|Background of the 9/11 Project|
9/11 Student-Journalism Project course sends majors out to interview children, ages 9 to 28, of World Trade Center victims: 10 years later
Junior journalism major Megan Schuster thought about bringing along a box of tissues to wipe away the tears – hers and those of her subjects – when she interviewed three teenaged sisters from suburban New Jersey about losing their father on Sept. 11, 2001.
Schuster just completed a fascinating one-time J/MS course that dealt with reporting the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and interviewing the children of New Jerseyans who perished in the World Trade Center collapse. Interviews with the children will appear in newspapers statewide in early September as America observes the solemn anniversary.
Called the 9/11 Student-Journalism Project, the wildly popular spring semester course was a joint endeavor of J/MS and the New Jersey Press Foundation, the charitable arm of the New Jersey Press Association.
The Press Foundation awarded the department a $50,000 grant to teach the course and simultaneously involve high school student journalists from across the state. The high school students involved were all members of their student newspapers. This part of the program was organized by the Garden State Scholastic Press Association, the state’s association of high school student newspaper advisers.
In the Rutgers course developed by professors Ronald Miskoff and Liz Fuerst, journalism majors learned to use narrative journalism techniques, the web, video, and social media to cover the emotional 9/11 anniversary story. When the course was announced, so many students tried to get in that the department had to actually cut off enrollment, according to Miskoff, a former reporter for the Home-News Tribune.
Since mostly all the students were in middle school when the towers went down, the professors had them read several books to familiarize them with the tragedy, including The Ground Truth by John Farmer, counsel to the 9/11 Commission. Other textbooks dealt with improving narrative story telling.
Students are top J/MS majors
Miskoff added that the 20 enrollees -- including the editor-in-chief of The Targum and an exchange student from The Sorbonne in Paris -- represented the best majors in the department in 2011. Even so, they all needed coaching to improve interviewing, writing, and video skills.
“We realize that journalists may need years of seasoning before they feel ready to interview victims of disaster or great trauma, but we helped our students learn compassionate interviewing skills now,” said Miskoff.
Finding receptive children and surviving parents to interview was perhaps the most challenging component of the course, according to professor Fuerst, a former newspaper reporter and now book author and director of a public relations firm.
“Newspapers gave us leads from reporting they had done in 2001 and 2002, but a lot of the families had moved,” said Fuerst. “Or the surviving parent had remarried and couldn’t be traced. We tried to talk to the reporters who had done those stories 10 years ago, but because of the retrenching of the news business, most had retired or been subject to buy-outs.”
Complicating the picture was that many of the families had really shunned media attention since the tragedy and did not want their children to have to dredge up sad memories.
So Fuerst followed leads from friends and colleagues while enterprising students combed their high school directories and developed a Facebook page where they invited 9/11 children on Facebook to get in touch.
After sending out numerous feelers, Schuster gained an introduction via her mother to the Readington Township (Hunterdon County) family of the late Timothy John (T.J.) Hargrave, who worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. Schuster spent a Sunday interviewing the three Hargrave daughters, Corinne, Casey, and Amy, who told her that even though their father’s death was very public, grief was kept private and that their mother raised them in the “most normal” fashion.
“The prospect of interviewing the Hargrave family was very emotional,” recalled Schuster. “I knew that it would be a challenge for me because this family is so close to home, but I also knew it would be rewarding.”
9/11 victim had been child soap star
As she probed, Schuster learned that the girls’ father had been a child actor on the soap opera “Guiding Light’ – in fact, when he left the show actor Kevin Bacon took his place. Hargrave also had a big role in the film “The Prince of Central Park.”
Throughout the interview, during which Mrs. Hargrave graciously served lunch to put Schuster at ease, the three daughters didn’t hold back their emotions, according to Schuster. They told her that memories of their father’s outsize personality and his love of life kept the family going in the decade after his death.
One of the daughters, a senior in high school, told Schuster that when teachers start to discuss 9/11 they usually try to send her out of the classroom because they think she will break down. “She can take it, though,” noted Schuster. The images of planes crashing into the tower where her father worked no longer bother her, Schuster reported.
Schuster, like all students in the class, took training first in sensitive interviewing techniques before venturing out on assignment. “We felt strongly that this should be incorporated into the course,” noted Miskoff. He and Fuerst asked Mary Fetchet, founding director of Voices of September 11th, an advocacy group for 9/11 families, to assist with coaching. Her organization has a membership of 11,000 and growing. Voices has an office in New Brunswick, and she and her staff talked to students at length in February.
“We have interviewed literally hundreds of families,” said Fetchet, who lost her own son Brad, in 9/11. He was 24.
Based on those interviews, she urged students to ask “open-ended questions and let their subjects talk.” She told students they have to be ready to stop if moments in an interview get too emotional and that there are topics some children may not want to touch on at all. She recommended that student interviewers work with the surviving parents before sitting down to interview the children.
In preparation for the interviews, the Rutgers journalism majors also had tutorials in making videos, learned about narrative journalism, and went through an intensive session with writer Daniel Zegart of Lambertville, NJ, about how to ask questions when reporting that will elicit quotable answers.
Zegart is the author with Lyz Glick of Your Father’s Voice, a book about Jeremy Glick, one of the “Let’s Roll” passengers aboard United Flight 93 that was hijacked by Muslim terrorists on 9/11 and later crashed in a field in Shanksville, PA. Your Father’s Voice was one of the five textbooks for the course.
Another important component of the course were the speakers, who appeared almost weekly. In February former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, who headed the 9/11 Commission, captivated the class as he spoke for more than two hours about the millions of documents he and his staff pored over to unearth the failings that led to the attacks.
Some of the lessons underscored in the commission report have not been heeded, Kean told the class. A critical one is that rival intelligence agencies must do a better job of sharing vital information — an issue before the attacks — and avoid underestimating al-Qaida, whose operations have been disrupted as a result of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Kean said he believes that terrorists will stage another attack on U.S. soil, perhaps nuclear or even cyber. He emphasized that intelligence services should focus more on staying a step ahead of terrorists. "Osama bin Laden has written that he would like to do it with nuclear weapons," Kean said. "Bin Laden said that he thought if there were two nuclear explosions in the United States, we would get out of the Arabian Peninsula and stop supporting Israel."
The one regret Kean had about the commission was that it was not allowed to directly interview detainees who were confirmed by intelligence agencies as terrorists.
Noted Fuerst, “Speakers like Gov. Kean provided a powerful resource for students who may have been only 10 or 11 when the World Trade Center attacks happened.”
Pulitzer finalist shows photographs
One of the most exciting lectures from a visual perspective was that given by photojournalist Tom Franklin of The Record, who took the iconic 9/11 photograph of three firemen raising the flag at Ground Zero. The Pulitzer Prize finalist showed other horrific images he had taken that day.
Another lecture that students sat spellbound through was given by economics reporter Michael Mckee of Bloomberg News. He happened to be attending a meeting the morning of 9/11 at the Marriott World Trade Center and was the first reporter to see the planes hit the Twin Towers.
Yet another speaker, Frank Scandale, editor and vice-president of The Record, recounted his newspaper’s exhaustive reporting of the Twin Towers collapse, the staff’s chilling photographic coverage of the events, and the journalistic portrayal of a community’s grief in the days, weeks, and months after the event.
Scandale is one of a group of New Jersey print editors, reporters, and web editors who have mentored the Rutgers and high school students during the writing of their profiles. These profiles will go up later this summer on a special J/MS website, also in the public domain, from which newspaper editors will be able to download content.
Jennifer Borg, vice president and general counsel of North Jersey Media Group and president of the NJPA, has been one of several newspaper executives and NJPA officials spearheading this project. She attended the organizing meeting and met most of the students enrolled as well as the high school participants.
“I was most impressed with the caliber of the student journalists,” she noted. “Each of them expressed an understanding that the interviews with the children would be of a sensitive nature. And I was touched they were so interested in the subject matter of 9/11.”
According to Borg, the progress of the course “has exceeded” her group’s expectations. “All NJPA members I have spoken with are thrilled that the NJPF sponsored this project,” she stated. Newspapers reporting the 10th anniversary of 9/11, she stressed, can’t produce warmed over coverage.
“This is a really new perspective,” she said. “Young adults interviewing other young adults and children.”
What would a 9/11 course be without a field trip to Ground Zero? On the last day of the semester, Miskoff and Fuerst took the class by bus to the Tribute WTC Visitor Center at 120 Liberty Street in Lower Manhattan, where they did a one-hour walking tour of the towers site using audio guides and spent an hour in the Visitor Center’s five galleries.
“Our students were so touched just by being there,” said Miskoff. “The audio guides enabled them to get oriented and see the positions of the North and South Towers, the police and fire command centers, and the proximity to the Hudson River.”
Schuster said the 9/11 course lived up to its billing as one of the J/MS Department’s most unusual offerings ever. “I really enjoyed this course,” said Schuster, a double major in journalism and cultural anthropology. “It has been a great and challenging course, unlike any I have ever seen offered at Rutgers. I feel like I got a hands-on experience as a real journalist -- finding a subject, documenting it, and going through a complete interview process.
“The books we read were also very interesting and helped me understand the effectiveness of narrative journalism. I am very grateful I was selected to take part in this project and can’t wait to see our stories in the newspapers this September.”
— Elizabeth Fuerst