Blowing Off Steam

MSM and citizen journalism collide in coverage of Manhattan steam pipe explosion

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.

“Stuntbox” took striking photos of the explosion from his office window. Justin aggregated those images, as well as video footage of the explosion, on the “Motiveless Crime” blog.

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.”

The difference between the two general forms of journalism covering Wednesday’s tragedy can be boiled down, in the starkest terms possible, to the difference between objectivity and subjectivity. That may seem obvious—and, fine, it is—but there’s a lot at stake in the third- versus first-person distinction. The walls that separate public from private erode with each new blog and Live Journal and MySpace page we build in the Internet’s marketplace of ideas. As our concept of what’s acceptable—and off-limits—for public consumption slowly shifts, news coverage evolves with it: we news consumers want the facts, certainly, but we often want more than the black-and-white narratives newspapers tend to provide. We want to know what events mean, how they made people feel, what it was like, viscerally, to have participated in them. We want our meat-and-potatoes news stories seasoned with a bit of spice, a bit of sweetness. Bloggers have the ability to tell the raw, personal stories behind the news—and to publish them without first filtering them through the institution of the newsroom.

Wednesday’s explosion coverage provided a tidy snapshot of the increasingly symbiotic relationship traditional and citizen journalism are developing; the professional-versus-amateur divide is another wall crumbling under the weight of the Web. A telling example of that last week came, ironically enough, courtesy of one of the MSM’s chief trustees: The New York Times. Its City Room—an interactive blog that functions as a kind of journalistic appendage to the paper’s traditional news stories—supplemented the paper’s main articles with primary-source interviews, personal diaries, multimedia specials, and reader discussion forums. In offering such one-stop shopping for coverage of the explosion, the Times gave institutional sanction to the fact that citizen and traditional journalism are no longer entirely separate propositions. The premise of City Room and similar sites is that all people can be reporters—and vice versa. That’s also their promise.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.