Normally, Megan Hopper ’02, M.S. ’06, would have turned on the news to get an idea of what was going on in the world before heading to a shift at The Vidette. On September 11, 2001, she was running behind schedule and was rushing to get to the office on time. As she left her apartment building, she overheard a conversation that was her first inkling that something wasn’t quite right.
“I heard a maintenance man talking to one of my neighbors, saying, ‘I can’t believe what happened. Something went wrong with the plane.’” said Hopper.
Like the custodian at Hopper’s apartment, then Vidette General Manager Rick Jones thought that the plane that struck the North Tower of the World Trade Center had done so by accident. Even still, this was a major incident, and he brought a small television into the newsroom to tune into live coverage of the event. By the time Hopper arrived at The Vidette, the entire news staff was crowded around the television.
“As we’re standing there, the second plane hit. And everyone was like, ‘This is no longer an accident. This is really bad,’” Hopper said.
Both World Trade Center towers collapsed soon after being hit by the aircraft. Debris from the falling towers hit the 7 World Trade Center building, causing a fire that would lead to its collapse later that afternoon. As the morning progressed, Americans learned of two other hijacked aircraft. One deliberately hit the Pentagon, causing extensive damage. The other crash-landed in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, after passengers fought the attackers. There were no survivors. As a result of the hijackings and subsequent attacks, a total of 2,977 people were killed.
“It remains the single most brutal and horrifying moment of my lifetime,” Jones said of watching the Twin Towers fall. “You realized that hundreds, perhaps thousands of people had died.”
In the aftermath, Hopper and the rest of the staff at The Vidette did the only thing they could.
“You put your journalism hat on, and it’s go-time,” she said. “Let’s try to figure out if there are any students that have family in New York. Let’s try and find any alums that are in New York. Let’s find any angle we can to do coverage of this and let’s have people going out on campus talking to students.”
Hopper spent most of that day trying to find alumni in New York City but struggled as the phone lines were jammed. She did complete a story about how communication in the aftermath of the attacks was difficult. Hopper was too busy to truly wrap her head around what had happened until later in the day.
“I was never really fearful or worried, even though there were rumors that they were going to hit Watterson Towers or Sears Tower,” she said. “It wasn’t until that night when I got home and turned on the national news coverage of it that the full gravity of the situation hit me.”
To help his students deal with some of these feelings, Jones decided to scrap his planned teaching material for his 11 a.m. communications class and instead allowed them to speak their minds about the attacks.
“Some horrors one must give voice to in order to later process what has happened,” he said. “There are no words to adequately describe the wave of emotions.”
The story Hopper wrote about the campus response to the September 11 attacks she remembers most vividly was about a rally held on the Quad on September 13.
“I’ve never seen the Quad so packed in my life,” she said. “There were people there getting money for the victims’ families, there were several presentations, a couple of groups sang. People were holding flags for peace or for wanting to go to war. It was very patriotic but also very somber as well.”
Hopper, now Dr. Hopper and an associate professor in the School of Communication, said her experiences covering the September 11 attacks and other news experiences have informed her teaching and research. She focuses on the emotional impact stories have on journalists and the emotional labor they must perform to properly do their jobs.
“For example, you as a journalist are supposed to be what? Number one: objective,” she said. “How can you be objective when there is this tragedy? And 9/11, I believe, is so hard because it was literally unfolding right before journalist’s eyes.”
Hopper also said her experience at The Vidette during the attacks helped solidify her belief in the importance of campus media, which she shares with her students at every opportunity.
“I feel like the students that we talked to, and the students that talk to Vidette reporters now, are much more open to them,” she said. “Student media like The Vidette, like TV-10, like WZND, are so important because the students really get their voices heard.”