The events of 9/11 changed a lot of things about America. The practice of journalism is one of them. Five years later, the news business is still feeling the effects of that rare, transformative story that defined many careers and set permanent shifts into motion.
The media treated 9/11 not simply as a story, but as a call to arms. World wars covering vast swaths of several continents had happened before, but this was different. A vaguely defined "enemy" and a swirling uncertainty about whether this was in fact a "war" at all collided with the inherently pro-American bent of the US media in all international matters to show journalists that a new set of skills were decidedly in order.
As the thinking of the public and the power structures changed, so too did the media and its mandates. An intense interest in the minutiae of Middle East politics developed virtually out of nowhere. Theological discussions of Islam became acceptable fodder for front-page stories. Afghanistan was, briefly, the most watched country in the world. And to the extent that these changes in coverage represent fundamental, underlying shifts in the way that insiders view newsgathering, professional communicators must recognize that the time has come to enshrine the effects of 9/11 as permanent.
Christine Tatum, president of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and a business writer at The Denver Post, says the press has followed the imperatives of covering the new international landscape by evolving its own thinking over the past five years.
"One of the things I think 9/11 has done for journalism is...it has certainly encouraged journalists to better understand the importance and the sensitivities that have gone into covering various ethnicities," she says. "The awareness of the Arab community definitely has spiked, and [of] the Mideast in general. That's probably the chief legacy of 9/11."
Of course, the ability to quickly learn about a new subject has always been a required skill for reporters. The job demands not that one understand everything, but simply that one knows how to call someone who does. But the difference with 9/11 is that its comprehensive impact on every sphere of society and daily life in America caused the media to accept that all of their beats have been altered, and to adapt accordingly.
"I think many journalists also discovered Islam," admits Tatum. "A lot of journalists are having to go back and more thoughtfully think about the theological differences among Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. People are taking those dynamics into consideration now when they're sitting down to write or broadcast."
The implications of this newfound focus on ethnic and religious diversity are not as clear-cut as they may seem. Unlike traditional, uplifting diversity initiatives, the diversity of this new world is tinged with a hint of danger. Even positive changes precipitated by 9/11 cannot escape the fact that journalists originally encountered them in an atmosphere of fear and confusion.
For the professional communicators who seek to influence the media, it is worthwhile to pause and assess the role that 9/11 has played in the last half-decade.
Coverage of the oil industry is now inseparable from coverage of global politics and war. Public affairs work has come under increasing suspicion in the wake of scandals. And any exercise in media relations may expand into a discussion of geopolitical security if a company has a significant Mideast presence.
The necessities of the moment have sucked resources away from many of journalism's more pedestrian beats and into coverage of wars and politics. However, even after those resources flow back, the reporters themselves will remain changed by their experience covering the post-disaster world.