Ten years ago, my family lived in Virginia. The morning of 9/11 I was at a nearly empty grocery store a few blocks from the Pentagon when word spread that the nearby Pentagon Metro station had been bombed. As I left the store, I looked up at the thick, black, roiling smoke blocking out an impossibly blue sky, and flames leaping out of the building. "That's a heck of a bomb," I thought, and turned on the car radio just in time to listen to the first tower in New York collapse. A small crowd gathered around my station wagon to listen as well, and as the second tower went, we learned that it was more than just a bomb at the Metro. Like everyone else in Washington, we were grateful to the first responders who ran toward the mayhem as we all ran away.
As I drove toward my children's school through the chaos, I remember finally reaching my husband by phone and telling him about the reports on the radio. "Be thankful you haven't seen a TV yet," he said. "Once you see the pictures, you'll never forget them."
When I got home I saw that he was right. Network news re-ran the same haunting images over and over, mainly shot by crews from local New York TV stations. And while the Pentagon attack must have been caught on the building's security cameras, it was never released to the public. There was no raw footage from eyewitnesses like me, unless we had left the house with a video camera.
These were the days before cellphones had cameras in them, and smartphones and iPads had not been invented yet. YouTube wasn't started until four years after 9/11, and Twitter not for another year after that. When the planes hit the World Trade Center, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was just starting his senior year in high school.
What would it have been like if we'd had live video footage shot on cellphones from inside the collapsing buildings and hijacked planes, and uploaded onto YouTube? Or tweets from the victims and eyewitnesses, and images of the carnage on Facebook? Along with the terror, however, we also would have had goodbyes to families who never got closure and untold stories of heroism by rescuers. We've heard tales of Good Samaritans from survivors; I'm sure there are thousands more stories that died with the victims. Had they had access to what we have today, we would have a fuller picture of what really happened that day.
What's changed since 9/11 is that we now expect live digital images—sometimes crowd-sourced, usually via non-traditional media—to accompany breaking news stories. Rather than viewing "citizen journalism" as some kind of fringe element, we've come to rely on live, unfiltered, grass-roots reporting as an important part of journalism.
Gone are the days of Walter Cronkite telling us, "And that's the way it is." We no longer want to be told how it is, we want to see for ourselves. When terrorists attacked the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai, India, in 2008, we read the tweets from the people inside, telling us what was going on. Some of the first reports and photos from the 2004 Madrid train bombings came from passengers with cellphones. Twitter's breaking news feed has become a must-read for many print and TV reporters.
It wasn't enough to cover the Arab world's reaction to the death in May of Osama bin Laden; many newspapers embedded QR codes so we could watch depictions of the raid on our smartphones. The Chilean government didn't just give us updates on the 33 trapped miners last year, it provided a live video feed so we could see exactly what the men were doing thousands of feet below the surface.
This new "show me" attitude can have political ramifications, too. In the spring of 2010, congressional Democrats pressured BP to make available a live underwater video feed of the oil billowing from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. But once you saw the magnitude of the gusher, it became difficult to believe the administration's low estimates of the spill volume. As the split-screen television images ran 24/7, the president's approval ratings slowly slid downward.
Sometimes what's going on in the crowd-sourced new media world brings a dose of cynicism to old media coverage. After the earthquake hit D.C. last month, we laughed at friends' funny Facebook posts of overturned coffee cups and pencil holders, with captions like, "We will rebuild!" Meanwhile, on cable TV, as media critic Howard Kurtz put it, "It was all quake, all the time"—as breathless coverage went into overdrive. The difference between the TV coverage and the social media coverage was remarkable.