A Journalist Looks Back
On 9/11, Los Angeles Times writer rushed into danger to get the story
On September 11, 2001, Geraldine Baum was a Los Angeles Times writer based in New York. When terrorists flew two airplanes into the World Trade Center, she rushed to the scene to cover the story for her paper. To take notes, she used a journal her husband had given her as she prepared to head downtown and to the burning Twin Towers.
Today, Baum is the New York Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times. On August 21, she wrote a story for her paper about her experiences on 9/11. In the article she remembered the experience and shared the notes she took that day.
Many of those notes involved people she interviewed on 9/11 — ordinary New Yorkers put into an extraordinary situation. In her article, she writes about how New Yorkers acted kindly, selflessly, and bravely. One story Baum shares is of a young man who gave her a ride downtown and refused to accept any money from her. Before he gave her a ride, neither of them knew each other.
"The truth about New Yorkers is that we are generally good people. We are kind people, but we have a bad image sometimes," Baum tells the Scholastic News Kids Press Corps. "But that was an extraordinary day. I've never seen people behave that way. I saw students quietly standing on line to give blood, people were handing out bottled water to drink. I saw strangers helping strangers."
As a child, Baum liked to tell and read stories. In the third grade, she began writing for her class newspaper. She continued to write when she got to high school and college. "Writing is the hard part for me," Baum says. "I always get excited about a good story. I am more of a storyteller than a writer."
Her abilities as both a writer and storyteller helped her capture what was happening during and after the September 11 attacks.
On the morning of the attacks, Baum said goodbye to her family and headed toward great danger with a journal to document the catastrophic event.
"I was scared, but I was so living in the moment. I was watching what was going on. I was not thinking about my own safety," Baum says. "When the [first] tower collapsed, I ran away like everybody else. I was cautious about where I ran. One woman was running into subway to escape from the big cloud of smoke and dust, but I knew I should not go to the subway. I want to escape to some building lobby so I would be shielded from debris."
"I always keep in mind safety first," she continues. "If something happens to you, you can't tell the story."
Keeping safety in mind on 9/11 was very important. Lower Manhattan was not a safe place to be. Baum wrote in her journal: "A big roar. 10 a.m. building collapsed. Cop cars going 50 mph backwards up Church. South building came down." But despite the dust, danger, and chaos, Baum continued to conduct interviews and document the event.
She also had to keep her journalist wits about her. Journalists are supposed to remain objective when covering a story. But it can be a challenge when a journalist is covering an event like 9/11.
"All the journalists who work here are New Yorkers, and we are mothers, fathers, and aunts and uncles. Some journalists had relatives in the buildings," Baum says. "I think it is possible to do your job and cover the story and ask really important questions to write very fair stories and try to remain objective. It is difficult sometimes."
She shared a story about a girl that she recently interviewed who lost her dad on 9/11. Her heart went out to the girl, she says, and she wanted to cry. But she had to ask the girl questions – she had to be a journalist.
"It is really hard and you have to be honest with yourself," Baum says. "To know what you're feeling about particular stories, sometimes you have to keep yourself out."
What she witnessed and experienced that day impacted her as a journalist. For months after 9/11, she says she was afraid of tall buildings and she would have anxiety when she got into elevators. She's fine now, but it taught her that mental health is just as important as physical health. Baum also learned that she can manage and function as a person and a journalist while in a situation like that of 9/11.
Covering the attacks was the most dangerous experience Baum has had as a journalist. She had never covered a war, and she didn't know what to expect when she rushed down to lower Manhattan, she says.
But when she looks back on her experience as a journalist on 9/11, she says that it was the most important story of her life.
"I had incredible sense of purpose," she says, "to tell my readers back in L.A. the impact of this event."
9/11: TEN YEARS LATER
The Scholastic News Kids Press Corps marks the tenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania with the 9/11: Ten Years Later Special Report.
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