By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing
News in a Crisis
September 11, 2001. That date will resonate in our collective conscious as a turning point in this young millennium. Many of us had our attention glued to a radio or television, transfixed by the horror of the unfolding events. Without the immediate availability of TV or radio, the Internet was the next best source of information, but did it pass or fail its test under crisis?
Having heard an initial report on the radio, I had turned on my TV and now have images seared in my brain from the progression of those tragic occurrences. In spite of what I'd witnessed, I dutifully made the commute to work, monitoring events on my car radio as I went. The radio I keep in my office was turned on shortly after I arrived. The images conveyed by radio reporters provided an immediate description of events as they unfolded.
Radio and TV, while providing an immediacy of images, do not always convey the breadth of information associated with an event or idea. This is why those broadcast media have not replaced newspapers. Images (visual or aural) do not best convey the impressions and information of people who have witnessed or been involved in unfolding events. Text is still an efficient, and low bandwidth, way of conveying detailed information.
Need .... more ... information ....
While not doing an exhaustive search for information sources that morning, I did want more information than could be conveyed in the brief snippets that radio reports provide. My first attempts were to try cnn.com and msnbc.com, two staples of online news. Both sites were overloaded but managed to provide a brief summary while informing that their servers were unavailable.
I did eventually find two sites that provided detailed information as it was known at that time. The Associated Press web site (www.ap.org) was responsive and provided a good summary of what was known about crashes. Since they are a news service who provides stories to print and broadcast media, they have an extensive reporting organization which was able to gather information from multiple sources.
The other site I turned to was that of the Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com). I was a bit surprised to find such concurrency of information on that site, since we normally think of newspapers as a daily source driven by their print editions. In particular, the Washington Post had good coverage of the disaster at the Pentagon and the reaction of U.S. Government officials.
How did the Internet hold up in time of extreme crisis?*
Overall, I was disappointed in some sites ability to convey information in a time of such crisis. The Internet sites which have tried to market themselves to the widest audience possible, cnn,com and msnbc.com in particular, did not stand the test when those markets that they developed for their commercial benefit turned to them for information when most needed.
Traditional print journalism outlets provided some of the best information and were the most available. Their detailed coverage, especially in the aftermath when analysis of events was unfolding, provided a picture in words of the extent of the tragedy and its impact on our country and the world.
The printed word has still not been replaced in its ability to provide information and support an ability to understand events and ideas in a reasoned manner. We should remember that the next time we get excited about a new streaming media technology for the Internet.
* For an interesting look at the role Web search engines played during this time, see "The Attack How We Searched," an About.com feature article. Along that same line is the article, "Search Terms Reveal the Mood of America, the Internet." Not surprisingly, the article "Searchers & Surfers Help Document the Tragedy" reports that "a major project is underway to capture a snapshot of the "Websphere" of sites, pages and links that emerged in the wake of the attacks. webArchivist.org is working with The Internet Archive, in collaboration with the Library of Congress, to build an archive for future research and reference." -- Ed.