Papers Haven’t Changed Terror Coverage Plans

By: Joe Strupp

If a hijacked plane crashed into the Sears Tower in Chicago or a bomb blew up the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Los Angeles Times Editor John S. Carroll would have the same problem in covering the event that he had during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York: mainly, getting people to the scene and keeping in touch with them.

“Our biggest single problem with 9/11 was that we had eight people in New York and needed about 40,” Carroll told E&P last week. “Even when we chartered a jet from Los Angeles, we couldn’t get it out for several days because all flights were grounded.”

Eight months later, however, as Vice President Dick Cheney and FBI Director Robert Mueller predict that future terrorist attacks in the United States are inevitable, editors at the nation’s major newspapers have made few changes, if any, in their preparation for covering an event on the scale of Sept. 11.

Although most editors outside New York said that the grounding of airplanes and a paucity of other travel options made it almost impossible to get people near the World Trade Center and Pentagon sites, they admit they have done little to address some of the limitations they faced in the past.

“By the nature of what news is, it is a surprise,” said Tom Fiedler, executive editor of The Miami Herald, which sent three reporters to New York in a rented sport utility vehicle on Sept. 11. “You have to just look at all the options you have at the time.”

The closest thing to a blueprint for disaster coverage at the Herald is a 10-year-old hurricane response plan, which Fiedler said is usable for almost any major story. It includes $20,000 in a bank account that can be withdrawn at a moment’s notice. “We also have a Cuban plan [for] when Fidel Castro either dies or steps down,” he said, declining to offer specifics.

But for most papers, a major terrorist attack would be covered pretty much the same way as it was last fall. “We think about it, we worry about it, but there is no real way to have a plan,” said Andrew Rosenthal, an assistant managing editor at The New York Times, which won several Pulitzer Prizes for its Sept. 11 coverage. “We were well-deployed, but you can’t plan for it more than being organized.”

Other editors agreed. “It is in our thinking, but [the threat] is so broad now, it is difficult to know which way to go,” said Ed Foster-Simeon, deputy managing editor for news at USA Today.

Several newspaper chains showed their ability to coordinate coverage following the Sept. 11 attacks, and their representatives said those events have prompted better communication, which will help them react more quickly next time. Gannett Co. Inc. papers — including The Indianapolis Star, The Cincinnati Enquirer, and The News Journal in Wilmington, Del. — sent staffers to The Journal News in White Plains, N.Y., following the Sept. 11 attacks to help with reporting and editing, said Gannett spokeswoman Tara Connell.

At Knight Ridder, a similar group composed of staffers from The Miami Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Fort Worth (Texas) Star-Telegram, and The Kansas City (Mo.) Star converged in a New York hotel room to set up a makeshift bureau for Sept. 11 coverage. The Herald‘s Fiedler said Knight Ridder’s team approach continues with a group based at the chain’s Washington bureau, which has helped with coverage in Afghanistan and is ready to jump if and when another attack on the United States occurs.

Still, since most of the Sept. 11 coverage among newspapers was praised and few, if any, mistakes were made, many newsroom leaders believe that preparations were adequate and no further planning is needed. “I’m not sure we need to do anything structurally,” said Martin Baron, editor of The Boston Globe.

Among the editors who spoke with E&P, only Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post, acknowledged making significant changes following Sept. 11 to prepare for another attack. Because of its proximity to the White House and other federal buildings, Downie said the Post had stepped up evacuation drills and reconfigured its three printing sites to allow any one of them to print the entire paper, if needed. “We will be able to publish under any circumstance,” he told E&P. “But in terms of being ready to respond [with coverage], we are as we were.”

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