There Is No Room for History to Repeat Itself in Journalism

by Ally Daskalopoulos

I was 6 years old when terrorists attacked the twin towers on 9/11/2001, and I remember that day vividly. I was sitting in my kindergarten classroom watching the look on my teacher’s face. She was crying. All the students were soon brought together in a big room, used only for important events or meetings. It was cold, and voices always echoed off the walls. It was called the multi-purpose room. I remember thinking something bad was going to happen. Little did I know, it already had.

At 6, I knew smoke was bad. I knew fire was bad. I knew buildings falling were dangerous. Except, I couldn’t put the pieces together. It was like a puzzle. That was before I knew where New York or Afghanistan is located. It was before I knew the circumstances around those events, and it was well before I knew I wanted to be a journalist.

This year marked 20 years after 9/11, and the puzzle remains with lots of unanswered questions about that day including, who all the victims of 9/11 really were. The world is a different place, and now I am a journalist and I understand more about what happened on that day. So many catastrophes and disasters have happened in the past two decades, but for whatever reason, 9/11 remains the most common comparison for journalists who should be more cautious in language used to relate one tragedy and its casualties to another.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve heard comparisons to 9/11 everywhere. Originally, it was a disturbance. “The greatest disruption to American life since 9/11,” as Scott Pelley of 60 Minutes said.  As the pandemic progressed, many lost their lives to the virus. In turn, the comparison spread. A 9/11 every two days has described the rising number of COVID-19 casualties. This parallel is not fair, yet it keeps happening over, and over, and over again.

The time has come for journalists stop this comparison and be more cautious with language used.

The number of people who were killed on 9/11 is nowhere near the ongoing number of people who lost their lives to COVID-19. This reality is inevitable when a virus like COVID-19 spreads rampantly. However, the number of casualties has almost become a unit of measure deemed acceptable by the media.

Specific historical tragedies with mass casualties like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, earthquakes, or refugee crises should not be compared as casually as they are. Not only are they sensitive subjects, but they are a part of history that should be left to rest.

It is often said that history sometimes repeats itself. We have seen that with the current pandemic and past pandemics. While comparing pandemics seems like a more logical comparison, we can’t say for certain that they are the same. Often viewed as a rather creative comparison, the 9/11 parallel is usually seen in opinion pieces. Yet, the determination of pursuing the parallel lives on. When historical comparisons evaluating our present circumstances are made, a lack of context can creep in, which can become dangerous for future generations.

On 9/11, I came home from school, and I watched the adults around me transfixed to the TV, not even blinking. My mother had a look of horror on her face that I don’t think I’ve seen since that day. I was scared and I remember always being scared as a child. I was afraid of doing something wrong, afraid of people, of strangers, afraid of anything bad happening. Today, I’m still afraid of those things, but I’m afraid of so much more. I’m afraid that the memory of 9/11 will be forever altered, I fear the way we measure what qualifies as a public disturbance is going to accidentally trivialize valid trauma. Yet, I’m more afraid of what the public is given to contextualize.

As journalists, it’s our responsibility to minimize harm. This includes being respectful to those who lost their lives on 9/11 and being considerate to those mourning the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19. The world will never forget the COVID-19 pandemic. Simply extracting the numbers to make sense of a phenomenon that we can’t yet understand is not acceptable. As journalists, we can do better. There’s no reason why we cannot expand our minds further than just focusing on the past. It’s journalism’s responsibility to slow down and be more mindful with our history and word choices. By paying attention to the details, perhaps the fallen can rest peacefully, without comparison.



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