Transcript

How 9/11 is reflected in journalism

Lawrie Zion
l.zion@latrobe.edu.au

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Transcript

Matt Smith:

Welcome to a La Trobe University podcast. I would be your host Matt Smith and today I'm talking to Lawrie Zion. He's an Associate Professor from the Journalism Program at La Trobe University. Thanks for joining me Lawrie.

Lawrie Zion:

A pleasure, Matt.

Matt Smith:

You're here today to talk to me about the 9/11 attacks on the United States and the war on terror and how that was reflected in journalism and how it has affected journalism. The attacks on the World Trade Centre were an iconic event. Do you remember, what were you doing at the time? How did you find out about it and what were your impressions of it?

Lawrie Zion:

I remember it really clearly. I was at a friend's place – they were just having a going-away party for someone and someone was looking at their computer in one of the rooms and came out and said "It seems a plane has flown into one of the World Trade Centre towers." And initially they seemed to think this was a light plane; that there had been some kind of mishap where nothing particularly serious had happened, certainly not on the scale it turned out to be. We didn't think any more of it and then I had to drop a couple of friends home and we got into the car and put the radio on, started hearing what was going on, and when we got out where these friends were living, we went straight into the lounge room, put the TV on, and the first tower had gone down, and while we were watching, the second tower went down. It was just the most horrifying and bewildering thing to see, because we realised that whatever was happening was still unfolding, and it was one of those few moments in your life where you literally can't believe what you're witnessing.

Matt Smith:

Now, I find it quite surprising that the first way that you found out about it was from somebody using the internet. Ten years ago, this is pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, pre- a lot of the news websites that we have now. That's quite a significant thing though, that you could still find out about that via the internet, don't you think?

Lawrie Zion:

Well, perhaps not in this case, because the people whose house I was at, are kind of tech savvy. And also, by 2001, I'd already had a stint working at an online media job, which I'd started and finished and I think that, sure, things were different then, but all the main news organisations did have websites then. For me, it wasn't an unusual thing to find out about what was happening in the news by going online.

Matt Smith:

How do you think you would find out about it now? Would the first notice that you get on it probably be from Twitter or something like that?

Lawrie Zion:

Do you know this happened towards the middle of the night, our time, I mean, these days I'd probably possibly be asleep and find out about it the next morning. I don't know that I check Twitter before I check other news sources and when something's happening completely unexpectedly, for me, I think of a Japanese earthquake, it was while I was out at dinner, and people were talking about it, and sort of the big news events from the last few years I seem to have heard about them all quite differently. I don't really spend that much of the day on Twitter, so unless I happen to be on it I wouldn't necessarily find it there. I guess the real question for me is once I know some story has broken, where do I go first? And depending on where I am, either go to an online news site, I might go onto Twitter, or if I'm in the right place, I'd put on a 24-hour news channel.

Matt Smith:

With 9/11, for many Australians, it was a rare exposure to the rolling news coverage, because after a while the Australian news channels switched over to a direct feed from the US. Do you think that this was a good sort of news service for Australia to be exposed to at that point?

Lawrie Zion:

I can't see how anything else could have happened, I mean, this was the biggest story in our life times, by a long way. Normal life really stopped, so I can't imagine that anyone would have been interested in anything else. At the time I was writing about film, for a range of publications, and everybody suddenly felt that the kind of things that they were doing in everyday life were dwarfed by what was happening. So I can't imagine how any television station would not have just switched to rolling coverage.

Matt Smith:

Since 9/11, there's been an increase in reporting of foreign policy and terrorism, and not just in Australia, but notably in the US. What kind of effect do you think that this has had on the news that we're getting these days?

Lawrie Zion:

It's pretty hard to say, because the news we're getting is increasingly individualised according to what kind of news we want to hear. And I still think it's quite incredible that if you take the recent events in Libya, for instance, that the ABC news the other night opened with quite an extended report on what was happening when it looked like the Gaddafi regime was finally collapsing. But other news sources didn't do that – the newspapers the next day didn't do that, and I think while we certainly hear a lot about any instant that's got a connection to terrorism, I'm not sure that it is front and centre of our news coverage the way we might have imagined it would be in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

Matt Smith:

Or even five years ago really I suppose.

Lawrie Zion:

I think that what really made terrorism an ongoing story for Australians was the Bali bombing, which was in 2002 and I just think that that in a sense made Australians really aware of the context of terrorism. It brought home the randomness of it and the fact that this was still part of a global scenario, that Australians were not immune from. And so I think that that had quite a strong effect on bringing both Indonesia into the news a lot more, and also I suppose, coverage of the domestic political response to terrorism also became a big kind of new story.

Matt Smith:

So we need that personal connection, do you think, to make the news more apparent to us?

Lawrie Zion:

I'm not sure that we need it. I think that Australians definitely identified with the victims of 9/11. There were certainly Australians killed in 9/11 and that was a big news story as well at the time. So I think that Australians do identify with the terrorist attacks in the States, with the London bombings, all those sorts of things, because there is always the thought it could happen here, or it's happened in a situation that we can relate to.

Matt Smith:

One thing that has occurred to me is that we may be suffering from almost fatigue of the type of news after ten years and that maybe we're becoming a lot more inward-focusing now with our news coverage now and what news we don't digest.

Lawrie Zion:

I think Australian domestic news does tend to look inwards, but I think that one thing that constantly reminds us of the connection between terrorism and our own world, is the shocking death toll of Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, and the fact that we are involved in a war that was really created as a kind of war on terror.

Matt Smith:

How do you find Australian journalists interacting in overseas war territory? In America they're quite big on embedded journalism – here it's not so much of a practice. So what do you think of the function of Australian journalism overseas?

Lawrie Zion:

It's really hard to answer that question, because, as you say, American journalists get embedded within the US military and in a way, our journalists who are covering what's happening in the rest of the world tend to be foreign correspondents whose main role is not to cover what's happening in war zones, so I think it's very different, and we don't seem to have a lot of journalists who are specifically covering what's happening in war zones.

Matt Smith:

Do you think that the embedded journalism practice is effective?

Lawrie Zion:

Well, it depends what result you want to achieve.

Matt Smith:

It gets a large volume of news but there's some that argue that it isn't entirely impartial news.

Lawrie Zion:

Yeah, I think there are arguments for and against the whole practice of embedded journalism, and I think that it's really important when journalists are embedded that the audience is completely aware of the circumstances under which they're there. Obviously some things are not going to be covered at all, if journalists aren't operating within the relative safety of the American military or whoever's looking after their visit, but, yeah, I just think it's incredibly important that the audience never loses sight of the context in which the report's taking place.

Matt Smith:

In regards to foreign affairs and foreign correspondents, it's becoming more common for Australian media to rely on overseas content. Do you think it's important to still have Australian journalists out in the field, reporting back? Is that sort of thing needed? What perspective would we get if the journalist is Australian?

Lawrie Zion:

I think the importance of having foreign correspondents is that news can be contextualised for a local audience, and I think leaving aside coverage of terrorism, it doesn't really make sense to me that we only hear about America through American journalists. I think that it's really important that what's happening in the States, we have Australian reporters reporting, and the same goes for Europe, and the same goes for every continent actually, and I think that this is obviously a big issue at the moment, because of the increasing expense of running foreign bureaus, and there's been a lot of discussion about how many foreign bureaus the ABC should have, the contraction of the foreign bureaus by many newspapers, and in the States the fact that there are many newspapers who don't have any foreign correspondents at all, in big cities. So I think the whole idea of what international news or foreign correspondents' roles should be has changed a lot through largely economic circumstance, and also the fact that it is much easier now, through the Web, through satellite TV, to access rolling news coverage from the three or four really big players in 24-hour global news. But I often ask myself what kind of interpretation of the world are we getting through those stations, be they BBC World, Al Jazeera, or CNN. I don't think we always need an Australian perspective in order to understand or empathise or identify with a story, but I think that there are areas where an Australian perspective really does make a very big difference.

Matt Smith:

Lawrie Zion, thanks for your time today.

Lawrie Zion:

A pleasure, Matt.

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