The Daily Iowan

Daily Iowan journalists reflect on covering 9/11

ALLIE WRIGHT

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Lisa Rossi drove all night from Iowa City to reach Ground Zero on Sept. 11, 2001.

That night and for the next few days, the former Daily Iowan news editor and reporter led a team of four college journalists in the most intense breaking-news exercise of their careers.

Rossi, 30, who now works as an associate local editor with Patch.com in Maryland, recalls that Tuesday morning 10 years ago. She went to work, unsure of what her assignment would be.

“I remember I just showed up to the newsroom that day, you know, wondering how I could help, and [Editor-in-Chief Joseph Plambeck] was just like, ‘You’re going to New York City. You’re doing this. And you’re going to lead a team of people to get coverage from there,’ ” said Rossi (then Livermore).

“And that was it.”

Since that day — the day journalists had to adapt to a changed national atmosphere — the news media have also changed.

According to analysis of evening news by Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, Journalism.org, news content since 9/11 has strayed from reporting on domestic issues and focused more on foreign-policy issues and global conflict.

The importance of religion has also increased in daily news. Hagit Limor, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists wrote in her media blog that journalists “discovered” religion when Islam emerged as a point of interest and, for some, fear. Journalists now pay more attention to how religion affects social, economic, and political decisions, Limor wrote.

But before these long-term changes came about, journalists had to react instantly on 9/11. One expert said news reporters had to fall back on basic journalistic instincts.

“It’s not the kind of thing you could plan ahead for,” said Ralph Izard, the former interim dean of the Louisiana State University Manship School of Mass Communication and the author of Lessons from Ground Zero. “As a result of this, they started doing the kind of journalism that is the hallmark of greatness.”

Izard said reporters who covered the three attacks were able to produce quality journalism despite the short time period and a lack of equipment.

They were forced to track down anyone they could on the streets and report solely on “straight, factual material,” he said, because no one knew anything further. City officials were not primary sources because no one knew details about the attacks right away.

James Carey, the former CBS professor of international journalism at Columbia University, wrote in the article “Journalism After September 11” that the most immediate and widespread effect of 9/11 was to “draw journalists back within the body politic.” In this way, Carey wrote, the growing distance between the press and the public was not acceptable anymore.

Izard said this return to more personal journalism was necessary.

“That has been something over the years that too many in the media have gotten away from,” he said. “They talk to the officials and believe that that is coverage. For Sept. 11, they were forced to go to the people.”

For Rossi, that was all she could do when the four DI reporters arrived in New York City.

Rossi and her team threw on their Daily Iowan T-shirts and hoped someone, anyone, would talk.

She approached volunteers at Ground Zero and finally got someone to talk. First he babbled, she said, but then he started to focus and speak to her about what he was seeing.

“I have never seen someone with that look on his face,” she said. “He was wearing a white suit covered in ash. That ash was the remains of the buildings and the people who were in those buildings.”

Covering the terrorist attacks took a toll on her. After coming back to Iowa, she considered leaving journalism forever.

“I thought, there was just so much misery in the world, and I don’t know if, personally, I could handle that,” Rossi said, noting that she took a couple of weeks off from the DI.

But the work wasn’t limited to New York City coverage. DI employees and leaders scrapped all the stories planned for the day and instead published nearly 20 original stories with an Iowa City angle.

“We had people all over Iowa City,” Plambeck said. “Talking to professors, talking to students, talking to all kinds of people about what it meant for the city.”

Ryan Foley, the DI managing editor at the time who now works as a reporter for the Associated Press in Iowa City, reminisced as he skimmed through the DI coverage from 10 years ago.

“It’s an incredible learning experience, and that’s what it was the most,” he said. “How to react quickly, how to make good decisions, how to try to tackle a huge story like that from a lot of different angles.”

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