While the American news channels and commercial networks that aired in Britain yesterday were filled with images of carnage and talk of confusion in the wake of bombings in London, the government-supported BBC, the most-watched news outlet in the United Kingdom in times of crisis, offered viewers an oasis of relative calm. Interviews with correspondents and government officials interspersed with videotaped images of emergency workers restoring order provided a sense of stability even as the death toll climbed.
At 9:10 a.m., for example, Atlanta-based CNN (which is available to viewers in the U.K.) featured a red logo emblazoned with the words: "LONDON TERROR." Viewers had been told moments earlier: "It's a chaotic scene there as they try to remove bodies."
CNN anchorwoman Soledad O'Brien elaborated: "An eyewitness described utter pandemonium - bodies strewn around. ... People were screaming. ... They felt they were trapped like sardines essentially waiting to die." Live images taken outside a subway station showed medical workers against a backdrop of wreckage and flashing police lights.
At the same time, viewers of the BBC (which also was carried on BBC America to 42 million U.S. homes), watched business editor Jeff Randall sitting behind his desk as he reported that the market had dropped in the immediate wake of the blasts, but was recovering. "They're a pretty stoic lot over here in the City, and the market has recovered. ... There is no sense of panic," he said.
The marked contrast in coverage offers clues to differences in national history and character. It also stems from a philosophy at the BBC that is decidedly at odds with that of the ratings-driven networks and all-news cable channels of the U.S.
"The tonality, rhythm and psychology of BBC coverage of the bombings - very low-key, very measured, with no calls for revenge or emotional response - is not an accident," said Greg Nielsen, director of the BBC World Archive at Concordia University in Montreal.
"It goes back to the days of the Second World War when the BBC World Radio reports were such a key source of information for the Allied forces and the world. There's a certain attitude and quite different history from commercial broadcasters both in America and Britain that results in higher standards - a keen sense of duty in time of crisis."
Most noticeable yesterday was the caution with which the BBC used live imagery. Unlike American television news, in which the word "live" seems a mantra, the BBC appeared to exercise conscious restraint, primarily showing videotaped images - that could be edited before appearing on air. When graphic images of injured civilians did appear, they were always videotaped or in the form of still photographs.
"We don't automatically hold back on certain kinds of pictures, but we certainly carefully assess the kinds of images we show in such situations," said Richard Sambrook, director of global news for the BBC. He added that the network's approach to covering crises has been honed during years of covering IRA bombings.
"I am not one to criticize the competition, but one of the biggest problems yesterday was a lot of speculation about casualties and the number of people killed - with rather wild numbers flying around. We were very careful that we didn't put out any figures that weren't confirmed with an official source. Speculation in these circumstances, particularly about casualties, is really unhelpful and can make the situation worse. We went only with official information," Sambrook said.
Strict reliance on government information can result in the public's not getting the full story, or getting only a sweetened version of events. While polls show that American viewers say they want restraint from TV news in such moments, the same polls find a strong distaste for any form of self-censorship.
Citing a Pew Research Center study that showed that Americans who watched extended American TV coverage of the 9/11 attacks experienced more anxiety than those who didn't, Michael Brody, a Washington psychiatrist, said he applauded the BBC coverage yesterday.
"I've been monitoring CNN and the BBC all day, and there's no doubt about it," said Brody, who heads the Television & Media Committee of the American Academy of Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatry.
"American TV - particularly the all-news cable guys - is constantly hyping things up with talk of the potential for further attacks, while the BBC was trying to calm things down and reassure viewers that things were under control. As a psychiatrist, I have no doubt about the harmful effects of the former vs. the helpful effects of what I saw happening on the BBC."