NEW YORK — Mindful of television’s role as a national gathering place in a time of emergency, news executives said they’re being careful not to inflame viewers or show graphic material from the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.
ABC, CBS, NBC and the cable news networks were into their third continuous day of coverage Thursday. They promised to continue into today, and maybe beyond.
“This is the most important story of my lifetime,” said NBC News president Neal Shapiro. “I think it’s our job to stay on the air.”
An estimated 79.5 million people watched coverage of the attack Tuesday night, Nielsen Media Research said. That didn’t quite reach the level of January’s Super Bowl, which drew 84 million viewers, but Nielsen noted its numbers didn’t reflect who watched during the day.
Network news chiefs uniformly expressed pride in how their profession has performed this week. That doesn’t mean they’ve always agreed on coverage decisions. For example, all had access to video depicting victims jumping from the World Trade Center to certain deaths; CBS showed it, ABC refused.
“It’s been remarkable for the seriousness of tone and the absolute absence of hype,” said CBS News president Andrew Heyward.
“There’s really been a careful approach to the story that combines aggressiveness in getting information out with the awareness that we should not be speculating and we should not be alarming people.”
NBC is being careful in its wording to not equate Islam with extremism even if some of the religion’s believers masterminded the attack, Shapiro said.
Until New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani announced Thursday that 4,763 people were missing at the World Trade Center, networks had generally been careful not to guess on the number of casualties. An exception: network reports that as many as 800 people died at the Pentagon; the estimate is now 190.
There were also widely varying reports on the number of body bags brought to the World Trade Center site.
Media outlets also reported Thursday that five firefighters trapped since Tuesday had been rescued from the Trade Center rubble, but it later turned out that only two who were trapped in an air pocket for several hours Thursday were found alive.
CBS did not shy away from an image of a body hurtling out of the sky, although Heyward noted the impact was not shown.
“It was not some sort of gratuitous, individual tragedy where we were exploiting someone’s personal pain for some kind of sensational purpose,” he said. “Quite the opposite. This was absolutely germane to the context of the story and vividly conveyed the sheer horror in a way that was journalistically appropriate.”
ABC stayed away from jumping shots and has been careful in showing scenes of people reacting in horror.
“I don’t believe that showing actual human beings leaping to their deaths was helpful,” said ABC News president David Westin.
CNN showed images of things falling from the World Trade Center, but they weren’t necessarily identifiable as humans, CNN chairman Walter Isaacson said. NBC showed footage of a body falling once and decided not to anymore. The same was true at Fox News Channel.
Not an easy call
“I don’t think it’s an easy call,” NBC’s Shapiro said. “I don’t condemn anybody who chose to run it.”
Fox News Channel won’t show video it has of body parts strewn around the rubble, said Bill Shine, network executive producer.
“When you have people down there searching and trying to find the living and doing a miserable job, we don’t think it helps in any way, shape or form to show what we can show,” he said.
The attacks’ enduring television images — the planes piercing the World Trade Center towers and exploding in fireballs — were starting to recede. CNN showed them repeatedly on Wednesday, but much less Thursday, mostly because the news has moved on, Isaacson said.
CBS is being careful not to exploit the footage and is confining use to stories where it is relevant, like a discussion about the structural reasons for the buildings’ collapse, Heyward said.
“I think everybody has been using the proper tone and have been cooperative with one another in making sure information gets out,” Isaacson said. “We know this is larger” than a typical story.
Shine noted a subtle change toward a more patriotic tone in Thursday’s coverage. Fox News Channel is using the headline, “America Unites” and CNN’s graphic includes a fluttering American flag.
At least two networks were planning specials to help children cope with the attack’s aftermath. Peter Jennings will anchor a one-hour ABC special for youngsters on Saturday morning, and Nickelodeon will present “Nick News: Kids, Terrorism and the American Spirit” with Linda Ellerbee on Sunday night.
Broadcast network chiefs are taking it day-by-day in deciding when entertainment programming resumes. A day after NBC decided to postpone next week’s premiere of a new primetime entertainment season, CBS followed suit on Thursday.
“It’s our responsibility to report the story as fully as it deserves,” Westin said. “I think all of us as human beings are eager for a time when we can return to some degree of normalcy.
There are times when it is appropriate and times when it is premature.”