October 13, 2010

One of the problems I face in training young reporters is that every year, they get younger. That means 9/11 ends up feeling more and more remote to them. But then, I take these newbies on a field trip that transforms everything.

If people think I do a decent job of preparing journalism students for real world reporting, the credit has to be shared with many sources — including the Tribute WTC Visitor Center.

This happens to be a very clumsy name for a tiny jewel of a museum located just south of Ground Zero. From its five compact, well-designed galleries at 120 Liberty St., the center uses videos, architectural models and artifacts to tell the 9/11 story.

Christina Bainton, the Center’s group visit associate, shows us a model of the original Twin Towers. In their place, two water fountains will be built. A single Freedom Tower is going up to the north of them (behind her on the model)

One wall is covered in missing persons fliers. The display is very intense to look at because it recreates the Lower Manhattan scene right after the terrorist attack. There are also more horrifying reminders to examine — a piece of twisted steel from the World Trade buildings, a chunk of airplane wreckage, a forgotten shoe, a recovered wallet.

But viewing all that stuff isn’t enough. My cub reporters really get the point after they take the audio walking tour, which costs $10 per person. For the next hour, the audio has us wandering through the nearby World Financial Center, where glass windows offer striking views of Ground Zero construction.

The audio features 15 interviews with survivors and rescue workers as well as radio news reports from that terrible morning. Their voices make history personal.

The World Financial Center’s big windows give my students a clear view of Ground Zero construction while they listen to the audio tour on headsets

Every semester, I bring my NYU “Reporting Downtown” class to the Center for a 2½-hour field trip that includes the galleries, the walk and then, meeting with one of the Tribute Center volunteers. At some point during our visit, nearly all my students become teary. By the time we’re done, we’re emotionally drained.

John Henderson, an NYU administrator, volunteers at the center. He is often asked to meet with my NYU classes

That’s how things went last Thursday with my latest crop of NYU journalism students. Most of them are juniors who were barely 12 during 9/11.

At the end of our visit, I asked them to rate the experience on a scale of one (a waste of time) to 10 (really worthwhile). The consensus: four students gave our morning together a “nine;” the rest, a “10.”

If you know how critical college students can be, then you understand that these ratings are off the charts. Even I still get something out of coming here, which is pretty amazing considering that I’ve done this field trip at least half a dozen times. Yes, I always cry too. But that’s okay. It’s important to remember.

P.S. — One final tip…the Center opens at 10 a.m. Go early because this place is always packed with tourists and school groups.

Update 10/15: Based on some initial reaction to this post, I feel a need to explain something…As we all know, everyone has very strong opinions on 9/11 and its aftermath. One reason the Center works for me as a teacher is that this organization manages to make its case without focusing on the larger discussion of American and world politics. The mission here is to present what the World Trade Center once was as a community and, how people pulled together as an ad hoc community in the initial recovery effort. Period. That leaves us free to walk out and discuss what’s going on today with a baseline reference point.