Friday, April 20, 2007

Telling Tragedy

Throughout this week, I've found The New York Times' coverage of the Virginia Tech tragedy to be particularly compelling. But one of the most interesting articles was not on the front page, it was on the cover of the arts section--and it was about the role nightly news anchors have played in this week's television coverage.

The article started with a referrence to Charlie Rose's interview with Brian Williams, when Williams said this:

Broadcast has changed. But a few things have not changed: that is, sometimes when there's tragedy, people come back to the so-called mainstream, they come back to the television networks and the newcasts--like the one I anchor. We believe that still to be a societal trend.

After I read the article and watched the Charlie Rose interview, I started think more and more about Williams' comment. I think back to September 11th and how glued I was to my television screen, despite the fact that the tragedy was unfolding practically outside my Manhattan apartment window.
There's something inexplicably reassuring about the connection you can have with a television anchor. Of the many memories I have of September 11th, one of the strongest is of watching Peter Jennings for what felt like 76 hours straight. There was a comfort in seeing his mix of steadfast composure and insupressable grief.
I agree with Williams that the role of newcasters as protectors and informers is never more apparent than during a tragedy. But I also, like The New York Times reporter, found the nightly news coverage this week a little too effusive. Perhaps the difference was my own proximity to the tragedy. Perhaps the difference was the danger I felt during one and the pure grief I felt in the other.
But perhaps the difference was simply the reality that, with each new tragedy, the media is more and more prepared. On September 11th, it seemed that newcasters were trying to remain composed and neutral but physically couldn't because of their own overwhelming grief. This week, it seemed the newcasters made a choice to show their grief and to make their own presence particularly emotionally driven. It's a subtle difference, but one that I think translates dramatically.
The Times writer, Alessandra Stanley, pointed out Katie Couric's quick arrival in Virginia--only to set up shop inside the Alumni Club, from where she conducted interviews that felt particularly like a psychologist's session. The notable exception, Stanley said, was Charles Gibson. Not only did he wait a day before traveling to Virginia, but he also remained significantly more composed throughout his coverage.
When tragedy strikes, all eyes may turn back to traditional television news. But there's a delicate balance to walk as a newscaster when those eyes are turned.


At Saturday, April 21, 2007, Blogger MK said...

That is an interesting observation (or assertion) by Williams. Personally I made a point to watch him Monday night, even though I am a much more casual watcher of nightly news (usually a quick dose of CNN does the trick). I was startled by how quickly the NBC Nightly News team moved down to Blacksburg but I appreciated it. For some reason, it felt like this event was much more important. There wasn't just a reporter from NBC there, the face of NBC news was there, in a black trenchcoat standing on a hill with wind in his face. Whoever made the decision - or was stuck with the option - of broadcasting from that grassy field, I thought it worked well. There was no fancy studio; it felt like there was just a camera and Williams and a parade of interviewees. I took comfort in it and didn't think about flipping to CNN or checking the Web once.

At Saturday, April 21, 2007, Blogger MW said...

I remember when Dan Rather was on Letterman after 9/11, and for a split second, he broke down. Letterman told Rather to take care of himself and went to commercial. When they got back, I recall Rather saying something like "it's my job not to show it," i.e. keep his cool.

I always thought that was curious because some of the most poignant moments in television is when broadcasters do show it, like Cronkite announcing JFK's death. Then again, maybe those moments carry more impact because we're used to seeing anchors doing their job.


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