How America’s news habits have changed in 10 years since 9/11

September 9, 2011
Category: Uncategorized

Although most Americans experienced the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, through their televisions, many chose to remember it with their newspapers.

On a Sunday night in May almost 10 years later, most Americans learned via TV that Osama bin Laden, the man behind the attacks, finally had been killed. Newspaper presses went into overdrive, just as they did when the towers fell.

Much changed in the decade between those press runs. And yet, judging by TV viewership and newspaper readership after bin Laden’s death, the way that much of America consumes news has not.

In the introduction to “September 11, 2001,” Poynter’s book of front pages marking the attacks, Max Frankel describes the media’s role in the hours and days after the terrorist attacks:

Only honest and reliable news media could instruct the world in its vulnerability, summon Americans to heroic acts of rescue, and ignite the global search for meaning and response. Only trusted news teams could discern the nation’s anxiety, spread words of hope and therapy, and help to move us from numbing fear toward recovery.

Ten years later, those “trusted news teams” are much smaller, they’re employed by fewer companies, and they report and publish in a different environment. Not only are newspapers and television stations losing advertising dollars to the Internet, they’re losing audience.

This shift was evident in the way people got their news about bin Laden’s death. Television was the leading information source for most people, followed by the Internet and then newspapers. Age was the differentiating factor in whether people preferred the Web over newspapers. Only people 65 and older got more of their news from newspapers than the Internet.

Some of those online sources are websites run by the same news outlets that broadcast the news of bin Laden’s death that Sunday night or published it the next day. Others are independent websites that pull bits of news from all over, offering little reason to visit the source that first reported the information. Sites such as The Huffington Post are now the first stop for news; for the most casual news consumers, they’re the only stop. These sites act as intermediaries, weakening the financial, intellectual and emotional bonds between the people who gather the news and those who read it.

Increasingly, these online sources of information are other people whom we know personally or virtually. We read their posts on Facebook and Twitter, which — along with The Huffington Post — didn’t exist on 9/11.

Bin Laden’s death didn’t represent a tipping point for social media, but it did show that a sizable percentage of Americans have adopted it as an information source. Dedicated Twitter users had a head-start on the rest of the country as they exchanged bits of information and rumors while waiting for President Barack Obama to speak.

For many Americans on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, phone calls from friends carried the first word that something big had happened: “Turn on the television,” they said. Increasingly, that network of first alerts is digital, with people posting the news and sharing their reactions through social media.

Ten years ago, it was cumbersome for one person to transmit this sort of information to more than a few people. Now, the means by which you tell your close friends something can spread it quickly around the globe. This challenges the language we use to describe such communication. When someone tweets that he heard bin Laden is dead, are they talking? Gossiping? Publishing? Breaking news?

Those trusted news teams work in this environment – not against it, but in the midst. They eavesdrop on the conversation to seek more information and to see how people are reacting to the news. They distribute what they know via expensive broadcast towers and printing presses, but also with the same free tools available to anyone with a computer and a Web connection.

More and more, this is how we experience news – as a real-time stream of updates. But how do we remember it?

On 9/11, I printed a copy of CNN.com’s home page. With traffic booming, CNN.com opted for a minimal series of headlines and a single photo, quick to produce and easy for readers to scan. My black-and-white printout isn’t much of a souvenir; I keep it somewhere in a file cabinet.

I also saved The New York Times from Sept. 12, 2001 and May 2, 2011. I keep them at the top of a closet, in a thick black plastic bag designed to block any light that will fade the pages.

Those historic front pages show a newspaper’s experience presenting a monumental story. They do more than distribute facts; they convey the meaning of an event through their headlines, font sizes and the selection of images.

In the days after 9/11, newspapers printed iconic images of the burning towers and of firefighters raising the American flag. Although 9/11 motivated our hunt for bin Laden, 10 years later few papers used those 2001 photos to mark his death. They didn’t have to; the images are never far from our minds.

The news this time was retribution — the death of the man who had done this to us. Many papers used a large, close-up photo of bin Laden’s face. It’s almost a portrait, with bin Laden looking somewhere in the distance.

News used to be something you watched on TV or read in the newspaper — a recap of something that already happened. It’s becoming a real-time experience in which we pass information along and share our reactions. Whatever form media takes in this future, we’ll still want to save something that captures its meaning, something like those front pages.

This essay appears in “September 11, 2001,” which has been re-released as an e-book and updated to include front pages marking the death of Osama bin Laden. It’s available via Apple’s iBooksAmazon, and other merchants.

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