Friday, December 8, 2023

20 years later, former State News reporters reflect on 9/11 coverage

September 14, 2021

On Sept. 11, 2001, then-Editor-in-Chief of The State News Mary Sell woke up to get ready for her journalism ethics class at MSU. As part of her routine, she had CNN on in the background — but there was nothing routine about what would soon become that day’s programming. 

At 8:49 that morning, she watched as the first attack on the World Trade Center was broadcast on the network. Sell said she was shocked and confused, assuming  this was some sort of horrific accident. As she got to class and became more aware of the situation, she knew she had to head to the newsroom.

“I walked in, and we just said, ‘Alright we gotta get ready for this,’” Sell said. “‘We gotta tell people what’s going on.’... In those first hours, we didn’t know what we were looking at. But, it became apparent very soon that this was the biggest news event of our lives.”

When she got to the newsroom, which was in the Student Services building at the time, then-opinion editor Jeremy Steele made his way over.


“As was probably typical, I was running behind to go to whatever class I was supposed to be at in the morning,” Steele said. “I never got there because I heard what was on the radio and just diverted and went to The State News.”

Steele, who is now an MSU professor, initiated coverage that morning, — a job out of the ordinary for him. Because smartphones were not common yet, the only way to get in contact with other staffers was through an email list. Steele sent a message telling everyone to come into the newsroom because a major story was happening.

MSU alumnus Ed Ronco saw this message and started heading over, even though he technically was not a State News reporter that semester.

“I got back to my dorm after I heard what had happened and saw an email from one of the editors saying, ‘Everybody come in right now,’” Ronco said. “I emailed and said, ‘I don’t really work for you, but do you need a hand,’ and they said, ‘Yeah, go ahead and come in.’ So, I spent the day as a reporter.”

At this point, then-reporter Camille C. Knox was already on her way. She was in her dorm when the second tower was hit and instantly knew she had to be in the newsroom. She had experience with breaking news, but this was unique.

“Normally with breaking news … we’re running around the newsroom like chickens with your head cut off, but this was a moment where we realized the gravity of this thing,” Knox said. “I think we all knew this is heavy, and this isn't something that we were gonna get up tomorrow and shake off like we do a lot of other news stories. This thing is gonna have legs, and it’s gonna carry us through God knows how many more years.”

Several State News workers had friends or family in New York and surrounding areas at the time, as did a number of MSU students and faculties. 

Sell’s best friend was working in downtown New York shortly following her graduation from MSU. She was the first person Sell thought of as she watched the towers go down and began to realize that this tragedy was no accident.

“I was in tears because I couldn’t get ahold of her,” Sell said. “Cell phones weren’t working, phones weren’t working. I couldn’t get ahold of her. The logical part of me was like, ‘She's fine, there's no reason she would've been near any of that.’ The emotional part of me was falling apart a little bit. Oh, I cried. I cried in the newsroom.”

Knox was in a similar situation. Her sister lived in New Jersey at the time, and her office overlooked the World Trade Center. Knox said she was having difficulty making contact with her sister, but eventually was able to confirm she was safe.

“I just remember, all of us went out and did our thing on autopilot of, ‘OK, we need to report this story,’ and sort of having to put your feelings to bed for a moment and wake those up once you were home and once you were by yourself,” Knox said. “As personal as the story was, as reporters, we couldn’t really let that infiltrate the way that we covered the story.”

Steele agreed. 

“It would be like any other first responder type of job," Steele said. "Your training is to do whatever your job is — ask the questions, write the story, whatever it is — and then later, we sort of process the bigger picture.”

Much of what The State News reporters did to cover 9/11 was man-on-the-street interviews, whether that was around campus or at specific venues. Then-reporter Eric Morath was assigned to go to talk to people at the Lansing airport. 

“I was just hanging out by the luggage carousel, and I just talked to people that were getting off planes and people were (saying) that their flights were canceled,” Morath said. “I just remember people were in shock, and they didn't know what was going on. We had no idea how bad it was going to get.”

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Ronco, along with photographer Tyler Sipe, were sent to the State Capitol to localize the story occuring in Washington D.C. and New York City. 

“It was empty,” Ronco said. “I remember there were state police officers on the steps of the Capitol, and I went to try to walk up to the Capitol. As I got closer, one of them put his hand on his gun, and I was like, 'Alright, I don’t think I’m gonna go, I get it.’ ... I remember there was a hot dog cart. … There was a radio on the hot dog cart, and I could hear it across the street, which on a normal day wouldn't be possible because there would be traffic and pedestrians and noise.”

After that, he headed to Case Hall where students were surrounding TVs in the lounge and trying to make sense of the events that had unfolded earlier that day. 

“I remember one kid freaking out,” Ronco said. “He started banging on the tables and screaming, ‘What is going on?’”

Along with the job of writing stories for the next morning’s paper came the task of designing that paper. Then-graphic design editor Beth McCoy was in charge of this feat.

“I’ve gone back and forth about this a lot in my career,” McCoy said. “Sometimes, I wish we had done a big photo poster front. I used to think that, but as I get older and see how the design has evolved … it sort of grew on me over the years, and I can see that we made the right call.”

Many of these former reporters said they were proud of the final product they created in a time of devastation. Then-campus editor Nicole Geary said she has one regret in the coverage, though — the angle of the xenophobia increase that occurred following 9/11.

“Once we found out who the terrorists were and what part of the world they were from, we probably could have covered that angle more immediately, like talking to students who were maybe from countries in the Middle East,” Geary said.

Although it was a challenge to report on a shocking event in a nation that had not faced such an attack in generations, Knox said it was a learning opportunity for reporters to get a more nuanced perspective. This aided her in her future career as a crime reporter. 

“It helped me approach people when I was working on stories,” Knox said. “I would say, ‘Hey, tell me about this person who you lost in this terrible incident. What is it about this person that you want people to remember? What's something you’ll never forget? What is something you can tell me that made this person different and unique?’”

Ronco cited a talk Sell gave the staffers on the morning of 9/11 as what grounded them in the midst of all the chaos:

“(She) called the whole staff together at some lull in the morning and said, ‘I hope this is the worst thing you ever have to cover,’” Ronco said. “I just remember — I’m getting a little choked up thinking about this now — I just remember thinking what a lovely thing that was to do, what a smart thing that was to do, because she sort of reset us. She recalibrated all of us a little bit so that we weren’t running around. We weren’t freaking out.

Even though the week was soon over, the story of 9/11 and everything around it was not. During winter break of the 2001-2002 school year, Steele asked then reporter-Jamie Gumbrecht to go to Ground Zero in New York City with a volunteer group. She did not hesitate to take that opportunity. She quickly packed a bag and went to The State News, where she got a quick photography lesson before getting sent away to a place that was just trying to return to normalcy after a mass tragedy.

“I felt especially for the students that I met there who were supposed to be having a comparable college experience to my own,” Gumbrecht said. “‘I’m in a new place, I’m learning, this is my campus, this is my home,’ and what an incredibly tragic, disruptive experience it was trying to figure out, ‘So, what do we do now? How do you keep learning? How does this change what your priorities are when this has happened in your home?’ So, it was an incredible experience.”

These former reporters, some of whom are now working for major media networks, cited covering a huge event like 9/11 as student journalists as a turning point in their careers.

“Everybody worked hard, everybody was friendly, but that really became the point at which people were sleeping overnight on the ancient couch in the newsroom,” Gumbrecht said. “The point at which every routine was thrown away, and it really amped up from being for some people like a casual hobby or a thing that they were interested in to a thing that they were obsessed with.” 

This past Saturday marked two decades since this attack on U.S. soil that took the lives of almost 3,000 individuals.

“I can’t believe it's been 20 years,” Knox said. “It was such a tragedy, but it was sort of an honor to have even been part of the coverage we did that day. Looking back on that, I’m still in awe that it's been that long.”

This article is a part of our Sept. 14 print issue. Check out the full issue here.


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