In those rare, often tragic instances when the words “explosion” and “midtown Manhattan” make their way into same headlines, many of us reflexively leap to another familiar word: terrorism. As journalists scrambled to report on last Wednesday evening’s Grand Central-area steam pipe explosion, they were working within the invisible shadows of the Twin Towers.
The stories they wrote—for The New York Times, for the New York Daily News, for the AP and Reuters—followed the standard format for reporting on disasters: straightforward narrative and basic, here’s-what-you-need-to-know details. Given the shadow of 9/11, though, many news organizations also went out of their way to assure their audiences that the explosion was not, in fact, an act of terror. (They did the same when Yankee pitcher Cory Lidle’s small airplane crashed into an East Side apartment building last October.) The media behemoths understand the power they have over public consciousness; knowing their strength, they step gingerly. That’s commendable.
Yet in focusing so squarely on the “everything’s fine” angle of Wednesday’s explosion—that it was not, in fact, a manifestation of the predicted Summer of Terror; that harmful asbestos hadn’t been released when the geyser-like burst of steam erupted from the ground—much of the mainstream coverage also glossed over another important angle of the story: that people are scared. That, just days after the National Intelligence Estimate informed us of Al Qaeda’s increased ability to attack the U.S., we are on edge. That a pervasive culture of fear is holding many of us, though we’re often loathe admit it, in its clutches. In telling us what happened—and what didn’t happen—in last week’s explosion, the mainstream stories provided only implicit coverage of the more personal narratives behind the news.
Enter the citizen bloggers.
“This whole event scared the bejezus out of all of us!” wrote Rambling Rebecca, her lack of word-mincing belying her nom de plume. “New Yorkers are always hypersensitive to this kind of disturbance.”
Sue Romano Geller echoed that let’s-get-down-to-emotions attitude in her assessment: “These are definitely scary times, in NYC today,” she wrote. “The fear that another terrorist attack was upon us had folks running through the streets covered with debris, tears running down their faces. In fact it was a steam explosion in the streets of Manhattan, but how close these feelings are to all of us and how frightening these times truly are.”
The knock on citizen journalism—at least among MSMers—is that most of it traffics in the trivial and contributes no original reporting. But the chaotic scene around Grand Central last week crowded traditional news media and citizen journalists together, figuratively and quite literally, as both groups of first-draft historians worked toward journalism’s most basic goal: to find out what had happened. Bloggers’ coverage, through man-on-the-street-style accounts told in the first person, brought a level of intimacy and immediacy to the story that traditional media did not.
In fact, CNN wrote, “I-Reporters” Jonathan Thompson and Ben Alden—ordinary New Yorkers who used cameras and iPhones to capture the explosion as it happened—were the first to capture images of the bursting steam.
Others captured the event in words. Johnna Adams, a.k.a. “BlindSquirrel,” described the initial confusion on the ground: “The streets were packed with people and no one knew what had happened. I heard that a building had come down and that an electrical turbine had exploded—but nobody knew anything. I walked passed one delivery truck that was blaring its radio for everyone to hear, all I was able to hear as I walked passed was ‘people are running from the building.’ Which was not encouraging.”
Noah of “Metroblogging NYC” analyzed the chaos Adams depicted: “With yesterday’s scare, one thing I took note of was the way rumors spread rampantly before anyone knew what was actually going on.”