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.