On eve of 9/11, what story is the media telling?
Media imagery can play a profound role in shaping the cultural memory of an event like 9/11, and some media experts worry that coverage could veer too far toward mythmaking.
In the hours following the attacks on the World Trade Center, CNN reporters in New York stood on a balcony of their bureau that afforded live shots of the twin towers in the background. They were images that would become a part of the iconography of the day: the stricken buildings smoldering and then falling in to ash.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures A Day of Remembrance: Honoring 9/11
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But for Karen Curry, the network's New York bureau chief at the time, a different and far subtler image is what she remembers from that day. “I can’t forget the photo of a parking lot at a train station filled with cars from commuters who were killed in the trade tower collapse,” she says.
Today, as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 nears, some media analysts are asking the same question that Ms. Curry is asking: What story is the American media telling? Is it standard images of grieving relatives, somber ceremonies, and horrific historical footage? Or is it a more nuanced look at all the complex consequences of 9/11, from the moving tributes to the unvarnished brutality of war in Afghanistan?
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Cultural critics have long bemoaned what they see as a dumbing down of the news into easily digestible montages and sound bites. But at such a profound moment, they say, the risks are greater. The media will play a primary role in shaping the cultural memory of 9/11, and mere mythmaking – distilling the events of the past 10 years into a simplistic and PG narrative – would be a disservice, many say.
“The images that tell a deeper, more complicated story are the ones that have more staying power,” says Curry, who is now executive director of the Kal & Lucille Rudman Institute for Entertainment Industry Studies at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
With much attention focused on publicly marking the 10th anniversary, television news producers, political leaders, and others have a role in shaping what is shared and how it is presented. “They can’t prescribe history, but they can set the agenda,” says Paul Achter, associate professor of rhetoric and communication at the University of Richmond in Virginia, in an e-mail.
That, in turn, can sway viewers’ ideologies. “There’s a social struggle over the meaning of these events,” he says. “Different parts of the American public have a stake in how this is remembered and how it is memorialized.… Cultural memory never really settles.”