Is this what journalists do?
By Rachel Black

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was young, but it wasn’t until high school that I decided I would become a journalist. I loved the idea of investigating stories, uncovering injustices, informing the public and helping the people who needed it most. The events of September 11th made me rethink my future.

Turning on the television that day, I saw everything journalism is made of, good and bad. I saw reporters risking their lives to keep us informed. Many were standing just feet away from the World Trade Center as it crumbled, and still managed to report on the horror they saw. On TV clips, you could see these same reporters running for their lives as the buildings collapsed, then picking up their microphones to continue reporting.

I was shocked. Could I ever hold my ground in the face of tragedy and danger? Alisa Solomon of the Village Voice wrote of witnessing "some small figures, something orange, something flapping white hanging off the building" and wondering, "Could they be people?" She also told of "a panicky mob [that] ran screaming up the street." Though Solomon says she "got the hell out of there" after the crowd started screaming, she was nonetheless able to conduct enough interviews to complete a story that day, even though she feared for her life at the time.

I wondered whether these reporters were brave or just foolish.

On the news, I saw dazed survivors covered in ashes, wandering past the news cameras. One reporter interviewed a survivor who had narrowly escaped and asked question that haunts me. "Did you see any bodies?" The man looked at the reporter in disbelief and said, "You don’t even want to know." He turned and walked away. I wondered how the reporter could be so insensitive. Didn’t she care at all about the man’s feelings? Was getting the story the only thing that mattered?

One of my professors suggested that "intrepid souls might try to bluff their way into the city morgue to interview some of the workers there about the emotional toll this has taken." Is this really what accomplished and respected journalists do - bluff their way into sensitive areas to see how horrible people feel?

Like nearly 2,000 other NYU students, I’d been evacuated from my dorm near the World Trade Center. I was staying with a friend. Checking my email the day after the attack, I was surprised again. Even though classes had been canceled, one of my teachers had messaged us that our assignment would be due at noon, two hours before the class met. She also gave us an extra assignment: to analyze The New York Times’ coverage of the tragedy. "If you were the editor, what would you be assigning?" she asked. "If you were a reporter for the paper, what would be important to write about?" She wanted us to "pay attention to how the various reporters have handled their assignments," and to decide what did and did not work.

I was furious. Regular work and then some, even when school was closed and some of us were homeless? And, just 24 hours after the horrific events, I found the very idea of analyzing news coverage distasteful. I was in no state of mind to do anything but ask a one-word question: "Why?"

I did the assignment, but I now realize that I am not a journalist yet; I am just a student. I’ve discovered that I am not experienced enough to stand at ground zero calmly interviewing people. I see that I do not have the killer instinct needed to go after a story regardless of its emotional toll on others. Maybe these are things I must learn; maybe they are things I’ll never learn. But I decided that my journalism professors need to understand that we are only students, and shouldn’t be expected to be strong and productive in the face of tragedy. That’s not our job; our job is to be students.


Rachel Black is an undergraduate journalism major at New York University.