In the Newsroom When Disaster Strikes

Jill Kester Locantore is this year’s APS-AAAS Media Fellow. She began her year-long internship with the Richmond Times-Dispatch on September 10. In the following report, she describes what it was like to be in a newsroom when the terrorist attacks took place.
On the second day of my internship as the APS-AAAS Media Fellow, terror struck. I walked into the office just in time to witness the worst terrorist attacks in history. Although I was in the Richmond Times-Dispatch newsroom, far away from the disasters unfolding in Washington and New York, I was in the middle of the action.

At first, having accomplished little more than setting up an e-mail account the day before, I wasn’t able to do much besides stand by and watch helplessly. The editors met and swiftly decided to print an Extra edition (the first in decades), and the newsroom buzzed as journalists, editors, photographers, and graphic designers scrambled to meet the mid-afternoon deadline.

I was struck by several things that day. First, I was amazed at the relative calm that pervaded the newsroom. Everyone was soft spoken, and deliberate in their movements. There was a job to be done, and all eyes were focused on it. If anything, the newsroom is more crazy when the pressure is off.

Second, as I sat in on the editorial meeting, I developed an appreciation for the amount of thought and insight that goes into deciding what stories should be covered by a newspaper. The speed at which the editors were able to think through the implications of the attack and what aspects of daily life would be affected made my head spin. Some of those things wouldn’t have occurred to me until days later. It was obvious that everyone at the Times-Dispatch took very seriously their obligation to keep the public informed, and to be accurate.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the day was the debate over what the headline of the Extra should be. “Acts of War” was mentioned in an early editorial meeting, and quickly rejected. But the word “war” kept coming up. What is war? Was the word “attack” enough to describe what happened? Is this a new kind of war? Or would using the word “war” come dangerously close to yellow journalism? Ultimately, “Acts of War” was the headline finally adopted, but not without dissent. Interestingly, of the dozens of Extras I saw in the following days, the Times-Dispatch was the only one with the word “war” in the headline.

As the magnitude of the event became clear, I was pulled off the science beat and assigned to stories related to the tragedy, namely stories about the American Red Cross and blood donation. My first byline (as co-author) appeared Wednesday. On Wednesday, I was sent to the local blood donation center to interview donors for a story that appeared Thursday. For Friday’s paper, I interviewed psychologists about post traumatic stress disorder, and I had a story in Saturday’s paper about the Army National Guard flying blood samples to Minnesota for testing. It was a very full week, and I already had a total of four bylines.

My background in psychology has been very useful, given recent events. I am in the process of writing an story about the psychology of altruism, especially as it relates to the outpouring of help after the attacks.

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