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University of Texas at Austin scholars warn journalists against blurring of lines when reporting on recent events

In the initial days following the Sept. 11 tragedy, media representatives did an excellent job covering "spot news," but now need to be careful to find middle ground in their reporting, say two University of Texas at Austin journalism professors.

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AUSTIN, Texas—In the initial days following the Sept. 11 tragedy, media representatives did an excellent job covering "spot news," but now need to be careful to find middle ground in their reporting, say two University of Texas at Austin journalism professors.

With the attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., there is a new factor that affects news coverage — the personal attack on American soil, said Dr. Stephen Reese, director of the School of Journalism.

"This raises the stakes and makes it even harder to entertain political views outside the narrow mainstream," said Reese. "The media ‘frame’ of the events began to narrow quickly after the first week. Now, it is ‘America Fights Back’ or ‘America Responds.’ Combining this framing with the patriotism invoked by news organizations makes clear policy analysis more difficult."

Reese, who co-authored a study after the Persian Gulf War on The Militarism of Local Television: The Routine Framing of the Persian Gulf War, said he finds it particularly objectionable for news organizations such as NBC to cast its peacock in red, white and blue. "This is reminiscent of television news anchor desks literally wrapped in the American flag during the Gulf War," he said.

Dr. Don Heider, who teaches television reporting and producing at the university, agrees that some journalists are promoting patriotism rather than covering it.

"And, in some cases, some journalists are promoting cynicism rather than covering it," said Heider, who won five Emmys and an Edward R. Murrow Award for his work in television news in Nashville.

"It’s easy for news organizations — in these special times — to start crossing lines they might otherwise be careful of," he said. "Anchors with red, white and blue ribbons on their lapels, reading news on news sets draped in the flag, can be seen as taking the position that we should be at war."

"Journalists also can get too cynical," said Heider. "I’ve seen recent examples where journalists are not just asking tough questions, but are printing their skepticism in the form of news stories or analysis pieces. For example, President Bush announces the United States will hunt down Osama bin Laden. Across the front page, parallel headlines read, ‘Can anyone ever find Osama bin Laden?’ Then, Bush announces he is going after terrorists’ financial backing. The headline is: ‘Why getting to terrorists’ funding may be impossible.’

"By doing this kind of reporting day in and day out, I wonder whether journalists contribute to a culture where citizens have little faith in our government," said Heider. "Journalists are obligated to ask tough questions, but when their own doubts and speculation are printed as news, I’m not sure that’s always productive. Some of these pieces clearly belong on the op-ed page."

Journalists can find a middle ground only if they are thinking and discussing coverage decisions and debating editorial policy, said Heider. "Too often decisions are made by news organizations without careful consideration, deliberation and self-awareness. Especially in times of crisis, there doesn’t seem to be time for this kind of self-reflection, yet at these very times it may be most important," he said.

Although Sept. 11 coverage initially was good and networks, in particular, provided an essential constant flow of real-time information, Reese now believes news coverage has slipped into the same difficulties typical of other important national issues — "lack of context, focus on official pronouncements, dualism of good and evil and so forth.

"It’s the coverage of the larger more complex factors contributing to the terrorism where we find the performance more lacking," said Reese, who also is the co-author of Mediating the Message: Theories of Influence on Mass Media Content, named recently by Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly as "one of the most significant journalism and communication books of the century."

In the Gulf War, Reese was concerned about the amount of patriotic jingoism that "passed for serious conversation about crucial policy. The media contributed to a blurring of the lines between support for the troops and support for a specific national policy. This made it extremely difficult to have a broad range of opinion find expression in the news media."

Because the media relied heavily on official sources, especially military, they found themselves adopting the logic of military operation, said Reese. "Thus, the success of the policy was determined based on criteria of success set by the military itself," he said. "This is not even to mention the severe restrictions on information in the first place."

Reese and Heider also stressed the importance of the media covering international news.

"We are seeing the terrible consequences of underserving the public for many years in the coverage of international news, thus leading to a public that is bewildered and disoriented when confronted with such a complex world issue," said Reese.

Heider said he hopes there will now be an increased emphasis on international news.

"Traditionally, the United States has been somewhat isolated from the rest of the world and news coverage by most media organizations has followed suit," he said, adding that the problem for broadcast news is the lack of resources. "In the past 20 years, networks have closed many international bureaus. Without established reporters in these outposts, it will be difficult to report this story with any kind of meaning."