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[P]
The Internet as News Source

By adamba in Media
Tue Sep 18, 2001 at 02:39:58 PM EST
Tags: Internet (all tags)
Internet

The Internet has been praised as an invaluable news source during the recent terrorist attack on the United States. Many sites dropped their usual content and instead posted mirrors of news sites, links to background information, personal stories, and details on how others could help. For many, these sites outperformed the big news sites such as cnn.com or msnbc.com.

Was this the coming of age for the Internet as a news source, the moment when it replaced traditional television news as the best source of information in a time of crisis?


There is no doubt that technology played a key role not just in reporting the attack, but in how it unfolded. Cell phone calls from an airplane over Pennsylvania allowed passengers to learn about the World Trade Center attacks, realize that their flight was most likely headed for a similar target, and decide to attack the hostages. People trapped in the rubble used cell phones to alert people that they were alive.

The Internet had no similar role in the events as they occured -- but neither did television news. Websites and Internet Relay Chat were an incredibly useful source of news, and the wide dissemination of information helped relieve and avoid the bottlenecks at major news sites. However, by-and-large they were not reporting the news directly, but repeating what others had said. A site mirroring cnn.com, which is itself repeating what CNN is airing on television, is not generating unique content. The same can be said of sites that aggregated links to other news coverage. There is a difference between having the best coverage on the Internet, and having the best coverage period.

In a sense this disaster was better suited to be covered by television than by websites. Three of the four crashes happened in New York City and Washington, D.C., two of the most media-heavy cities in the country. News crews could rush outside, aim a camera at the World Trade Center, and immediately be "at the scene."

It was also a disaster that worked better with video than with still images, and right now the Internet still has issues with video -- bandwidth constraints, and the difficulty of the average user encoding a camcorder's output for Internet distribution.

I initially followed the story on the Internet, because we didn't want the kids seeing the images on television. Watching events unfold on the Internet gave a more muted view of the situation: when we finally turned on the television the contrast was startling. It wasn't just the video, or the fact that every station was covering the same story nonstop: it was the tone in people's voices, the confusion as they struggled, along with us, to understand what was going on.

The Internet did produce unique content, in the form of the personal communication it enabled. With telephone service disrupted, New Yorkers used email to inform loved ones that they were safe. The Internet was used to create lists both of those who were safe, and more tragically, those whose whereabouts were unknown. True to its design, the Internet stayed up during the crisis -- but so did the television networks (even if their websites were down).

The personal recollections, however, I found less compelling than in other situations. I was interested in those from people I knew personally, and I'm sure hearing others' stories comforted others who had experienced the terror first-hand. But the stories were all told after-the-fact: unlike a cell phone call, anyone who was able to send email or post to a website was already in a safe place. This lent the stories a certain sameness: initial shock, escape, relief, reflection, disbelief. There was no equivalent of an email from Bosnia a few years ago, that unique voice from inside that cannot be heard anywhere else.

The Internet is extremely useful for checking on something that is not currently being covered by television news -- the user can start their browser and get a quick read on events. In this case, the television stations were running continuous news coverage. They also adopted the Internet-like idea of running a crawl of current headlines on the bottom. Someone turning on the television found out what was going on faster than someone going on the Internet. Furthermore, there was no issue of trying to find the "right" television station; since most stations also suspended their usual content, someone sitting watching television before the attack also likely found out sooner than someone surfing the Web or listening on IRC. The Internet can react quicker than television -- a witness to a plane crash outside their window can send an email faster than a television newscast can get on the air -- but it is still a question of how fast that initial information can spread.

Did flipping between websites give a better picture of the situation than flipping between television channels? The Internet had useful background info, some excellent graphics describing what had happened (and some excellent lists of excellent graphics), and some great webcam shots, but it was always hit or miss whether the sites you chose had those. The "experts" and eyewitnesses still go on television first; the Internet had more conjecture and opinions from people whose credentials were unclear. People with great video footage were more likely to give it to a news organization than post it on a website; many great pictures were put up on the Internet, but as I mentioned above, this crisis was better captured on video. And the television stations could pick up anything really unique that appeared on the Internet.

As usual, the Internet amplified the distribution of both facts and rumors, such as the false Nostradamus prediction. Television was not immune: all the networks reported the supposed arrest of two teams of five hijackers a few days later, which turned out to be false.

Longer term, problems with bandwidth and stability will diminish. Camcorders will be available that automatically stream wireless data to Websites. The issue of availability -- the fact that some people had access to the Internet but not television, while others had access to television but not the Internet -- will be minimized as television signals become available on the Internet and Internet access becomes a part of standard cable service.

The question, really, is the future relationship between "professional" live news sources -- television news -- and "amateur" live news sources -- the great masses who maintain sites on the Internet on their own time (the terms "professional" and "amateur" are not intended to imply anything about the quality of the work done in each case).

One observation is that newspapers, a professional non-live news source, have slipped to a distant third place behind those other two, as they combine the worst of both worlds, out-of-date information and no video.

There is also room for Websites like Slate, essentially a professional news source but one that acts in some ways like an amateur site, with a mix of its own credentialed content and links to the best the amateur Internet has to offer.

The amateur sites will continue to grow in importance, especially for the less visible events, the ones that professional news gives little or no mention to because a few decision-makers decide it isn't important for the "average" American.

And despite the hype, the professional news sources are not dead. Their performance as television should be separated from their performance as Websites. The professional sources will still be the ones invited to press conferences, the ones allowed to bring their cameras into restricted areas, the ones who get interviews with the best-known people. In the final analysis, the terrorist attack showed that there is a place for the amateurs, but the professionals have a crucial place, and there is no apparent reason why they will be displaced.

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The Internet as News Source | 21 comments (19 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
News that's not fit to print (4.20 / 5) (#1)
by tudlio on Sun Sep 16, 2001 at 01:43:41 PM EST

I would add one benefit of "amateur" news sites: you can often get a perspective on events that the professional organizations ignore, either because it challenges the dominant social consensus or simply because it's not as media-philic as other perspectives.




insert self-deprecatory humor here
K5 and alternate news sources (none / 0) (#15)
by reward on Mon Sep 24, 2001 at 10:29:20 AM EST

First of all, I was in mod-mode here on K5 and saw the first news of the first plane here. I went to a number of "corporate media" websites, but all were down. Fortunately, the office has cable TV .. one end was tuned to Newsworld, the other to CNN.

I found that the alternative media sites were about the only ones accessible from here during September 11th. It was a welcome change from the corporate sites, and has remained a welcome change. It is good to hear voices other than the official voices. They are saying what we expect them to say. (response by poll??). The alternative press seemed to have quicker and deeper material regarding root causes, middle east politics, history of afghanistan. They have been of far more use.

I see more thoughtful discussion there. The worth of these sites has been proven to me. Even K5!

[ Parent ]

Newspapers (4.00 / 4) (#2)
by flieghund on Sun Sep 16, 2001 at 01:48:33 PM EST

[Newspapers] combine the worst of both worlds, out-of-date information and no video.
Yet newspapers also feature the ability to take a pause in the middle of coverage for a quiet moment of contemplation or grief. They also contain many other features that have nothing to do with the Big Event, unlike certain web sites. It's amazing how much more funny the comics seemed this week.

Regarding the coverage of the attacks, the most valuable "information" I have seen in newspapers are the photographs: full-color spreads of the devastation and anguish of the people who survived and are now trying to find others. That kind of "information" is never out-of-date. And, frankly, I often find that the well-composed photograph is infinitely more informative than some obnoxious reporter sticking a camera in someone's face and asking, "Were you scared? Are you angry at the people who did this?"

As far as out-of-date information is concerned, I seem to recall CNN (or maybe it was Fox News) running with a story from the Los Angeles Times that the government had a list of the names of the suspected terrorists. So it would seem to work both ways; sometimes the old-fashioned news media can get the scoop on the 24-hour news oulets... Newspapers are far from dead.



Using a Macintosh is like picking your nose: everyone likes to do it, but no one will admit to it.
newspapers (4.00 / 1) (#3)
by adamba on Sun Sep 16, 2001 at 03:20:36 PM EST

I am not saying newspapers in general are obsolete -- far from it. Many people will save a daily newspaper as their souvenir of an event like this. The pictures are also impressive (although that is also a bit of a short-term technology issue, until more people have larger, higher-definition displays and color printers). However they don't do well at covering a story like this.

When other news organizations refer to a newspaper story, it is usually the night before it is due to appear, when the newspapers make available what their upcoming stories will be. The home subscriber doesn't see that.

Newspapers used to publish four or five editions during the day, changing the news or sports content along the way, plus extras as needed. My father says as a kid he would leave a baseball game, get home an hour later, and people would be on the corner selling a paper with the score and game report. Now most newspapers publish one edition, timed for morning delivery.

As for having more reflective content...I have seen enough overheated prose in the papers this week to fill any website (except maybe this one). The newspapers seem stuck in a narrowing gap between news Websites and the newsweeklies.

- adam

[ Parent ]

the opposing view, from Wired (4.00 / 1) (#4)
by adamba on Sun Sep 16, 2001 at 03:24:48 PM EST

This article "Amateur Newsies Top the Pros" states the opposite view from mine, that the Internet did a better job. I disagree, but I wanted to throw it out there for people to read.

- adam

Web news was next to useless (4.00 / 1) (#5)
by LQ on Mon Sep 17, 2001 at 05:12:48 AM EST

Web news was next to useless from here. I was stuck in an office in London, getting news by phone. Nearly every news site was timing out. The problem was not bandwidth: the UK hubs reported a 10% lower than usual loading.

I think the real problem boils down to news sites' caching algorithms not being adjusted to cope with increased demand.

Net, Radio, TV, and Newspapers. (none / 0) (#8)
by wiredog on Tue Sep 18, 2001 at 09:07:57 AM EST

I listen to NPR (WETA) on the radio at work, and that's where I heard the breaking news. I was listening to DC101 when they got a call, on the air, from someone right after the Pentagon was hit.(Kudos to Elliot and co for the way they handled the situation.) Most every website, except slashdot, was down from the load (and /. was slow). When I went home I turned on the TV, and watched the coverage. Didn't turn the PC on until that evening.

The Washington Post came out with an extra on Tuesday, which sold out in about an hour. They printed 100,000 extra copies on Wednesday, which sold out fast. The newspapers have an advantage over TV, and much of the net, in that they can stop, take a deep breath, think, and then publish. Times like this are why I subscribe to the Post.

If there's a choice between performance and ease of use, Linux will go for performance every time. -- Jerry Pournelle

Not necessarily so (none / 0) (#9)
by Karmakaze on Tue Sep 18, 2001 at 10:08:51 AM EST

...unlike a cell phone call, anyone who was able to send email or post to a website was already in a safe place.
Actually, one of my close friends has a mobile device. He emailed a few close friends from the stairwell of the WTC as they evacuated and again when he found some other friends as they were evacuating to uptown.

We have very little room to laugh at "Gadget Boy" anymore.


--
Karmakaze

wireless email (none / 0) (#10)
by adamba on Tue Sep 18, 2001 at 01:26:01 PM EST

I just read something in People about someone who sent email using a Blackberry aboard one of the flights, just a few minutes before it crashed into the WTC.

- adam

[ Parent ]

Good Job, +1 (none / 0) (#11)
by MattOly on Tue Sep 18, 2001 at 01:53:25 PM EST

I co-run one of the "alternative" sites you're talking about. When people couldn't get into CNN, they came to us. It was really thrilling to be able to help people with the news. As it turns out, a large number of our users get a decent chunk of their current events news from our little ghetto site, and that makes us feel great.

The user's submitted great posts and kept each other informed, much like here on K5. It's a different type of news, but it's still news.

Point is, most people were at work as stuff unfolded, and the Internet was the best way for them to figure out what the hell was going on. Our motto is "you ARE expected to fear this," but the users came through couragously.

Thanks for writing this nice peice on sites like ours. Stuff like this is what makes it worthwhile.

====
A final note to...the Republican party. You do not want to get into a fight with David Letterman. ...He's simply more believable than you are.

Satanosphere.com (none / 0) (#13)
by Thread Bear on Wed Sep 19, 2001 at 01:02:50 PM EST

Though I love your site, I must admit I got better coverage here on K5. The fact that you admitted in your early post that the 'Sphere isn't a "news site" might not be accurate, though. I do find out about all the weirdest stuff from there. Like the Peter Pan guy, or the Time Cube guy. Or the "chopping of his own legs with a home-made guillotine live on the internet" guy. I'd like to know, where do you people find this stuff?

***

To you, I'm nothing but a number.

1,2,3, Repeater!
[ Parent ]

Kiss it goodbye. (none / 0) (#12)
by Kasreyn on Tue Sep 18, 2001 at 11:37:59 PM EST

Yes, the mirrors were cool, especially since the big sites went under in minutes. But the increasing efforts under way by corporate players to close down the borders of the internet will make this sort of mass mirroring and overall helpfullness impossible 3 or 4 years from now. Then it will be, get the news if you can, and if we're down, then tough titty.

Does this make you mad? If so, don't mod me down, take action and prevent it! I think the way the internet came together and helped spread the news was beautiful, and it was mostly done without the jingoism and rhetoric the TV news always falls back on. Hopefully we can preserve the use of the net for great journalism with sites like K5.


-Kasreyn

P.S. "such as the false Nostradamus prediction"? tut, tut. You really should avoid such redundancy in your speech. ;-)


"Extenuating circumstance to be mentioned on Judgement Day:
We never asked to be born in the first place."

R.I.P. Kurt. You will be missed.
Which information? (none / 0) (#14)
by crealf on Sun Sep 23, 2001 at 08:20:28 PM EST

I am utterly astonished as you equate "information" with "live coverage of catastrophy". Why am I surprised ? Because live coverage is most often the most superficial and useless information. Yes we saw the terrorists attacks in a matter of hours and minutes. As in France, I got the news of the crash of the Concorde within minutes or a few hours. But then what's the *real* advantage of getting the news of the crash in a matter of minutes instead of having to wait 1 day? Essentially none.

What is the incredible amount of information you got from CNN live coverage 24/24 for a week ? Basically "there were terrorist attacks ; one plane crashed in the Pentagon, two in the twin towers, which collapsed. The US was deeply shocked and mourned their dead, and there was some world solidarity for the American tragedy; the US want to retaliate. The prime suspect is Bin Laden and the Taliban may or may not protect him" ; that's pretty much all the "information" you got. This is superficial information, it can go nowhere close to the information gathered be people who have spent months trying to understand politics in some part of the world. I'm astonished because you are equating quality of information with its speed instead of its depth: One observation is that newspapers, a professional non-live news source, have slipped to a distant third place behind those other two, as they combine the worst of both worlds, out-of-date information and no video. You are falling in the brain-washing trap for which there is a very vehement but interesting criticism: "Dumbing down, American-style".

Do you really think because you have a live video of palistinians throwing stones, and later Israel military responding, you'll understand all a sudden everything that happen between Israel, Palestinian, and neighboring countries ? As examplified in some articles about Middle-East troubles, in a slow old outdated information feeds, the situation is extremely complicated and the average TV isn't actually covering 5% of the issues, displaying the same old tired superficial themes in loop but with live streams

Have a look to what real information about afghanistan can look like: here, here, here and last but not least here.

I quite disgusted about not only the fact that TV coverage is superficial, but TV journalists have grown completly cynical ("this is crap, but this is was people wants, we need to focus on audience first and we don't have time to do anything more than superficial reports ; let's do images, images, more images"), letting little hope of ever getting out of generalized stupidity.

speedy info can be helpful (none / 0) (#16)
by sety on Tue Sep 25, 2001 at 12:08:52 AM EST

I am utterly astonished as you equate "information" with "live coverage of catastrophy". Why am I surprised ? Because live coverage is most often the most superficial and useless information. Yes we saw the terrorists attacks in a matter of hours and minutes.

I have to disagree. Normally I would say your completely right. The initial reports had planes crashing everywhere and just general confusion from the news people. But when you start seeing planes used as missles against office towers. I drew my own conclusions quickly to what was going on and left work. Nothing happened (to me), but I am still glad I had the information and the oppurtunity to make up my own mind and decide to go home.

In this case I think it was very important to have some idea of what was going on as it happened.

[ Parent ]

Apologist propoganda... (none / 0) (#18)
by SPYvSPY on Tue Sep 25, 2001 at 11:21:20 AM EST

...is not news "in depth." The links that you provided are light on information, heavy with apologist, anti-US and anti-globalist sentiment. Also, your arrogant rant against the superficiality of online and television news sources is offensive to those of us that needed breaking news while we watched the towers collapse from our bedroom windows. If you want real information about Afghanistan, there's plenty online. Try Janes Intelligence or sift through the New Yorker's archives. Let me add that CNN, BBC America and a number of other cable news outlets are running hour long (or longer) documentaries about the history of the Aghan plight. These are balanced accounts produced by people that have been on the ground in central asia as journalists. Quit looking down your nose at America, friend. It makes you look foolish.
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[ Parent ]

No apologist propaganda. (none / 0) (#19)
by crealf on Tue Sep 25, 2001 at 05:38:16 PM EST

Apologist propoganda ...is not news "in depth." The links that you provided are light on information, heavy with apologist, anti-US and anti-globalist sentiment.

You didn't read them very carefully. All were written before the terrorist attacks ; so much for "apologist".

Only one can be interpreted as "anti-US" is the first one ; if you looked, it was written by a H. Schiller, who was a professor at the University of California, established a world renowed departement there, has worked possibly longer than you have lived (30+ years) on this very subject (media, and media control), and has written 15+ books on the subject. His article is not a rant written by a second rate journalist, on a bad day when he has nothing to say ; it's really a summary of 3000+ pages and an entire life of work devoted to this very subject.
But since the genius president W Bush said on the absolutly flawless American TV "if you're not with us, you're against us", and since the author dared to criticize, you probably must think that there isn't the slightlest point in what he wrote, and he can only be a traitor, "apologist", "anti-US" ; and not only he, but the whole journal in which he dared to publish once.

And of course, the fact that this journal is translated and diffused in many diverse countries, including UK, US, Brazil, Russia, Arabic countries, Japan, can't be a hint at all that it tries somewhat to be fair, minimize bias and provide some information ?
I grant you the "anti-globalist" sentiment for some articles, but then it is backed by facts, and an successful association ; not blind demonstrations ; they want a better globalization. Maybe you think globalization is essentially without criticism.

Also, your arrogant rant against the superficiality of online and television news sources is offensive to those of us that needed breaking news while we watched the towers collapse from our bedroom windows.

Sorry, but it doesn't change a bit about the fact that the CNN loop for instance, was quite superficial ; superficiality is not about the importance, but it is more about the depth of the analysis, critical thinking (with CNN was mostly devoid of, when quoting US authorities, like most TVs). The news was maybe a matter of life and death to a minority, but any case, the content was little more than what I summed up in my initial post. As the top TV french journalist, when interviewed, said: the week(s) long solidary and unity among Americans was incredibly great ; in France, there would have been solidarity the 3-4 hours, and after that the criticisms would have started. In written press, would I say. For me, being accustomed to critical thinking, the difference between a loop without much criticism and genuine propaganda is thin.

If you want real information about Afghanistan, there's plenty online. Try Janes Intelligence or sift through the New Yorker's archives.

The New Yorker is the online version of a paper magazine ; Jane's group has a slight bias toward military-type of information ... both seem to be excellent sources of written information.

Let me add that CNN, BBC America and a number of other cable news outlets are running hour long (or longer) documentaries about the history of the Aghan plight

CNN is only average or worse ; BBC UK is usually pretty much informative... for TV. I don't believe in TV.

These are balanced accounts produced by people that have been on the ground in central asia as journalists.

The journal I quoted has too a good balance between ground reporters, and researchers on the very subject. Going on the ground brings you little if you don't know the culture, the full history, the religion, the politics, the influence, the society critical points.

Quit looking down your nose at America, friend. It makes you look foolish.

I'm just tired of "America is the best in all occasions" ; America is the best in : science, economy, military power (and maybe one or two other things I'm forgotting). The rest is average, especially US behavior, American society, American international politics, and American media.

[ Parent ]

still apologist...and more... (none / 0) (#20)
by SPYvSPY on Wed Sep 26, 2001 at 01:25:25 PM EST

OK, here I go OT. There was a terrorist threat before Sept. 11, 2001 and the links to which you cite go to great lengths to shift some portion of the blame away from terrorists and onto America's "flawed" foreign policy. That's an apologist point of view because it excuses the actions of the terrorists. Pointing out that the author is an American is irrelevant since Americans are often critical of themselves. The fact that you are enthralled by his vast academic experience is revealing, however. You seem to think that ivory-tower academics are a badge of authenticity. I tend to think that anyone who has made a life out of University is probably more worthless than a used diaper. It's shocking, I know, but my learned opinion is that University academics are (for the most part) an utterly farcical waste of time. On this point, we will perpetually disagree. Suffice it to say, however, that your author has even less credibility in my eyes than, say, a former CIA or MI6 spook writing for Jane's.

As for your point regarding the solidarity of Americans and the role of CNN's "propaganda" loop in that, I can only say that when a bully gives you a bloody nose in the yard, and you look up to all the people standing nearby, and you see who rallies to your side and who cowers in the background quivering with fear and doubt and uncertainty and a "critical" outlook, then understand the difference between Americans and France.

I am one of those people that saw, heard and smelled this disaster, and I am still an emotional wreck about it (this, despite being a strong, even-tempered, confident 28 year old man). I can tell you for sure that I needed people to support me in the hours and days following what I saw. I can't express how much it helped to know that I had friends all throughout America, even if it was just for that day or week or month. New Yorkers just needed someone to lean on, and a huge number of people came to our rescue and aid. This was and is indescribably appreciated. The fact that it makes you scoff is so disgusting, it's beyond reproach.

Now you must also understand that there are many Europeans in New York, and that I see and deal with them and count some of them as friends. I can tell you for sure that the French and the Italians that I know were telling me that America deserved what it got. Normally, I don't have time for people like that, and I tolerate their jests in good nature, and often see the truth in what they are saying. But when I am down, and looking for something solid to hang onto, and the continental Europeans are kicking me and teasing me, I make a judgement about them. What I'm saying is that there is a time and a place for everything. You think now is the time and place for critical analysis of the situation. I think that makes you like the little boy in the schoolyard that saw me get hit and you just cowered back there in the corner, wondering what is the best thing to do. No, it's worse, you are telling me that I deserved what I got. So, what kind of man does that make you? What kind of men are the French and the Italians? Who will stand up for them when their arrogant mouths make their noses bloody?

Obviously, I mean "you" in a figurative sense. But you (in the literal sense) should know what New Yorkers think about people that accuse us of reaping the fruits of what our government sows.
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By replying to this or any other comment in this thread, you assign an equal share of all worldwide copyright in such reply to each of the other readers of this site.
[ Parent ]

" ... attack the hostages." (none / 0) (#17)
by Mr.Surly on Tue Sep 25, 2001 at 01:22:52 AM EST

"... similar target, and decide to attack the hostages."

Informing ourselves to death (none / 0) (#21)
by vr on Tue Oct 02, 2001 at 08:53:37 AM EST

http://world.std.com/~jimf/informing.html

The Internet as News Source | 21 comments (19 topical, 2 editorial, 0 hidden)
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