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.

Lucas Jackson/REUTERS
A television journalist speaks to his camera in front of the September 11 Memorial in New York on Wednesday.

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.

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?

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.”

Ten years ago, the images of 9/11 led to a rush to enlist in the armed forces, notes Bernard Luskin, CEO of Touro University Worldwide.

It also became a rallying cry for patriotism. “It has become a symbol for American unity and resolve. That can be partially attributed to the news media's depiction of the event as the 'Attack on America,' " says Dwight DeWerth-Pallmeyer, director of communication studies at Widener University in Chester, Pa.

At their best, these themes unite us, with stories of heroism and survival speaking “to the best in all of us,” says Richard Levick, CEO of Levick Strategic Communications.

But while 9/11 is certainly about these emotions, it it about more than that, as well, media analysts say. The broader tapestry of 9/11's history includes allegations of torture, abridged civil liberties, and controversial foreign-policy decisions. Truthful coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a crucial starting point, says Steven Raymer, professor of journalism at Indiana University in Bloomington, in an e-mail.

Much of the reporting he dubs as “PG” and a “myth.” Myths can help viewers find some semblance of sense amid confusion, but they are misleading. "They dehumanize our enemy, our opponents, and the many thousand of innocent civilians who are caught in the crossfire,” he adds.

There are exceptions, he says, calling the Afghanistan war documentary "Restrepo," recently shown on the National Geographic Channel, “as visual reporting at its finest. We see why soldiers fight, how fear works, and how soldiers must be motivated to, at times, dehumanize their enemies in order to accomplish their mission. This is not the stuff of the evening news, but it's real.”

It is not so much what America will see on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 that concerns him, he adds, as what they will not.

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