It wasn’t that long ago.
I was teaching a workshop for high school journalism students somewhere around Texas. As I do with so many workshops, I asked the students some questions to get to know them a little better.
“When were you born?”
Their hands shot up. 2003. 2004.
I realized right then and there that to these students, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America were no longer part of their collective culture. The events were history.
Still, when I look back at how the student journalists of Sept. 11, 2001, reacted, I’m not surprised. They were budding journalists, just like the students in that Texas workshop, when they heard about the second plane hitting the World Trade Center and then the collapse of the buildings. And, like all journalists, they ran toward the story, providing their own hyperlocal coverage.
Twenty years ago, LinkedIn, the first of the now-dominant social media, was still a year away from starting; Facebook, three years. Digital photography was new and had not yet made it into most schools. Schools still printed newspapers and yearbooks. Only a few schools had websites for their student media. So student journalists of the time asked questions, reporting mostly for their printed school newspapers about how their schools, their communities, and their families were reacting to an event that everyone realized quickly would change our way of life in America. “‘Nine eleven’ redefined the worries of most people in the Western world” (Vasterman et al., 2005, p. 107).
A glance back at student media coverage of the time includes headlines such as “National tragedy felt at AHS,” “Terrorist attacks strike close to home,” “Emotional day: Students watch as terrorists attack East Coast,” and “Muslim students concerned after attack.”
In these stories and many more on 9/11, in line with the mission of all journalists, the students held government officials — school administrators — accountable. An article in the Annandale (Virginia) High School A-Blast noted, “The administration’s response to this tragedy was slow at first, but by the afternoon an announcement was made to inform students of the happenings. In the following days, Principal (Don) Clausen delivered a compelling speech and order was restored.” Students working for the Stephen F. Austin High School Maroon in Austin, Texas, reported on how the school superintendent sent out an e-mail that read, “We believe it is not in the children’s best interest to be watching television at school.” Reporter Jessica Worde then wrote, “This advice has caused some confusion and dismay among teachers and students.”
On 9/11, student journalists faced challenges similar to those reporters face today while reporting the pandemic, another huge, dynamic story that will forever change our world. Alan Weintraut was the adviser at Annandale High School, only 13 miles from the Pentagon. He said in the Winter 2001 issue of Communication: Journalism Education Today (C:JET):
Our primary challenge was finding students and teachers who would actually talk about their experience. One of our sophomores lost her mother in the attack on the Pentagon, yet the grief was so fresh in her mind, she did not want to talk to anyone on our newspaper staff despite our most sensitive requests. Ultimately, we all grieve in different ways, and it was a lesson for my students in respecting a family’s wishes in a time of sorrow. … [S]tudents learn by doing, and putting together [an] issue in less than a week enabled them to test their journalistic skills of assembling stories and packaging them in a way that wasn’t already told by the national media.
Aaron Manfull, then a new adviser at Francis Howell North High School in St. Charles, Missouri, where he still works, put it succinctly: “The role of student media should be to cover what local media cannot. The coverage experience of interviewing people at the Arch and the airport that day were invaluable learning experiences for those kids that I’m sure they still remember and talk about today.”
On the other side of the country at Wenatchee (Washington) High School, students wrote in The Apple Leaf, “It has reached people in Wenatchee who never knew anyone in New York or D.C. Everyone is beginning to realize by how few degrees they are separated from the worst terrorist attack in history.” Student reporters made contact with alumni who lived in New York City, interviewed officials with the local Red Cross, and interviewed students about their attitudes toward joining the military. They asked, in a student poll, “[W]ould you be willing to sacrifice some of your ‘American’ liberties and freedoms in exchange for heightened national security and an increased feeling of safety?” The students responded: 67% no, 30% yes, 3% undecided.
On 9/11, student reporters, including Wenatchee High School photographer Gena Layman, did what good reporters do: They went out and started asking questions. A caption accompanying a photo that Layman took read:
Two days after the terrorist attacks on the United States, junior Marcus Benner presents Dustin Strop, another junior, with the question, “Should the U.S. bomb Afghanistan?” Benner said, “A lot of people were mad because they thought I was saying we should bomb Afghanistan. They didn’t see that I was asking a question. ‘Bomb Afghanistan?’”
Of the 100 students who responded to Benner’s informal survey, 63 said “yes” we should bomb Afghanistan. Though the numbers seem one-sided, Benner said the actual question that he asked was much more justified. Layman reported:
He asked, “Assuming that Osama Bin Laden was responsible for the attacks on the U.S., would you support bombing Afghanistan if it meant killing innocent Afghani civilians?” Benner said he believes that the United States should not retaliate against the terrorist group on a large scale. He feels that bombing another country would only be killing more innocent victims.
The students on The Apple Leaf staff weren’t the only ones to report on such complicated issues. Reporters and photographers in Lakewood, Ohio, went to an Islamic Center to document how local Muslims dealt with the attacks and subsequent threats. Students working for the Wolfpack Press in Cottage Grove, Minnesota, reported on rising gas prices after the attacks. And students reporting for the Sandstorm at Richland (Washington) High School reported on how the attacks put a stop to all sporting events.
As reported in the Winter 2001 edition of C:JET, David Thurston, then adviser at Newton (Iowa) Senior High School, had consistent goals for his students:
As an adviser, a journalist, I realized that our coverage would be our own local stamp to a tragedy that would be remembered forever. We did it because we are journalists, and, simply put, journalists report what is happening. In this case, it was to accomplish three objectives: practice new skills, inform and document.
In addition, in the days after 9/11, students wrote commentary about how the attacks changed their world. “Generations prior to now have had a war to define and mold the American character,” wrote the editorial board of the HiLite at Carmel (Indiana) High School (Val Simianu, editor). “Tuesday, lives were lost and buildings were destroyed, but it will take much more than that to break the will of American determination.”
In a Sept. 19, 2001, column for the Annandale High School A-Blast, Andrew Satten wrote, “The catastrophic attack on our nation, its citizens, and our principles has forever changed the landscape of our lives.” In the same paper, Aminah Kakeh wrote, “Many Muslims have suffered additional grief in the aftermath of this tragedy because of their faith.” With her column was a photo by student photographer Katie Clark of a sign at a local mosque: “We condemn all evil acts, mourn the loss of life, and pray for America. Mustafa Center.”
Then a high school student and now a scholastic media adviser at Cooper City High School in Florida, Fallan Patterson said he recalled how students had to beg teachers to keep the TV and news on. In the following days, he and his fellow TV production and newspaper staff members set out to capture the feelings of students and staff and even of students joining the military. “We wrote opinions about this being a defining moment in our lives and how Americans have never felt unsafe on their own soil, unlike citizens of other countries,” Patterson said 20 years later.
Looking back, Joe Malley, adviser at Zama Middle-High School at Camp Zama in Japan, said his students knew they had an opportunity to share the thoughts of students, teachers, administrators, and staff about a deeply profound event that “changed the way we feel about our place in the world.” But really, he said, reflecting the sentiment of thousands of advisers worldwide, “Every day, we face serious issues such as race relations, gender identity, the wage gap, political battles, COVID-19 and so on.”
Every day students working for scholastic media set out to document their unique worldviews. They report, write stories, shoot photos and video, and post on social media. They produce content on par with — and sometimes better than — paid professional journalists. Just as every other journalist did on 9/11, they ran toward the story to document their own first draft of history from a student perspective. Their readers, listeners and viewers expect nothing less.
Featured image: From the front page of the Carmel (Indiana) High School HiLite, Sept. 13, 2001. View more images in this gallery of scholastic media after 9/11.
About the author: An associate professor at Midwestern State University, Bradley Wilson is the editor of the national magazine, Communication: Journalism Education Today, for the national Journalism Education Association.
Vasterman, Peter, C. Joris Yzermans, and Anja J.E. Dirkzwager. (2005). “The Role of the Media and Media Hypes in the Aftermath of Disasters.” Epidemiologic Reviews 27.
Wilson, Bradley. (Winter 2001). “Attack on America.” Communication: Journalism Education Today 35(2).