sometimes these words came from the reporters themselves, sometimes interviewees use them.

I have been studying destructive incidents for more than 30 years. That research has shown that there are many myths about human behaviour before, during and after destructive incidents. Most of these myths exist because of inaccurate media reports.

Journalists believe that victims will be dazed and confused and in shock and that there is a real possibility of panic. In fact, in most emergencies, survivors do most, if not all, of the initial search and rescue. Panic is so rare it is almost impossible to study. And flight behaviour is not panic. Running for safety when a building is collapsing above your head is common sense not panic.

Some journalists did try to dispel these myths. I had calls from Peter Calamai of the Toronto Star and Dave Stephens of CBC Radio's Ontario Today. However, their attempts were a drop in the bucket of misleading coverage.

The fact is — as far as I could tell — those at the World Trade Center behaved for the most part just as other victims have elsewhere. Many calmly walked down from near the top of the towers, even when security personnel were telling them over public address systems that they were not in danger.

As for the evacuation of the towers, we did hear anecdotal evidence about what happened. But most of what we heard came from emergency personnel and officials such as the mayor of New York and governor of the state. That reflects the media's "command post" view of coverage. A little thought would have made journalists realize that an accurate picture of what happened in those buildings could not come from an official. It might have come from Dennis Wenger* at Texas A & M who studied how people in the World Trade Center left the building after a bomb exploded in 1993.

There are two other things about the coverage that surprised me. They, too, were missing when I would have expected them to be included.

First, I was surprised and impressed at the sober and responsible way the media avoided speculating about the numbers of dead and injured. Journalism texts insist that this is crucial. On page 297 of his reporting text, William Metz, for example, says: One of the first things a reporter does after arriving on the scene is to compile a casualty list that includes the names, ages, addresses (or hometowns) and occupations.

In fact, of course, precise figures may never be known. Years after the 1917 Halifax explosion, Janet Kitz, who wrote Shattered City 72, reflected on this question: "I am frequently asked how many people died in the explosion, but I am reluctant to give a definite answer. I have come across so many different figures; for example, 1,635 or 1,963. No list I have seen has included all the people I know to have died. I believe the figure was higher than 2,000.

Usually, journalists use guesses at such figures, often basing coverage and play on the size of the death toll. That did not happen this time.

Another angle largely missing from the coverage was what is called "scapegoating." Clearly those who hijacked the planes, had managed, in some cases to acquire their skills at piloting and slip by airport security. Something went terribly wrong at the U.S. borders and airports. It would also appear that there was an intelligence failure of massive proportions by the agency responsible for internal security, the FBI. Yet the media skirted around these shortcomings. I believe that the process of blaming does little good and obscures the more important issue of what can be learned. I am surprised and pleased that the U.S. media seem to share this view.

There is, however, one other story that I keep waiting to see, hear or read: who does President George Bush consider a terrorist?

There are a lot of different terrorist groups in the world today and most are connected one way or another with a religion or a cult. There are the Sikhs who have been blamed, among other things, for the bomb on an Air India flight from Canada that exploded on June 22, 1985, when the aircraft was south of Ireland, killing 329 passengers. There is the AUM Shinrikyo, a Japanese religious cult blamed for the March 20, 1995, incident that killed 12 and left 5,000 incapacitated when six devices disguised as a soft drink can, a briefcase, a discarded newspaper and plastic bags released sarin gas in five different Tokyo subway cars. There are the Roman Catholic terrorists of the Irish Republican Army who, among other things, have been blamed for the Bishopsgate bombings and other bombings in London and that city's financial district.

I was intrigued while listening to the President's speech to Congress how vague he was about which terrorist groups he intends to attack. One would have thought that with British Prime Minister Tony Blair present he would have mentioned the IRA. I didn't come across any stories that commented on that omission. Perhaps those who say the current war against terrorism is a war against Islam are, to some extent, right.

This article contains my impressions. It is not based on a careful analysis of all coverage. It is possible the media did deal with the points I have mentioned. If so, I can only say I was wrong and I am pleased to know that.

Joe Scanlon spent 30 years teaching at Carleton School of Journalism. He is the director of the university's Emergency Communications Research Unit.

* Dennis Wenger helped write a paper entitled "Evacuation Behavior Among Tenants of the World Trade Center Following the Bombing of February 26, 1993." You can find more information here.

Photo credit: Peter Bregg