September 5, 2002

One year later: September 11 and the Internet

Part 3. The Rise of Do-it-yourself Journalism After September 11

Key Findings

By Alex Halavais
University at Buffalo, School of Informatics

A “Webscape” of examples for this section can be found at:
http://september11.archive.org/webscape/hal/

The 9/11 attacks and their aftermath generated the most traffic to traditional news sites in the history of the Web. Equally as important was the fact that many non-news sites were turned into conduits for information, commentary, and action related to 9/11 events.

Do-it-yourself journalism has been a staple of Internet activity for years and the terrorist attacks gave new prominence to the phenomenon. In the days after the attacks, the Web provided a broad catalog of facts and fancy related to 9/11, ranging from eyewitness accounts from New York, Washington, and across the nation, to government reports, to analysis from experts and amateurs. With the eyes of the world focused on a small number of related events, many stepped into the role of amateur journalist, seeking out sources and sometimes assembling these ideas for others. Most striking, perhaps, were the wide number of accounts from those who had seen the World Trade Center collapse, or had in some way gained first-hand knowledge of surrounding events. Beyond that, many people posted their reactions to 9/11. At some sites these accounts, pictures and commentary were compiled and cataloged by Web producers outside the channels of traditional journalism.

Internet was an alternative news source

The rapidity with which the Web has become a mass medium has left commentators and researchers on a constant lookout for “watershed moments”—those events which could credibly be considered defining moments of the new technology. Television was defined as a medium by a number of such events, including coverage of the 1948 conventions, the Nixon-Kennedy debate, and the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath. It may be that only hindsight will provide us with the perspective required to identify similar turning points for the Web, but that hasn’t stopped some from putting potential events in the running. The night of the 1996 election, the broadcast of the Mars Pathfinder mission, the breaking of the Lewinsky scandal and subsequent release of the voluminous Starr report—these and other events have each been singled out as the moment at which the Web came into its own.

In practice, there will probably be no single defining moment for Web, but these events all have elements in common. In each case, large numbers flocked to the new medium, and some were looking to fulfill a need that was not being met by the traditional news media.

There are many reasons Americans and those in the rest of the world turned to their computers after the events of September 11. For some, computer networks provided alternative interpersonal communication channels that allowed families and loved ones to stay in touch when the telephone and cellular networks were damaged or overloaded. Others used the Internet to collaboratively search for those lost in the confusion after the World Trade Center collapse. The vast majority of users, however, went to the Web in search of news. 

Tuning in

For the average Web surfer, the news online in September probably looked very similar to the news off-line, since the largest names in news production off-line have created similarly popular Web sites. In the hours after the incidents, Web sites for CNN, the New York Times, and other traditional media outlets were shut down by traffic that was over a thousand times the norm. CNN alone received in excess of nine million requests for their main Web page every hour. This resulted in the servers for major news outlets shutting down, and (due to embattled domain name servers) much of the net slowing or becoming unreachable.

The largest news outlets responded quickly to the onslaught, reducing their main pages to plain text without any graphics in order to increase speed, in many cases eliminating all stories but those related to the attacks, and rapidly increasing server capacity.  For example, see images of CNN.com from the morning of September 11:  http://web.archive.org/web/20011125160311/http://www.interactivepublishing.net/september/browse.php?co=CNN.   In addition, CNN began sending out hourly email updates to those who had earlier provided their address.

In the first hours after the attack, Google had a recommendation for Web surfers looking for news of the attacks, which its producers added to its normally sparse home page:

If you are looking for news, you will find the most current information on TV or radio. Many online news services are not available because of extremely high demand. Below are links to news sites, including cached copies as they appeared earlier today.

Even non-news sites were compelled to orient towards 9/11 news

The urgency of the news transformed many sites into news suppliers. Some of the larger participatory Web logs (“blogs”) are interesting examples of the way non-news sites were reoriented by “do it yourself” journalists during the crisis. The number of individual blogs has exploded in the last year, fueled at least in part by the incidents of September 11 and the various responses to those events. Some blogs attract a loyal following of participants who both contribute news items and discuss them. The prototypical example of such a blog, Slashdot.org, runs under the banner of “News for Nerds. Stuff that matters.” More than half a million users have registered for the site, and many more read it without commenting. Other popular participatory blogs include Plastic.com, Kuro5hin.org, and Fark.com.

Most of these blogs are not particularly interested in becoming “real” news sources (Fark’s motto: “It’s not news, it’s Fark.”), but they do provide a view of how many Web surfers seek and provide information online. Moreover, as is illustrated by the widely noted “Slashdot Effect,” these sites often connect large audiences to sites they would not ordinarily visit, resulting in “flash crowds” that focus attention on otherwise obscure Web sites.

During the days following September 11, all but a handful of the posted stories on Fark revolved around the events as they unfolded. In total, 157 posts related to the events appeared, from the link to a CNN article describing the airplanes’ crash into the towers on the 11th to a plea from the editor, Drew Curtis, late Saturday night that Sunday be reserved for unrelated news and entertainment. This rare note from the editor indicated that September 11 had forced Fark to change in unexpected ways:

First off, a semi-apology. One thing we’ve had trouble with in the past few days is making a smooth transition from a comedy news site to a real news site. We really hadn’t ever thought we would need to, and probably wouldn’t have except for the fact that on 9/11 every major news site went down and someone had to pick up the slack. One of the hallmarks of Fark is that we occasionally post some occasionally extreme viewpoints, both liberal and conservative, as if they were bona fide fact. This is intentional (in case you haven’t noticed or thought this was an accident). However, I let it continue in a couple cases after we converted to news format, and in hindsight I should have caught them before posting them. In particular, one article that fits the bill was the article posted on 9/13 claiming the CNN video of partying Palestinians was from 1991. I knew putting it up that it wasn’t true. I received quite a bit of email criticizing the way that the headline was phrased as being misleading, which is true. However that was first time that I realized we’d passed from being a fun silly website to being a real source of news for people. This whole journalistic integrity thing really hadn’t applied before.

Slashdot carried a similar post from a normally silent Rob Malda, the originator of the site:

The World Trade Towers in new york were crashed into by 2 planes, one on each tower, 18 minutes apart. Nobody really knows who did it, but the planes were big ones. Normally I wouldn’t consider posting this on Slashdot, but I’m making an exception this time because I can’t get news through any of the conventional websites, and I assume I’m not alone. Update: We’re having server problems. Sorry. Updated info, both towers have collapsed, pentagon hit by 3rd plane. Part of it has collapsed.

This change meant a new concentration on “legitimate” news sources for Fark, which tended to post only amusing or unusual news, and for Slashdot, which generally focuses only on technology issues.

Of the topics appearing on Fark between September 11-15, 39% referred to articles from Web sites produced by traditional news organizations. Links to CNN were the most prominent among these, but the BBC, ABC, Washington Post, and several local newspaper sites also appeared. In addition, 19% of the links posted on Fark between September 11-15 led to Web-based news and information sites. Many of these, especially those posted soon after September 11, were similar to the traditional news sources, and many of these news sites, including Yahoo News and AZCentral, relied heavily on wire services like Reuters to provide information. Other sites broadened the perspective. For instance, there were links to sites like TomPaine.com, a widely read source of news and opinion with a liberal bent, and FreeRepublic.com, its conservative counterpart.

Do-it-yourself journalism

Those seeking news on the Web have unprecedented access to the basic evidence that makes up many news stories, and can become journalists themselves on narrow topics. Blogs may be the most prominent example of “do-it-yourself journalism,” but any Internet user can investigate the facts of a story without leaving the living room. The Web provided a broad catalog of facts and fancy related to September 11, ranging from eyewitness accounts from New York, Washington, and across the nation, to government reports, to analysis from experts and amateurs. With the eyes of the world focused on a narrow set of related events, many stepped into the role of amateur journalist, seeking out sources and sometimes assembling these ideas for others.

Most striking, perhaps, were the wide number of accounts from those who had seen the World Trade Center collapse, or had in some way gained first-hand knowledge of the surrounding events. Among these first-hand accounts were those from commentators who were accustomed to the media spotlight, but decided to put their first impressions on the Web. Michael Moore, for example, wrote of telephoning an office in the Towers, looking for a friend, and having the line go dead as the building collapsed (see  http://web.archive.org/web/20010917014244/www.michaelmoore.com/2001_0912.html). Jon Katz, who wrote for many years for Hotwired on the effect the Web is having on the news, posted his experience of watching the Towers collapse on Slashdot (see http://slashdot.org/articles/01/09/11/1842258.shtml).

Some of these eyewitness narratives ran fairly long, while others consisted of little more than a single informational posting. Eyewitness accounts most frequently appeared on personal blogs, but they also appeared on Web sites that had very different purposes. On group blogs, first-person information was usually volunteered in very abbreviated form. For example, in the early discussion on Fark, someone identifying himself as an employee of Worldcom indicated that the World Trade Center housed one of the major switches for their telephone networks, and another noted that his friend, a volunteer firefighter in Pittsburgh, had been put on alert and advised that there was a hijacking before the plane crashed outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania (see http://forums.fark.com/cgi/fark/comments.pl?IDLink=45123).  Many of these accounts do not follow the canons in fact-checking, seeking out alternative or opposing views, or attempted impartiality. They are necessarily more socially constructed, and read more like rumors, with particular aspects of the story being embellished while others are left aside.

In some cases, these eyewitness reports were concentrated, compiled, or posted to larger audiences. Some individuals compiled commentary and eyewitness accounts over a period of time.1 Others pooled what they saw as the most important information in an effort to record the event for the future. These included compilations of eyewitness accounts, photos and videos2 (including space imaging3), infographics,4 screenshots of news-related Web sites,5 television reports,6 and scans of front pages of local newspapers.7 Of course, traditional media from around the world also compiled eyewitness accounts for their audiences, and BBC America noted receiving “thousands” of emails from eyewitnesses.8

The MediaMap site, and similar sites,9 included links to official government information and experts’ views, telephone numbers for the involved airlines, and contacts for anecdotal and first-person accounts. On at least one site, the resources were presented as a “wikiwiki,” a feature that allowed visitors to easily append their own resources,10 while another site provided answers to frequently asked research questions.11 Those interested in primary sources could tap into press briefings posted on Web sites produced by Department of Defense,12 the FBI,13 the Red Cross,14 the Vatican,15 and dozens of other sources. Immediate analysis of the news media and advice to journalists was also available from sites like Newstrolls.com16 and Poynter.org,17 and Lexis-Nexis provided free access to archival materials related to the events.18 This democratization of journalistic sources, while in no way rivaling the contacts of established journalists, provided new opportunities for individuals to explore the space of news and information more extensively. It also provided new sources of error, rumor, and propaganda.

Nostradamus as news

The Web was an incubator of rumor as well as an inoculator – knocking down rumors and other fanciful tales. Surprisingly, the keyword with greatest number of new searches on Google during the month of September was not “terrorism” or “WTC,” but “Nostradamus.”19 As a result, the first site returned by Google—Nostradamus-repository.org20—saw a major spike in traffic, receiving over 1.2 million unique visitors according to Media Metrix.21 Interestingly, this site clearly refuted the idea that Nostradamus predicted the attacks on New York, yet the rumor persisted. Another site devoted to checking urban legends, Snopes, set up an entire section to deal exclusively with Web rumors surrounding September 11.22

Of course, Web sites could also help to give the rumors new life, by providing a fixed, seemingly authoritative reference. Indymedia, a group of sites dedicated to grass-roots, participatory reporting, was central to circulating a rumor that CNN had recycled archival films of Palestinians celebrating in the streets and rerun them as recent responses to the American disasters (see http://web.archive.org/web/20010920004645/http://www.indymedia.org/front.php3?article_id=63288). Likewise, the Sun, a British tabloid, printed a story of a firefighter “surfing” the rubble safely to the ground from the 83rd floor.

Several sites devoted attention to subjects they felt were “covered up” by the U.S. government. One popular conspiracy theory argued that there was strong evidence that the collapse of the Twin Towers was a result not of the collision and fire, but due to subsequent explosions designed to demolish the buildings (see http://web.archive.org/web/20011216221742/http://www.rense.com/general17/eyewitnessreportspersist.htm). Another theory had it that something was fishy with the damage to the Pentagon, and that it could not have been caused by an aircraft collision. This argument was made by a French author who presented it in Web form as a way of publicizing his book (see http://www.asile.org/citoyens/numero13/pentagone/erreurs_en.htm). This theory was widely distributed and widely refuted.

Implications: Beyond surveillance

The Web provided new ways of getting at news and information; with a bit of skill those using the Web could locate a range of facts concerning the events of September 11 and what followed them. Five decades ago, media researcher Harold Lasswell identified several functions that the news media serve. Informing the audience about the environment around them—which Lasswell termed the “surveillance” function—was only one of the ways media served the public. Lasswell, and media scholars that have investigated journalism and communication since, have identified other important ways in which the news helps society function effectively. Journalists also must place current events in the context of recent history, indicate how the day’s news might illustrate the culture or ideals of a society, and help news consumers to plan a course of action. The Web fulfilled these functions in important ways post 9/11.

One legacy of 9/11 for online news is that growing numbers of Americans seem to want to supplement the material they get from traditional media via traditional mechanisms such as television, newspapers, and magazines. Some Internet users become journalists themselves, with no other outlet than the sites to which they post their material.

In the long run, the most significant effect of this do-it-yourself journalism might be its value to historians. They will be able to see all kinds of stories, detail, and data that might have been lost without a medium like the Internet on which to record it.

  1. numoffset=”8″ http://web.archive.org/web/20011011020715/dereklink.com/WTC/wtc.htm
  2. http://web.archive.org/web/20010917013306/http://kottke.org/index.html, http://web.archive.org/web/20010917010820/www.worldnewyork.org/, http://web.archive.org/web/20010917011105/www.mrbellersneighborhood.com/
  3. http://web.archive.org/web/20010923185018/www.spaceimaging.com/level1/index32.htm
  4. http://web.archive.org/web/20010917010826/www.nixlog.com/infographics/
  5. http://web.archive.org/web/20011125160311/http://www.interactivepublishing.net/september/
  6. http://tvnews3.televisionarchive.org/tvarchive/html/, accessed 7 August 2002
  7. http://web.archive.org/web/20011107080651/http://www.poynter.org/Terrorism/gallery/extra1.htm
  8. http://web.archive.org/web/20011128021100/http://www.rnw.nl/hotspots/html/eyewitness010914.html, http://web.archive.org/web/20011003211012/http://news.bbc.co.uk/hi/english/static/in_depth/americas/2001/day_of_terror/eyewitness/9.stm
  9. http://web.archive.org/web/20010915230802/http://www.mediamap.com/Sept11.asp, http://web.archive.org/web/20011011083750/http://www.researchbuzz.com/911/metareference.html
  10. http://web.archive.org/web/20011001193722/http://kgate.virtual.net/cgi-bin/wiki.cgi?action=Browse&id=SeptemberDisaster
  11. http://web.archive.org/web/20010915232332/http://www.ibiblio.org/journalism/NWSworldtradecenter.html
  12. http://web.archive.org/web/20010913015622/www.defenselink.mil/news/Sep2001/p09122001_p176-01.html
  13. e.g., http://web.archive.org/web/20010916134341/http://www2.fbi.gov/pressrel/pressrel01/091401hj.htm
  14. http://web.archive.org/web/20010918214448/http://www.redcross.org/press/disaster/
  15. http://web.archive.org/web/20010917155616/http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/audiences/2001/documents/hf_jp-ii_aud_20010912_en.html
  16. http://web.archive.org/web/20010916222515/http://www.newstrolls.com/
  17. http://web.archive.org/web/20010925191736/63.208.24.134/Terrorism/index.htm
  18. http://web.archive.org/web/20010915184229/www.lexisnexis.com/resources/
  19. numoffset=”26″ http://web.archive.org/web/20011125000040/http://www.google.com/press/zeitgeist/zeitgeist-sept.html
  20. http://web.archive.org/web/20010920145851/www.nostradamus-repository.org/nycfaq.html
  21. http://web.archive.org/web/20011027063737/http://jmm.com/xp/jmm/press/2001/pr_101501.xml
  22. http://web.archive.org/web/20011126233107/http://www.snopes2.com/rumors/rumors.htm