A legacy of silent voices

ON SEPTEMBER 22, 2001, I looked down on the smouldering ruins of the former World Trade Center from the top floor of an adjacent building.

The entrance to the building was inside the so-called “frozen zone” where access was restricted to emergency personnel, officials and journalists.

I can still feel the way my stomach lurched when I stood at the edge of the roof. We were only on the 23rd floor and it was already a long way down.

I can only imagine what it must have been like for the people who were trapped on the upper floors of the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11, 2001.

The voices of the people who died that day are mostly lost to us. Their absence made all the more powerful by the endless loops of footage which showed the planes crashing again and again. “What about the people inside?” we wanted to know.

The silence from inside the towers made reporting the events of 9/11 difficult. We could only imagine what was going on in those upper floors. We had no reliable reports. We had no way of reaching anyone to tell us what was happening. No journalistic record exists of what happened in the two towers in the approximately 100 minutes between the first attack at 8.46am and the collapse of World Trade Center 1 at 10.28am.

Looking back just 10 years after, it’s astonishing how much journalism and reporting has changed. In September 2001, I walked around the site of the former World Trade Center with a notepad and a pencil. No video. No high-def camera. No smartphone. And no way of remotely sending the story back from the site. I had to go home and log onto my slow-as-molasses AOL dial-up account.

Now I teach journalism at Hofstra University and I’m preparing my students for a much different newsroom than the one I filed to 10 years ago. Today, information is everywhere. Students share every waking moment on social media. Stories break on Twitter. People share images on Facebook. They post videos to YouTube. None of these sites existed 10 years ago.

Ironically, The New York Times has teamed up with YouTube for the 10th anniversary with a special channel to host video reflections. It’s an admission from the print behemoth that legacy media needs to find ways to tell stories using these new platforms. If YouTube had existed at the time of the attacks, we would certainly have seen more video.

Like most people living in New York at the time I was both drawn to and repelled by the footage. It’s like the old grainy footage of the abduction of Jamie Bolger. We watch the screen repeatedly hoping that the ending will change.

Almost immediately after the attacks, an offline precursor to Facebook sprang up on the walls of the 69th Regiment Armory at Lexington on Lexington and 26th Street. Home to the legendary Fighting Irish regiment, its huge block-long walls were papered with “Missing” posters appealing for information about the then 3,000-plus people who were presumed to be alive, somewhere.

Some had called their families after the first explosion at the North Tower and said they were leaving. Many remained in the South Tower after being advised to stay there.

Jim Colgan, an Irish journalist in New York, saw the second tower collapse. He walked as close as he could get down the West Side Highway and began filing stories for Irish outlets.

Colgan, whose data-driven reporting has been nominated for an award from the prestigious US Online News Association, says his stories would be very different now.

“I would have taken photos and posted them on Instragram, would have tweeted every observation — the sound of the screams, the dust-covered people. If someone could have collected the torrent of tweets and image posting that would have surely emerged, we all would have known much more, much sooner.”

RTÉ correspondent Robert Shortt, who reported on the Irish reaction to the attacks, says social media would have helped reporters with the human interest element, so necessary to news.

“There would probably have been more information about the people who died in the attacks. But I still think the ‘old media’ tools of pictures, radio reporting and newspapers would still be how most people would find out what was happening with such an enormous story.”

Shortt’s right. We still gather round the legacy media when a big story breaks. But the big story on 9/11 was the human interest story. It’s the story I advise student journalists to seek out. And on 9/11 reporters just couldn’t get at it. We couldn’t reach the people in those towers any more than the rescue services could.

Professor Kelly Fincham teaches journalism and social media at Hofstra University on Long Island.

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