Reed Essay: ‘You’re not patriotic if you’re not wearing a mask’

National news media reframes 9/11 survivors as immunosuppressed during COVID-19 pandemic

Sada Reed

When the World Trade Center towers in lower Manhattan fell on Sept. 11, 2001, “billions of razor-sharp shards of glass also flew into the morning sky along with fragments of computers, carpets and office detritus … five million square feet of painted surfaces, six million square feet of masonry and seven million square feet of flooring were pulverized” (Winter, 2006, para. 16). An estimated 400,000 people inhaled this “dirty bomb” of asbestos, cement dust, glass fibers, lead, organochlorine pesticides, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, and polychlorinated furans and dioxins (Antao et al., 2019; Diaz, 2019).

In the months and years following the attacks, people who were in the vicinity suffered from respiratory problems like chronic rhinosinusitis, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and asthma – symptoms of what is now known as World Trade Center Cough Syndrome. These health effects have been devastating. By March 2017, at least 1,319 people died from illnesses resulting from exposure at Ground Zero (WTC Health Program, 2021).

Changing Geography of WTC Cough Syndrome Coverage

News coverage of WTC Cough Syndrome before 2020 was mostly limited to news outlets located in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut. This is perhaps unsurprising. Proximity is a fundamental news value (e.g., Kwon, Chadha, & Wang, 2019; Oppegaard & Rabby, 2016; Reed, Nardis, Ogilvie, & Riffe, 2016). When WTC Cough Syndrome was mentioned in national news media, it was usually in commemorative journalism, and was told through the lens of unity and patriotism, with rescue workers being heroes and their ailments being a ramification of their heroic sacrifice (Butterworth, 2014; Landy, 2004).

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, altered this trend. I conducted a study examining a national sample of television and radio broadcasts and online news texts that was aired or published between March 24, 2020, and March 16, 2021, to see where and when WTC Cough Syndrome and COVID-19 were mentioned together. I was interested in this because COVID-19 attacks the respiratory system, and 9/11 survivors have weakened respiratory systems. These survivors now live all over the world. As of March 2021, the World Trade Center Health Program, which provides medical treatments for 9/11 responders and survivors, had 80,745 first responders and 29,453 survivors registered in all 50 states (World Trade Center Health Program, 2021). New Jersey and New York have the most enrollees, followed by Florida, North Carolina, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Virginia (World Trade Center Health Program, 2021). How would the current pandemic influence coverage of WTC Cough Syndrome, a health effect of this earlier crisis?

What I found was that American news outlets, both geographically near and far from New York City, did stories about 9/11 survivors now living in their coverage area, citing this population as an example of immunosuppressed people who were dependent on others to follow CDC guidelines, like wearing masks and social distancing. Themes of patriotism and heroism framed this rationale in about 35 percent of the sample. These themes came from various sources within the coverage. Sometimes it was from journalists, commenting that “following the CDC guidelines is one thing people can do to protect those who answered the call to serve on September 11th, 2001,” for example (Castor, 2020, para. 10). Other times this theme came from survivors, such as retired construction demolition supervisor and FealGood Foundation founder John Feal, who said, “I don’t care if you’re wearing a flag on your car, you’re not patriotic if you’re not wearing a mask,” for example (Pereira, 2020, para. 39). And it also came from 9/11 advocates, such as Barasch & McGarry attorney Sara Director (2020, para. 7), for example:

If today were Sept. 12, 2001, and Long Islanders were asked to wear masks to protect the 9/11 community from the spread of a virus, we would not hesitate. We would wear our masks with pride — pride for those first responders, and pride for our country. And we would be proud of ourselves, for coming together and protecting those who protected us.

These stories were not limited to 9/11 commemorative pieces, either. About 12 percent of the sample was published before May 27, 2020, when the country had less than 100,000 recorded COVID-19 deaths. About 47.4 percent of the sample, however, was published between May 28 and September 22, 2020. This time period didn’t just overlap with the commemorative period, but it also correlated with the nation’s summer COVID-19 surge, in which deaths jumped from 100,000 to 200,000 in four months. Between September 23 and December 14, 2020, coverage dipped, then increased exponentially again between December 15, 2020, and January 19, 2021, which denoted the 2020-21 national holiday COVID-19 surge. About 21 percent of the sample was published or aired during this month-long time period.

Table for abstractNew York-based coverage still accounted for about 40 percent of the sample. However, Florida had the second-highest percentage of the sample (23.7%), followed by New Jersey (17.1%). As mentioned earlier, many 9/11 survivors now live in Florida. A linear regression accurately predicted that states with the highest number of WTC Health Program enrollees also had the highest number of news outlets publishing or airing pieces connecting 9/11 survivors’ health issues to the current pandemic.

This supports journalism scholars’ earlier finding that commemorative journalism isn’t just about recalling an event, but reinterpreting it through the present. In WTC Cough Syndrome pieces published or aired during the pandemic, news media weren’t just influencing their audience’s perception of the 9/11 attacks’ consequences, but highlighting the physical ramifications of being geographically proximate to the attacks and recontextualizing them to the current pandemic. This suggests that “non-proximate people” in commemorative coverage can, in fact, become proximate when they are removed from the place of the disaster, and a consequence of that disaster can be a lens through which the now-local audience can interpret the needs of the current crisis.

About the author: Sada Reed (Ph.D., University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is an assistant professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication in Phoenix, Arizona. Her research focuses on sports journalism practices and routines, such as hero mythology, anonymous sourcing, and doping. She was in the New York City vicinity during the 9/11 attacks.

Featured image: Aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. Courtesy of the Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. For information see “Unattributed 9/11 Photographs.”


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