September 11, 2001:
How Yearbook Journalists Covered a National Tragedy
Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication
University of Oklahoma
Associate Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication
Executive Director of the Oklahoma Interscholastic Press Association
University of Oklahoma
Submitted for consideration as a refereed presentation
The Association of Journalism and Mass Communication's National Conference
April 1, 2003
This paper presents a review of the methods used by twenty-two junior high,
middle school and high school yearbook staffs in their yearbook coverage of
the terrorists attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on September
11, 2001. It also contains a content analysis of the types of stories,
secondary packages and photos included and the total percent of coverage in
107 junior high, middle school and high school yearbooks. By combining
these two research methods, authors of this study compared the amount of
space devoted to the coverage in these yearbooks. They also studied the
various means used by students and teachers in planning these story
packages and in actually covering the events, in order to find specific
themes among schools included in this study. Recent teaching techniques in
preparing students to cover tragedy and crisis situations were considered
as the staffs' approaches of including a national tragedy in their
yearbooks were analyzed.
September 11, 2001:
How Yearbook Journalists Covered a National Tragedy
Before September 11, 2001, junior high, middle school and high school
yearbook students were covering tragedies. They wrote about the deaths of
fellow students, natural disasters including tornadoes, hurricanes,
earthquakes and fires, and some dealt with the results of terrorist
activity such as the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City.
But after September 11, 2001, when the World Trade Center was destroyed by
international terrorists, the student journalists, along with all other
journalists, faced the job of covering the largest terrorist attack on
How to incorporate a disaster of this magnitude within the scope of their
yearbook pages was the problem on the minds of many yearbook advisers and
students in their classrooms following September 11. It is also the focus
of this research. This problem was addressed and researched in several
ways with different outcomes that will be discussed in this paper.
In recent years, covering disaster has become a topic of concern to
journalism educators. Scholastic journalism experts often address the topic
at state, regional and national conferences. Preparing to cover sensitive
issues is a lesson advisers must teach in order to have thorough, accurate
and informative content in student publications. It is imperative that
important events be covered, but the way in which the students handle the
coverage can make or break the published content. It is the responsibility
of the advisers to help students become aware of how to handle sensitive
issues in a mature manner (Boyle 1988). Once a disaster occurs, the
question, "Are methods of disaster coverage being implemented in the actual
coverage of the event?" must be addressed.
Because a yearbook is the story of the students' year put into photos and
words, it is clear that an event with as many far-reaching impacts as the
September 11 terrorist attacks would find a place in the majority of
scholastic publications. But due to the high emotion involved in the
aftermath of the attack, a need arises for demonstrating and teaching
objectivity and practical and responsible journalism in a highly emotional
time. Possible problems include being objective in the face of personal
reaction to life-changing events, as well as modifying reactions and
perceptions after exposure to other news coverage of the event (Irby 1988).
The yearbooks for this study were obtained through the Oklahoma
Interscholastic Press Association's (OIPA) executive director, who receives
hundreds of yearbooks each year for competition from all regions of the
United States. One hundred seven junior high, middle school and high school
yearbooks from the 2001-2002 school year were reviewed page by page in
order to determine the amount of coverage concerning the September 11
terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center (to be referred to hereafter as
9/11). The amount of 9/11 coverage, including photos, captions, stories and
graphic images, was counted and recorded. The number of 9/11 related items
was divided by the number of pages in the yearbook and a percent of 9/11
coverage was established for each book. The books were then ranked from
highest percentage to lowest percentage and divided into three categories
of high, middle and low coverage. High coverage consisted of 22.41 percent
to 2.84 percent. Medium coverage included 2.78 percent to 1.63 percent and
low coverage included 1.56 percent to zero percent. It should be noted that
the 22.41 percent was a high-range outlying number and that the next
highest percent was 8.33.
Advisers from the schools were then contacted by phone and email and asked
to participate in an email survey consisting of the following twelve questions:
1. Prior to 9/11, did you discuss with your staff how to cover disaster? If
yes, please explain your approach.
2. After 9/11, did you discuss with your staff how to cover this particular
disaster? Please explain.
3. After 9/11, describe how your staff went about planning coverage and
actually covering post 9/11 events for the yearbook.
4. How did the students use local perspective in their coverage of post-
5. How did members of your staff react to covering post-9/11-related events
(blood drives, fundraisers, etc.)?
6. What unexpected events/situations (if any) occurred in your yearbook
coverage due to 9/11?
7. Was the theme of your yearbook changed/affected by 9/11? Please explain.
8. Was there opposition/encouragement from school administration to cover
or not cover post-9/11 related events? Please explain.
9. How did you help your students stay objective when covering 9/11-related
10. How did your students deal with emotions when covering 9/11-related
11. How did you obtain visual images (other than localizing the coverage)
12. Were there other disasters/tragedies in your region/state that were
covered in your yearbook? If so, how did that coverage compare to 9/11
Twenty-two surveys were obtained. The surveys were grouped into the same
initial categories of high, middle and low percent of 9/11 coverage so the
data recorded from the responses could be compared within and among these
Review of the Literature
A simple way to deal with covering a disaster or tragedy in a yearbook is
to look at how previous disasters or tragedies were covered. This makes
sense when the tragedy is the death of a student or the disaster is a
destructive tornado. These are events that have happened before, and in
most cases, fairly recently. Staff members can consult previous
publications and base current decisions on decisions that worked well in
the past. However, it is difficult to compare 9/11 to anything. There is
not much similar coverage to be found in scholastic publications. But, as
with other sensitive topics it was important to not let the event become
the focus of the entire yearbook. It is human to over-dramatize, but no
single event should overshadow the rest of the year (Craghead 1988).
Having a plan when disaster strikes is important to any team, including
scholastic journalism classes. While the following tips, taken from an
article by Bradley Wilson (2000) were organized with a local disaster in
mind, they can be extended to a national disaster, such as 9/11. Regrouping
is the first step.
"No matter how well you've planned ahead to use a 'disaster plan,' you'll
never be completely ready for what has happened," Wilson said.
Creating a crisis team follows. Staff members will need to be assigned
specific tasks so appropriate coverage can be coordinated. As the coverage
is planned and executed, it is recommended that staffs and advisers keep
administration informed and that faculty is aware of the task at hand so
they can anticipate the special coverage goals and needs (Wilson 2000).
Oklahoma journalism teachers had to consider their students' needs and
guide them through the emotional time after the Murrah Building bombing. In
an article by Laura Schaub (1995), Carole Heitz, the adviser at Edmond
Memorial High School, Edmond, OK, said that at first, her students said
they couldn't talk to anyone about it because, "it was just too hard. Then
they realized their personal connections and decided that there were
stories about other students helping. I was incredibly impressed with the
way they came through this" (Schaub 1995).
One important theme of Schaub's article was that the teachers encourage the
students to work on the stories and still be sensitive to the issue.
Sharon Shobert, newspaper adviser at Highland West Junior High, Oklahoma
City, OK, sent her reporters to interview students who had been affected .
"I told them not to push it if they didn't want to talk. The kids did the
interviews in the counselors' offices so that students would have that
support if they needed it," Shobert said (Schuab 1995).
Professionalism is a term sometimes practiced and sometimes questioned in
the field of journalism. As topics become more serious in junior high and
high school publications, the question of what is professional and
acceptable becomes an issue with student journalists. In situations such as
the 1999 Columbine High School shootings where the professional media was
often described as "frenzied," advisers must help students decide how to
cover a tragedy so close to themselves and to be professional about that
coverage. University of Colorado students worked on the Columbine story
along with professional journalists. Kevin Moloney, a journalism professor
at the University of Colorado offered advice about the sensitive nature of
"Much of the time we have the responsibility to expose the guilty with all
our voracious investigative talents. But we also have the responsibility to
treat the innocent fairly and with careful, respectful consideration. Let's
guard our professionalism. Know where that line falls," Moloney said
But closest of all the journalists to the Columbine story were the student
journalists. J.J. Babb was the editor of the school paper, Highlighter,
when the shootings occurred. According to Babb, covering the tragedy
brought the staff together and helped center the school on the event. "The
special edition we published helped to relieve some of the tension and put
the students on common ground," Babb said (Babb 2000).
9/11 was an event that tested many aspects of American life. It tested
Terry Nelson, Muncie Central High School, Muncie, IN, a journalism teacher
who was in her classroom with her students, watching the terrorist attacks
on television. In a 2002 article, Nelson described the differences in how
students from several schools were allowed and/or encouraged to watch and
gather news as 9/11 unfolded.
"The true test of journalism education remains to be seen in the ways high
school newspaper departments choose to cover this subject for their student
reading audience," Nelson said (Nelson 2002).
Ethical standards are practiced by professional journalists to enhance
public understanding, credibility and respect, and these practices can be
passed from the journalism educator to the journalism student to be used in
the same manner (D'Angelo and Eveslage 1994). The tragedies and disasters
before 9/11 have been at the heart of many yearbook publications. In
extreme cases, student journalists are called to take on more
responsibility and professionalism than previously required. The adviser of
the Pony Express at Thurston High School, Springfield, OR, had to rely on
his staff to be mature and responsible after a teenage gunman entered the
hallways and cafeteria of the school and shot twenty students. Even though
they were grieving, the staff had to act quickly. There was no time for
"There were ethical decisions being made in writing every story, but the
editorial board did not have time to sit and deliberate over every issue.
Instead, we trusted our writers, who showed a lot of responsibility by
writing highly ethical, mature stories that were appreciated by the entire
community," said front-page editor, Max Barker (Smith 1999).
Student Journalists as Practicing Journalists
In the wake of 9/11 when journalism students were given the opportunity and
encouraged to do so, they became real journalists. The surveys from the
advisers described numerous acts of ethical decision-making, professional
behavior and responsible journalism. In her response to the email survey,
Mary Ann Barton, Eureka High School, Eureka, MO, said that she and her
staff looked at local and national newspaper and magazine coverage and
discussed what was, "emotional, inflammatory or appropriate." She said it
was deemed important by her staff that the information they were seeking
was not portrayed in an over-emotional way. "We wanted to allow the facts
to speak for themselves," Barton said. Also reflective of this staff's
professionalism was that all photos, even some of ground zero, were taken
Another school, Loudoun Valley High School, Purcellville, VA, handled the
photography in a different and yet equally impressive way. This staff used
photos taken at the school the day of the tragedy. "We looked for photos
that emphasized the patriotism or other feelings students spoke of in
interviews. We chose not to purchase or download available photos because
we knew magazines, papers and eventually books would be filled with these
more universal images," said adviser Martha Akers.
The staff at Brink Junior High School, Oklahoma City, OK, listened to
adviser Margie Watters' advice. "I encouraged my staffers to discuss all
angles and gather facts before planning their stories. We stressed
objectivity and following the facts." The staff decided that a small
insert, devoted solely to 9/11 coverage, would allow for more flexibility
than rearranging already finished layouts. The staff watched CNN and
discussed format before planning their coverage. "By waiting several days,
it helped us to gather more facts and be more objective," Watters said.
Adviser Cathryn Parks of Sabino High School, Tucson, AZ, was impressed with
her staff's ability to continue finding events and situations to cover
concerning the effects of 9/11 without being prompted or instructed to do
so. "I didn't expect them to (continually) think of yearbook coverage, but
their journalistic hearts came through. Over and over they had followed
through on getting something to help our coverage. I thought they would be
too upset, but they worked through that," Parks said.
The yearbook staff of Muncie Central High School, Muncie IN, showed great
initiative in their methods of coverage, according to adviser Terry Nelson.
"During 9/11, my students covered every single avenue while it was
happening," Nelson said.
The students emailed other students and acquaintances around the world to
get an international perspective. They found students and faculty who had
relatives in the New York area and began contacting them for first-hand
information. Staffers emailed students in New York, attended city meetings
and monitored the national news stations.
"They just kept collecting all of the information and first-hand accounts
that they could and later we sorted out what would be of most local
interest and impact to the student audience," Nelson said.
Dealing with the students' emotions was part of every adviser's job as the
yearbook staffs coordinated just how to cover the 9/11 aftermath. However,
in many cases, the opportunity to participate on the journalistic side of
the disaster proved to be a positive experience. The staff of Bryant High
School, Bryant, AR, began keeping a list after 9/11 of all the community
and school events that happened because of the terrorist attacks. The staff
planned extensively how to cover the event and how to make sure the
coverage was accurate and adequate. "Being involved in the production of
the yearbook helped the students deal with the event, helped them cope,"
said adviser Margaret Sorrows.
Methods of Coverage
While keeping the survey results separated into the high, middle and low
categories allowed answers in those categories to be compared, it also
allowed for uniformity to be discovered among the groups. As would be
expected in a junior high or high school yearbook, 9/11 and the effects of
9/11 were localized and portrayed in a way that was important to and
reflective of each school and community. This method of localizing the
coverage was consistent in the vast majority of collected surveys.
What differed in the schools was the way they went about localizing the
coverage and how the final theme of the effects of 9/11 was depicted in the
books. Staffs approached the content of their books in several ways,
reflective of 9/11 on just a national level, a national and local level or
just a local level. For example, some chose to use only what they deemed to
be positive photos. This meant no photos of the destruction of the World
Trade Center or the trauma of those directly affected. Instead, photos of
blood drives, students praying and patriotic displays were used. In these
cases, if a picture of the World Trade Center were included, it was taken
before 9/11. Eisenhower High School, Lawton, OK, was one such case. The
staff wanted to use only pre-9/11 photos, according to adviser Brandi
Robertson, "because there was a great deal of tension in the town (a
military town) afterward and they (the staff) didn't want to make it worse
by using graphic pictures."
Another way staffs focused on the positive outcomes following 9/11 was to
hone in on efforts made by students in their schools. A student from
Kenneth Cooper Middle School, Oklahoma City, OK, organized a citywide
garage sale to help the victims of 9/11. This was the kind of coverage that
made it into the Kenneth Cooper yearbook. "We (the staff) had discussed
what had been done with the Oklahoma City Federal Building coverage several
years ago. Being a middle school, we try to focus on helping rather than
the details of the actual disaster," said adviser Gayle Morris.
The staff and adviser at Arrowhead Christian Academy, Redlands, CA, decided
that information about the actual 9/11 event would be readily available in
vast other media outlets, so the coverage in the yearbook would remain
local and personal. Pictures from New York were not included in the
content. "Instead our pictures are of how we perceived and covered the
issue here," adviser Crystal Kazmierski said.
The staff at Horizon High School, Scottsdale, AZ, used a similar approach.
The staff decided that covering the actual event would not be something
they did in the yearbook. They, too, covered only the reactions to 9/11 and
how the event impacted daily life and emotion by dealing with what was
happening on their campus with their students and teachers. "The editors
decided to take an approach of how the tragedy had brought patriotism to
life on our campus," said adviser Lisa Baker.
The staff of Putnam City West High School, Oklahoma City, OK, incorporated
the most 9/11 coverage of the yearbooks examined. According to adviser
Linda Ralls, the entire book was based on the event. The theme the staff
had originally selected was changed to a patriotic theme and the American
flag was present on nearly every page of the book. This more encompassing
approach to 9/11 coverage was different from most of the other books
studied. While some staffs were concerned with negative connotations of
9/11 dominating the rest of the school year's events, the Putnam City West
staff decided that the vast effects of the event could not be ignored.
Incorporating so much 9/11-related coverage into their book was not seen as
a negative move. As was the case in many central Oklahoma schools, the
students and adviser had dealt with the bombing of the Murrah Building in
downtown Oklahoma City and the May 3, 1999, tornadoes. Because of those
events in recent years (while many high school staffers were participating
in junior high publications), the staff had talked about disaster coverage
"Since the Murrah Building bombing, we have felt the need to discuss
disaster coverage, at least briefly," said Ralls. "I think these kids
learned how to impose distance with the Murrah Building bombing, then with
the May 3 tornadoes. I was amazed by their abilities to cope."
At Broken Arrow Senior High School, Broken Arrow, OK, the yearbook adviser,
Cindy Camp, wanted her students to "bring the disaster home and find out if
anyone was directly affected by the tragedy." Student reaction was also
important and the staff also discussed how the world had been shifted and
changed by the event. In order to portray 9/11 to the impact they felt, the
staff used "powerful" images, including "after" pictures of the World Trade
Center. They featured a story about a student whose uncle was killed in one
of the towers.
In similar style, the staff of Eisenhower High School, Lawton, OK, found
out that several students had parents at the Pentagon during the attacks.
These students were contacted and interviewed. While the staff was
encouraged to bring the coverage to a local level, it was important to them
that the national impact be recognized as well. "We dedicated two pages of
what would normally be world news solely to 9/11 coverage," said adviser
The staff of Casa Roble High School, Orangeville, CA, talked extensively
about their 9/11 before they began coverage and decided that 9/11 should
not anchor the book. "By distribution time it would be an event that was
only part of the year we covered," said adviser Dan Austin. However, a
combination of local and national coverage was used by the staff as they
collected both first-hand accounts from people who had lost family and
friends, as well as local fire department contributions and Islamic
students in the school dealing with, "back-lash."
Whether the 9/11 yearbook coverage was national, local or a combination of
the two, what is clear through the advisers' surveys is that in the
majority of cases, the students responded to the task of covering a
national tragedy with fervor, even as they worked through their emotions.
Encouraged by their teachers, students surpassed the everyday demands of
putting together the story of the school year and stepped up to the new
demands of including a life-altering event within the scope of their
Suggestions for Future Research
Participating on a yearbook staff is only one part of the possible
scholastic journalism experience. Junior high, middle school and high
school newspapers, magazines and broadcasting classes were also dealing
with challenging issues while covering the events of 9/11. College and
university publications and production staffs are another valuable source
of information when dealing with disaster coverage. A comparative or group
study including yearbook staffs, school newspapers and magazines and
broadcasting classes would allow a more thorough investigation of
scholastic coverage of tragedy and disaster, whether or not it be limited
to the events of September 11, 2001.
Also to be considered are the far-reaching consequences of 9/11. Events
continue to unfold, such as the War on Terrorism and Operation Iraqi
Freedom, that provide student publications with continuing stories related
in some way back to 9/11. The threat and fear of terrorism after 9/11 and
how secondary publications are dealing with it (the students and the
teachers) is an area of potentially immense resources in scholastic
Special thanks to Amy Welch; OU graduate student; Bethany Dean, OU senior
journalism student; Sara Fox, OU freshman student; for assisting with this
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