Busy saying nothing at all

September 21, 2001

Despite the shocking nature of last week's terrorist attacks on the United States, Adam Jaworski finds a dearth of 'factual' reporting among Britain's media.

No matter what your political orientation, it is hard not to be overwhelmed by the tragedy that struck the United States on September 11. I feel shattered and almost personally threatened. For two nights I stay glued to the television, following endless news bulletins. I buy all the papers. But as I watch and read, the inevitable thought comes yet again that the media coverage is just that - media coverage. What I witness is not the "real thing" but a representation of it - selection, omission and interpretation.

The unfolding news story is a news-maker's dream. The worse it is the better. In terms of its news value, the story scores high on its negativity, relevance, unexpectedness, competitiveness with other stories (it dominates the news), relevance, extreme effects, the elitism of nations, location and people, personalisation of detail and so on.

The astonishingly rich video footage of the two planes ramming into the towers and the subsequent collapse of the buildings is played and replayed. In real life, each plane crashed only once; each tower collapsed only once. On television, there is no limit to how many times the images can be shown, except one - newsworthiness.

Repetition of the horrific images familiarises us with them. Our collective conscience shifts from treating them as tragedy to a visual icon of modern-day warfare. This icon will stay with us for a long time to come. The precedents are many: the Zapruder film of President Kennedy's assassination, the Rodney King beating, the Concorde crash, to mention just a few.

Ironically, these moving images acquire a certain aesthetic, almost poetic quality. The long shots make the crashes look like special effects (the footage is often likened to a Hollywood action movie; life imitates art); the slow motion makes the movements of the planes graceful; lack of any audio record of the crashes (imagine what it must sound like when 100 tonnes of steel collides with metal, glass and concrete) spares us the horror of the screaming victims and the scale of the initial destruction. An architectural landmark, a gliding plane and the serene silence are not what this event is about, but because of the television broadcasts, this is how we will remember it.

It is not only that the footage of the crashes is silent (disregarding the screaming and exclamations of those filming), but because the event is unpredictable and totally unexpected, that there is no ready script available for the news anchors. Events that are equally disastrous and unpredictable, but expected, such as massive earthquakes in densely populated areas are frequent enough to have given news writers a common, immediate and almost formulaic way of reporting them. When faced with shock and tragedy on an unprecedented scale, human reaction is silence.

I watch BBC News 24 and its highly professional anchors hesitate, pause and shift topics mid-sentence. The reports of chaos in the affected cities find reflection in the chaos of the newsroom.

The news story grows out of silence. Something happened, but we do not yet know what. How come the CIA did not hear or see anything before? Someone attacks America, but we cannot see or hear them. The attackers, and obviously their victims, slip into the ultimate silence of death. The number one suspect remains resolutely silent.

News broadcasts are there to give facts, but facts are hard to come by. So the news anchors tell their viewers what they do not know. They gauge the feelings; they voice concerns, suspicions and hopes, but hardly name any facts. In this case, television does not inform (beyond the first realisation of what happened); it creates a mood and a response, and it keeps on reporting silence.

Members of congress and government officials disappear (they are evacuated). The president has not spoken yet; New Yorkers stop talking (Times Square is deserted); "numb silence" becomes a useful catch-phrase. News is reduced to reporting the unknown. Attributions of blame are countered by denials of responsibility. Television creates a soundscape of disparate voices: heads talking, sirens wailing, congress reassembling on Capitol Hill and singing. It is the end of day one and the more we watch, the less we know.

We also hear the world fall silent. Other events are postponed or silenced out of respect for the victims and for their seeming insignificance. Everything else has lost its newsworthiness. Nobody wants to listen to a political speech or watch a leadership contest. The only reportable politics is that of sharing grief, sympathy and condemnation. The bulletins begin reporting various groups observing one, two and three minutes of silence. Men in suits stand up and button up their jackets. These silences are contrasted by the condemning reports of cheering in a few isolated communities.

Slowly, the narrative emerges, and the power of discourse to create different versions of reality is most clearly demonstrated. Most US officials construct the event as an attack on America and the American way of life. The analogy with Pearl Harbor is used frequently. This is an American reference par excellence. British politicians tend to emphasise the global nature of the event as a threat to civilisation and the free world. The newspapers published the next day (on September 12) are split down the middle. Although on their front pages we see similar, unusually large images of the twin towers burning or the New York skyline shrouded in smoke, the headlines vary. Not surprisingly, most tabloids construe the news item more sensationally as if a third world war has broken out: Declaration of war ( Daily Express ), The day that changed the world ( The Sun ); Is this the end of the world? ( Daily Star ); War on the world ( Welsh Mirror ); Apocalypse ( Daily Mail ). Most broadsheets suggest a localised reading: Assault on America (Financial Times); War on America ( The Daily Telegraph ); Doomsday America ( The Independent ).

Day two brings more voices. The reporters find a script. As the politicians re-emerge and news conferences proliferate, there is more to say. Caveats, refusals to speculate or to disclose classified information dominate (the silence continues), but there is more talk and noise that we can hear. Congress returns to Capitol Hill and sings another patriotic song. President Bush promises revenge. New Yorkers are back in the streets transforming their numb silence to the cheering of rescue workers and the demonstration of defiance.

The newsworthiness of the story brings in the rhetoric of the superlative: the most audacious attack; the single most-expensive man-made disaster; the greatest security operation in American history. There is hardly any more mention of Pearl Harbor as Nato declares all member states to have been threatened by the attack. The internationalisation of the story grows.

Mass disaster is given a human face as people are shown searching for their loved ones and as personal voices are brought in through the accounts of the last-minute mobile phone calls from the planes and the World Trade Center towers.

While the photos on the newspaper front pages on September 12 focus on the explosions in New York, the next day brings more diversity. Damaged skyline, rescue teams at work, rescue workers with an American flag, rubble and more rubble.

The headlines put different glosses on the story. The most frequent headlines herald the US pledge for revenge: Bush vows revenge for act of war ( Financial Times ); World braced for revenge ( Western Mail ); US rallies the west for attack on Afghanistan ( The Guardian ); WAR. Bush vows to crush a "new deadly enemy". Blair backs him and fears 100s of Brits dead ( Welsh Mirror ). The Daily Telegraph echoes the Welsh Mirror (Hundreds of Britons dead).

The rest of the papers choose one of the opposing options, the pessimistic: The American dream in ruins ( The Independent ); The tomb ( Daily Mail ); Let us pray ( Daily Express ); or the optimistic/patriotic: True grit ( The Sun ); Good will prevail over evil ( The Times ). The photograph on the front page of The Times is soft-focused and hazy, depicting the remaining stumps of the WTC as a romanticised image; an abstract sculpture shooting into the sky paying homage to the victims.

Events such as those in New York, Washington DC and Pittsburgh are real. They have tangible, indeed devastating causes and consequences and are not to be treated lightly. But we must remember that most of us relate to them in the social and ideological spaces created for us through the media reports, filtered through someone else's accounts and commentaries, manipulation of visual images, catchy headlines and the chosen rhetoric. And silence.

Adam Jaworski is reader in language and communication at the Centre for Language and Communication Research, Cardiff University. He wishes to thank his colleagues Richard Fitzgerald and Crispin Thurlow for their insights.

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