iTragedy: Do newsrooms have an ap for that?

COMMENTARY

Please pardon any perceived insensitivity in my posing the question, but what if the events of September 11, 2001 had unfolded on September 11, 2009?  I’m thinking of today’s cell phones, the iPhone and similar technologies.

I’m thinking of the potential for even more intense discussion in the newsroom wherein new and frightening scenarios must be considered.  Not for the faint of heart, to be sure.

Unlike any time in history, the immediate horrors of war, political unrest (think Iran) and terrorist attacks can reach a worldwide audience in seconds (if not sooner).

So, what if 9/11 happened eight years later? Here are three possible scenarios for today’s newsrooms:

1: NEW YORK:  While some might consider it far-fetched, it is possible that someone trapped inside the World Trade Center would use their iPhone to transmit live video of their final moments.  If not the iPhone, someone with a laptop or netbook (and a wireless connection to the Internet) could use Skype, Ustream or a similar service to send-out video, too.

  • Newsrooms receive the video live or as a pre-recorded digital file.  What to do with it?  Some staff members argue that using the video is not appropriate.  Others point-out that the video is already appearing elsewhere on the ‘net.  It’s been popping-up on YouTube.  Parent-company Google scrambles to remove the video.  Other YouTube users have already downloaded it and are re-uploading it to their own YouTube, MySpace, and Flikr accounts.

2.  WASHINGTON, D.C.: A jet crashes into the Pentagon.  Nearby, civilians stop along roadways and use their pda’s/phones to record from afar.  A few people who work at the Pentagon also use hand-held devices to record the scene.

  • This video doesn’t seem “as bad” (i.e., potentially “offensive”) as what’s been coming in from New York.  Someone in the newsroom argues, “If we’re not going to show that stuff coming in from New York, let’s, at least, show some of this video coming in from the Pentagon.”  The phone rings.  A spokesperson for the White House requests that the TV station or newspaper (most papers have a web presence, after all, where they can feature video content) NOT run with the video.  The news director or managing editor is told that running the video would “compromise the nation’s security.”  A reporter blurts-out from his desk that someone on facebook has just published video featuring the Pentagon crash scene.  At this moment, “It’s out there.”

3. SHANKSVILLE:  A commercial jet has just crashed near this rural Pennsylvania town.  People on the ground are using iPhones and other hand-held devices to record the continuing arrival of emergency vehicles.  Soon, several civilians (some now using laptops and netbooks) are “streaming live.”  Already, news of this crash isn’t necessarily a surprise to millions of people.  It was the feared outcome.  To be certain, there is shock and horror.  For the past hour-or-so leading-up to the crash, people around the world followed the unimaginable tweets from a passenger who had described how four men had hijacked the plane.  The man using Twitter had also shared that several of his fellow passengers had used their cell phones to learn that two planes had hit the World Trade Center.  His final tweet:  “passengers will attempt to overpower hijackers.”

  • Many newsrooms don’t hesitate to use the citizen video of emergency crews arriving near Shanksville. That seems safe enough.  But the past hour-plus of this unimaginable morning has also included highly-heated discussion about those tweets that purportedly came from a passenger aboard this fateful flight.  How do you verify the validity of the information in a tweet in such circumstances?  Is there enough time?  Some staffers tried to contact the author of those tweets by cell phone.  He couldn’t be reached.  Post-crash, the tweets are verified to have come from a passenger.  Tweets at six.

The inspiration for this post was not borne of any morbid curiosity.  Rather, it started with my recent reflections of September 11.  In all likelihood, you took time to remember that day, too.

Often a fan of emerging technologies, I found myself  considering the question: How might we have experienced September 11 differently had today’s devices been available just eight years ago?  I submit that the concussion of those events would have been felt even more severely.

The timeliness of this discussion seems even more appropriate at this moment.  Having just returned from refilling my coffee cup, I’ve paused to review the latest news stories online.  USA Today’s just published an article headlined, Panel: Electrical grid vulnerable to terrorist attack.  The lead paragraph got my attention:

It sounds like a science-fiction disaster: A nuclear weapon is detonated miles above the Earth’s atmosphere and knocks out power from New York City to Chicago for weeks, maybe months. (USA Today)

The spirit of this post is not aimed at fear mongering or trivializing September 11. I will share that while working for a New Mexico TV station, I reported from Ground Zero during the week of September 11.  During my entire non-stop car ride to New York, radio reports held-out hope that survivors would be found.  But a few miles out, I began to see the ash.  Inches of it piled on cars. I still see the bumpers.   It reminded me of having witnessed the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in my youth.  Right then, I knew there would be no survivors.

I also reported from Shanksville and the Pentagon.

Outside of annual invitations to speak to journalism students at the University of New Mexico in the years that soon followed September 11, I find that I rarely talk about it.  The “topic” feels almost sacred…reverent.

But the questions posed above feel as if they’ve been fairly raised for today’s newsrooms .  Ultimately, one could argue the questions extend to any person who points his or her digital eye at tragedy.

To air or not to air?

To post or not to post?

, , , , , , , , ,

3 Responses to iTragedy: Do newsrooms have an ap for that?

  1. avatar
    Faith September 17, 2009 at 9:54 am #

    I really enjoyed this post, I’ve only considered the impact of technological advances on news reporting in passing and this gave me a lot of food for thought. It’s also amazing to see the advances we’ve made in just a few years time.

  2. avatar
    Beyond90Seconds September 17, 2009 at 10:14 am #

    Thank you, Faith. Speaking of those advances, makes me wonder how far technology will move forward in just another 8 years.
    I appreciate your interest in this post.

  3. avatar
    Faith September 17, 2009 at 11:34 am #

    My thought exactly!

Thank you for visiting.