How 9/11 changed the way we watch TV news
After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the three major broadcast networks stayed on the air with round-the-clock coverage for five straight days.
At the time, the network news divisions were still defined by their star anchors — Dan Rather on CBS, Tom Brokaw on NBC and Peter Jennings on ABC — all of whom had become familiar faces through years of delivering information into viewers’ living rooms each night. Their relationship with the audience was established by looking straight into the camera during times of crisis.
The anchors were considered heroes over that week, instilling calm in a shaken nation. But the tragedy was also a defining moment for cable news channels, which were still considered disruptors in the TV business, when they introduced a simple innovation — headlines scrolling at the bottom of the screen — that helped change the way people watched news.
Jonathan Glenn, then a news writer for Fox News, remembers getting a call from his bosses several hours into the network’s live coverage of the planes that struck the World Trade Center in Manhattan and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and the crash of a fourth hijacked plane in Pennsylvania. Their instructions were to put up a ticker at the bottom of the screen with continuously updated headlines.
“It was the most overwhelming story we had seen, and there was such a flood of information and a need to disseminate it. Everyone needed to know more,” said Glenn, now vice president of news writing and style for Fox News. “We just wanted to get as much out there as possible. So we started putting headlines at the bottom of the screen. It was a way to provide more information to viewers, to give them as much as we could possibly confirm at that time.”
Within hours, CNN and MSNBC were both running their own versions at the bottoms of their screens as well.
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Neal Shapiro, then-president of NBC News, recalls how he had to enlist his executive in charge of standards to write the copy for the ticker because no one else was available.
Viewers were used to seeing a ticker at the bottom of the screen to get sports scores on ESPN, stock prices on business channel CNBC and messages from what is now known as the Emergency Alert System. But for news, information primarily came from the anchor or correspondent on the screen.
“Television news didn’t use the screen as much before 9/11,” recalled Shapiro, now head of New York’s PBS station WNET.
After the broadcast networks returned to their regular programming, cable news stuck with the 9/11 story and its aftermath nonstop.
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In the weeks that followed, the ticker became a way to cover other stories crowded out by the 9/11 tragedy. It remained a fixture for years, helping cable news become ubiquitous.
“We saw a lot of photos of people watching muted TVs in restaurants or sports bars; just everywhere they turned to this coverage,” Glenn said. “Even if you were in a crowded restaurant, you were seeing this crawl, and you would have a sense of what’s happening.”
The ticker helped define the look of cable news, helping it stand out in a TV landscape where choices were proliferating. Soon, it showed up in depictions of TV news in movies and scripted shows.
Glenn said Fox News employed up to nine full-time staff writers to generate the copy for the ticker over the next 20 years. It was retired in April, as the network believed viewers’ ability to receive headlines instantly from smartphone alerts made the graphic obsolete.
“When it started, I don’t think I even had a BlackBerry,” he said. “I definitely had a pager. That was it.”
Twenty years after terrorists crashed hijacked planes into New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, the U.S. is still reckoning with the attack that toppled the twin towers, killed nearly 3,000 people, triggered a wave of increased security and launched a war on terrorism.
MSNBC has dropped full-time use of the ticker as well, focusing more on correspondents and on-air hosts. The ticker has reappeared for major ongoing stories, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, protests surrounding the death of George Floyd and the 2020 presidential election.
CNN, where people who are not habitual cable news viewers often go for major breaking stories, still uses the ticker full time.
But the ticker remains a remnant of how the most shocking story of our time forever shifted an audience habit. It had happened before.
After John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, ABC, CBS and NBC were on the air around the clock for four straight days, through the 35th president’s funeral. That was a turning point for TV news, which overtook newspapers as the primary source of information for the country.
When the broadcast networks went back to regular programming after their nonstop 9/11 coverage, viewers who still wanted real-time information found that cable news was always on. In the years that followed, a growing number of viewers made cable news their first stop for breaking stories, and they have been doing so ever since.
“There was a week when the world really seemed uncertain in a fundamental way, and the big three traditional networks were there to cover it for you, and then they stopped to go back to their normal pattern,” Shapiro said. “In cable news, the audience found a place to keep that 24/7 coverage.”
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