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Flashpoint

September 18, 2011

Social media makes news more intimate, more disturbing In decade after 9/11

When a student recently asked what was “the hardest story” I had to cover during my 26 years working at CNN, the question caught me off guard. It seemed so obvious that the answer would be the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. For many of us, those events were a shattering introduction to terror. But for today’s young adults, that particular channel has always been on.

While many newsroom veterans admit today that 9/11 shook us to the core, many young people may remember the terrorist attacks of that day as simply another tragedy brought to their attention during the never ending 24/7 news cycle. They are living in a world all too often permeated with death, brutality and carnage that risks leaving some hardened and others simply be numb to it all thanks to new avenues of instant communications.

Their formative years were underscored by the constant threat of violence in the name of extremism, much as an earlier generation was raised with the specter of nuclear annihilation and the potential crush of communist domination. But the Red Scare has long since given way to orange alerts, and the undercurrent of fear is colored by new technologies and new mediums.

The aftermath of bombings and battles and mass shootings is now just a click away in the graphic galleries of YouTube, Flickr, Twitpic and Facebook. Cellphones and Flip cams give us eyes and ears almost everywhere, presenting close-up views of horrific scenes. Nothing is too intimate, or disturbing, to be shared through social media.

This phenomenon also is evident in the unfolding of natural disasters and political protests.

When the government of Iran cracked down on dissidents in 2009, millions of people were able to watch Neda Agha-Soltan dying on the streets from a militia bullet. Dozens of videos were posted across the Internet, allowing viewers to see every moment of agony and fear as life seeped away from the young woman’s eyes.

Decapitated bodies, crushed limbs and blood-soaked rubble dominated photographs and video uploaded from Haiti within minutes of the 2010 earthquake.

By contrast, our visual perspective of 9/11 was far more controlled. Just a few hours into the coverage, many television stations shelved pictures of frantic people leaping to their deaths and freeze-framed video of the second plane before it struck. There seemed to be a collective agreement on the need to protect the sensibilities of the audience and the dignity of the victims.

News consumers now decide their own levels of tolerance and deference. It’s changing the way mainstream media chooses and presents images. Disclaimers often replace restrictions as the long-established role of journalists as gatekeepers quickly becomes irrelevant and unwanted.

The dilemma for news organizations is where to find the fine line between the graphic and the gratuitous, the essential and the egregious. And they must ask if it matters when social media and citizen journalism are constantly shifting that line.

The pictures so carefully filtered on 9/11 can now easily be found on the Internet. Many were uploaded to YouTube shortly after the site’s debut in 2005. Search terms such as “9/11,” “World Trade Center attacks” and “September 11,” now yield more than half a million hits on that site alone. Related photographs can be found in similar numbers on Flickr.

Images of the experience are so ubiquitous, it is perhaps understandable that young adults lack any perception of the attacks as something remarkable in the history of terrorism or the practice of journalism.

While older generations remember the post-atomic movies and televisions shows common from the ’50s to the ’80s, young adults are living a new nightmare filled with new types of death as well as restrictions on their personal freedoms. Mushroom clouds may have bloomed in imaginations for my generation; the images wrought by terrorism have made terror an intricate part of the lives of America’s young adults in ways not imagined when the towers fell.

Annie Hammock is a Ball State journalism instructor and coordinator of the university’s United Media project. She worked at CNN for 26 years, serving in various roles, including producer.

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