Somerstein Examines ‘Selective Memory’ of 9/11 Iconography



By Despina Williams Parker

On the thirteenth anniversary of 9/11, Guernica: A Journal of Art and Politics published a provocative article by Rachel Somerstein, a New Paltz assistant professor of digital media and journalism, which examines the New York Times’s “partial, simplified, whitewashed, masculinized” anniversary coverage of the terrorist attacks.

Somerstein’s article, entitled “The Selective Memory of 9/11 Iconography,” compares the New York Times’s 2001 coverage of the attacks to the newspaper’s anniversary coverage from 2002-2011. Somerstein found that over time the photographs used to illustrate the anniversary reporting told a “much narrower” story.

Somerstein examined the “Portraits of Grief,” brief obituaries about 9/11 victims that ran for months after the attacks, and which earned the Times a Pulitzer in Public Service. She found that the “Portraits,” which once “effectively reflected the financial, professional, and ethnic diversity of the people who died,” had become “more and more homogeneous” in the updated, anniversary coverage published in 2006 and 2011. In the subsequent printings, the obituaries and accompanying photos overwhelmingly represented men, whites, and firefighters or financial-services workers.

Somerstein compared what she observed in the Times to demographic statistics published by the Department of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control. From these sources, which included the Special Master Report for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, Somerstein found that a quarter of the 9/11 victims were women; a quarter were people of color; and though firefighters and financial-services workers suffered large losses, they were overrepresented in the paper’s anniversary coverage.

Pictures of the World Trade Center also far outweighed images of the Pentagon or Shanksville in the newspaper’s anniversary coverage, and the photos tended to depict buildings (the Twin Towers, the memorial at Ground Zero, the New York skyline) rather than people. Somerstein found this photographic focus notable “because 9/11 was about the body,” and the 3,000 people who died.

“Body images may be too grisly to show – or perhaps they were at the time, before this era of widely-circulated decapitation videos,” Somerstein wrote. “Still, it is worth noting that our photographic anniversary coverage of such a watershed event is all metaphor.”

Though she questioned whether journalism should function as history, Somerstein acknowledged the people whose “stories don’t fit the [9/11] mythology.”

“These were people with complex inner lives. Some heroic, some not. All human. And we can honor them, and the past, by resisting the media’s narrowed narrative of loss.”

Guernica is published twice monthly, and features nonfiction, fiction, interviews, and photography “dedicated to exploring the intersections between and conversations surrounding art and politics.” Contributors range from former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich to contemporary novelists to reporters based around the world.

Somerstein teaches courses in news writing and feature writing. Her research interests are collective memory and visual culture, especially news photography and documentary film.

Read Somerstein’s complete article here.

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