Media documentation of the September 11 attacks

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During the September 11 attacks of 2001, a series of four coordinated terrorist attacks by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda, killed 2,977 people, injured over 6,000, and caused at least $10 billion in infrastructure and property damage. Multiple others have died due to 9/11-related cancer and respiratory diseases in the months and years following the attacks, leading the numbers impacted to continually shift to reflect the new numbers.

Some of the victims were able to document their experiences or the experiences of others and created well known images and video to document the attacks and their trauma. The media produced during and after the attacks were used to help identify victims, for investigations into the attacks and to document the attacks for history amongst other reasons. Many media forms were used, specifically photography and videography from passersby on the streets or surrounding areas, freelance photographers and media crews around the city. The large spread of images and video along with the lasting impact on the population caused many of the images and videos to be in the top of the list of performances given recognition in mid-2002. In broadcast journalism, the Peabody Awards went to ABC and NPR for the channels documentation of the attacks, and the Pulitzer Prizes were awarded to six events around the attacks including two in photography.[1]


Due to the public nature of the attack, that occurred in a busy location in broad daylight, the attack on the World Trade Center is said to be the most photographed disaster in history. Potentially due to the sudden and catastrophic nature of the attacks there was no effort by city, state, or federal government to document the disaster.[2] The Mayor of New York City at the time, Rudy Giuliani issued an executive order shortly after the end of the attack, banning amateur photographs of the ruins as it was deemed a "crime scene" and not a tourist attraction.[3]

Cameras and rolls of film were recovered in the rubble, that were either lost by surviving photographers or near those that lost their lives. These rolls of film and equipment when possible were cleaned and the photos produced to showcase the photographers' final work, notably with the recovered cameras of Bill Biggart.[4] Of the pictures recovered or initially uploaded to company servers, editors had to choose which to include or which would be deemed too disturbing to be published. Of polled photo editors who chose to run images classified as disturbing, for instance those with victims trapped on high levels or falling from the buildings, none chose to run the images on the front page but felt that not running the images would be a disservice to the victims and the scale of the tragedy. One such editor stated:[5]

The horror of the event and the magnitude just demanded that you get that across in a very forceful and powerful way. I can't imagine what was going through those people's minds as they're trapped inside the Trade Center. And think of all the bodies, the people jumping to their inevitable deaths. What was going through their heads when they looked at everything around them or looked at the 100 stories beneath them? And to think that was their best escape. I just can't fathom the horror, and I think that gets that across in a way that if you don't show it, people won't recognize it as being a terrible thing, but when you have the image before you, it just helps convey what was really going on that day. You can't not run a picture like that.

— Midwest Photo-editor, Media Studies of September 11 Journal Article; Winter 2003

Other forms of photo documentation of the disaster were not discovered until much later, such as a man's web-camera that had been set to take multiple photos and had captured the disaster.[6]

Some of these images were incorporated into an exhibition of images called After September 11: Images from Ground Zero which showcased twenty-seven images around the world.[7] Other exhibitions of the images were brought together in the form of archives, such as one spearheaded by photographer Joel Meyerowitz under the direction of the Museum of the City of New York to focus on the rescue and recovery work at Ground Zero.[7]

Well-known images[edit]

Photograph Name Photographer Description Notes
Impending Death Thomas Dallal Depiction of the North Tower of the World Trade Center after it was struck by American Airlines Flight 11, with numerous people visible trapped on upper floors and hanging out the windows. Placed second in Pictures of the Year International, used to attempt to identify victims depicted.
The Falling Man Richard Drew Depiction of an unknown subject who either fell or jumped from the upper floors of the North Tower, as he fell from the tower to his death. Anger and criticism is seen with the publication of the image.[8]
Raising the Flag at Ground Zero Thomas E. Franklin Depiction of three New York City firefighters raising the American flag at Ground Zero of the World Trade Center in the aftermath of the attacks. Has been incorporated in to a semi postal stamp and a 40-foot-tall bronze monument was based on the image.[9]
Shannon Stapleton Depiction of Father Mychal Judge's corpse being carried from the North Tower after he was killed by debris from the South Tower and became the first deceased recovered from the site. Has been described as an American Pieta.[10]
Dust Lady Stan Honda Depiction of survivor Marcy Borders covered in debris and dust after the World Trade Center collapse; the image became widely recognized. The image has been used in many retrospective articles about the attacks.[11]


At the beginning of the attacks, there were only three videographers who captured the impact of the first plane when it hit the north tower in New York City: a French filmmaker,[12] a German artist, and a Czech tourist. Two security cameras captured the impact at The Pentagon and the impact of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania is only recorded as a mushroom cloud in a single video.[13] The attacks were also captured by local law enforcement, such as Officer Glen Pettit who was a video cameraman for the New York Police Department.[4]

Jules and Gédéon Naudet are the French filmmakers who were at the scene of the attack as they were filming a documentary on members of the Engine 7, Ladder 1 firehouse in Lower Manhattan and had followed the fire fighters on a routine call following a suspected gas leak in downtown New York.[4] Upon hearing a plane pass overhead, Jules Naudet swung the camera to track it and filmed the collision[14] by chance. He continued to film during the attack and evacuation, gathering some 180 hours of footage. The brothers, by their own admission made an effort to not film any of those who died while they were at the site via either fire, jumping or other traumatic injuries.[15]

Some individuals tied to news stations, such as photojournalist Mark LaGanga, who works for CBS News, were called up by editors and executives and told to document the event. In the case of LaGanga, it was thought to be just a small plane crash, and he did not fully understand the true nature of the attack while he documented and interviewed passing first responders, until he documented the collapse of the North Tower.[16] Other videos of the attack were taken by individuals who did not make the footage public immediately, such as former New York University student Caroline Dries, who filmed the attack out of her 32nd floor room on Water Street and held on to the footage for almost 10 years. After releasing the footage, she stated that it took her ten years to understand why the footage was special, and that sometimes it would have been nice or easier to not have filmed it, and just to have run away.[17]

Television channels[edit]

Due to the reactive reporting of the attacks, many television journalists and their production teams were scrambling for information and reporting live from close locations to the attacks as possible. This allowed them to capture the real-time reactions of ordinary citizens, first responders, and political leaders as the events were unfolding, causing much of the verbal content aired to the public to be spontaneous and emotionally charged. Even later shows such as The Late Show with David Letterman showcased the emotional reactions to the attacks, rather than a potential narrative.[18] Many channels devoted 24 hour-7 days a week coverage to the attacks, as the magnitude of the damage was assessed, the potential for more attacks subsided, and important revelations into the roles of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida became known.[19]

Channels such as WNYW, on its Good Day New York program, aired footage almost immediately, and CNN had a live feed of the Twin Towers at 8:49 AM, almost three minutes after the first plane had hit. Other channels used news channel coverage in order to spread information, with VH1 and MTV utilizing CBS's material, and ESPN and ESPN2 utilizing ABC's material. At the end of the night, Nielsen estimated that at least 80 million Americans watched the evening news, while an estimate by the University of Georgia held that about two billion people either watched the attacks in real time or through the news.[13]

Telecommunication devices[edit]


While the phone networks were crucial during the attacks to document what was happening and gain information for either victims, family and friends or first responders, they were also battered by the attacks. Verizon's densest knot of cables and switches in the world were located near the trade center, with the attack destroying 300,000 voice access lines, and 4.5 million data circuits with 10 cellular towers made inactive.[20] This caused 14,000 businesses and 20,000 residential customers to lose service.[21]

Cell phones[edit]

During the September 11 attacks, cell phone technology was still being developed, and the capabilities of the technology themselves were limited. Relatively few cell phones could record and transmit still images and video. However, many scholars found that the growing adoption of cell phones allowed for the creation of spontaneous networks of communication that circumvented more centralized systems of communication. Most of the material created by cell phones was voicemail messages. Many of the voicemail records were included by individuals documenting the disaster and in archives about the reactions of the victims and survivors. The director of the September 11 Digital Archive Tom Scheinfeldt stated in an April 2008 interview;[22]

Voice messages from....September 11 are particularly interesting because they are so immediate and because they represent the real-time reactions of ordinary historical actors. In the past, recorded responses to events were either somewhat delayed (as in the case of written letters) or they were produced by governments or institutions (for instance, in the case of radio and television broadcasts).

— Tom Scheinfeldt, Interview, 1 April 2008

Loss of phone lines did not stop reports of survivors in the rubble of the buildings to call officials or family members during rescue efforts with their cell-phones.[23]

Pay phones[edit]

Throughout Washington D.C. and New York City, coin-operated pay phones on the street and near businesses became a vital link in communication and passing information.[13]


As the attacks occurred during a transfer period of technology, many of the victims used pagers instead of cell phones to communicate with friends and family. Some of these messages were obtained by Wikileaks and published in 2009, although the validity of the messages cannot be fully confirmed.[24] Of these messages, analysis has shown that the phrase "plane has crashed" was used most often at about 9 AM, along with "unconfirmed reports". Throughout the entire day and attack, the four most consistent phrases throughout were "please call home", "call me ASAP", "call your mother" and "call your wife".[25]

Airplane radios, intercoms, and air-phones[edit]

The hijackers of the airplanes did not know how to operate the planes' radio and intercom systems, so some of their comments were inadvertently sent to air traffic controllers. These comments, coupled with stewardesses who were able to operate the air-phone, meant that officials were able to document the attackers' movements on the planes.[26]


  1. ^ Zelizer, Barbie; Allan, Stuart (2002). Journalism after September 11. London & New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-203-21813-2.
  2. ^ Orvell, Miles (Spring 2006). "After 9/11: Photography, the Destructive Sublime, and the Postmodern Archive". Michigan Quarterly Review. 45: 239–256.
  3. ^ Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara (Spring 2003). "Kodak Moments, Flashbulb Memories; Reflections on 9/11". The Drama Review. 47: 11–48. CiteSeerX doi:10.1162/105420403321249983. S2CID 57570630.
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