September 9, 2021

I learned about the attack about 15 minutes after the first plane hit the north tower.

“Turn on your TV!” Nancy Emineth told me in a phone call that, even 20 years later, I remember for its tone. Definitely a command as opposed to a suggestion.

Nancy was the program assistant for the reporting, writing and editing group at Poynter. I was editor of Poynter Online.

Although Poynter’s mission has been refined in the years since, our focus in those days was pretty simple: Helping journalists get better at what they do.

Beginning on Sept. 11, 2001, that meant we had to get better — and quicker — at what we did, too.

Before that day was over, Poynter faculty and staff produced 23 pieces aimed at helping journalists around the world report the biggest story of their careers.

In many ways, it was a story made for the still-emerging world of news on the web. Fast-breaking. Complicated. In need of constant fact-checking.

The internet traced its roots to a 1969 Defense Department system for sharing information in the event of an attack on the mainland. But it turned out that, even three decades later, its infrastructure was not up to the task.

Mike Wendland, then a part-time Poynter fellow and full-time tech columnist for the Detroit Free Press, wrote a piece headlined, “Overloaded Internet fails info-starved Americans.”

For immediate coverage, Americans turned on their televisions.

Among them was Jill Geisler, a former TV news director and anchor and then the leader of Poynter’s leadership training group. Packing a suitcase for the Radio-Television News Directors (now the Radio Television Digital News Association) convention on the morning of Sept. 11, she flipped on the TV to learn she’d be going nowhere that day.

Grabbing a notebook, she proceeded to “watch, switch and scribble” her way through the next couple of hours of coverage, providing a documented baseline of who reported what when.

Later that day, she produced 400 words of advice that summed up the journalistic challenge like this: “Tuesday’s events had the power of an earthquake. Newsroom leaders, prepare for the aftershocks.”

Throughout the day, a dozen faculty and staff put themselves in the shoes of colleagues around the world and offered tips for covering terrorism, ideas for interviewing in times of crisis, advice for photojournalists and their editors, a checklist of story ideas and much more

One of the most visited sections we built that week on Poynter Online was a collection of front pages from news organizations around the world. But it was a phone call from a reader that prompted us to take that collection to the next level.

“When is the book coming out?” asked the caller, a question that led to Poynter’s New York Times best-seller: a collection of 150 front pages titled, “September 11, 2001”.

For Poynter, the school founded by Nelson Poynter in 1975 as a training center for working journalists, the day delivered a jolting heads up. The teaching that was still happening mostly in seminar rooms began appearing with far greater urgency on Poynter.org. A curriculum that still leaned heavily to print would encompass broadcast and online in far more significant ways.

Journalism changed that day as well, of course, and not all for the better.

Chip Scanlan, then the leader of Poynter’s reporting, writing and editing group, put it like this in an email last week: “The media became caught up in the war fever raging throughout the country, stoked by the Bush administration. Casting off its role as watchdog, it became more of a cheering section for the military revenge that led to the ‘forever wars.’”

Not all journalists fell into that trap, of course, with the McClatchy Washington bureau providing extraordinary coverage that challenged and eventually toppled the myth that Saddam Hussein was harboring weapons of mass destruction.

That McClatchy would later shutter its foreign bureaus and file for bankruptcy became a bitter symbol of some of the other ways journalism has changed since 9/11.

When big news breaks these days, we’re more inclined to grab our phones than we are to find a TV. But isn’t it interesting that, at day’s end, so many of us are still inclined to flip on our TVs to help make sense of what’s happened.

And for a while yet, to head to our doorstep the next morning to see what it all looks like in print.

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Bill Mitchell is CEO and publisher of the National Catholic Reporter. He was editor of Poynter Online from 1999 to 2009. Before joining Poynter, he…
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