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Home videos star in online attack coverage

TV networks have long turned to amateur video, but last month's terrorist attacks are spurring a new form of video journalism: broadcasting home-multimedia files over the Web.

NEW YORK--On the morning of Sept. 11, David Vogler saw the first jet airliner slam into the World Trade Center and started to run.

The graphic designer would later join the streams of dazed New Yorkers leaving the scene, but for the moment his destination was closer by. Returning with a digital video camera from his Battery Park apartment, he hit the "record" button. About an hour later, his clips of the disaster, seen from street level just blocks away, were online.

"Anyone who had access to a digital camera and a Web site suddenly was a guerrilla journalist posting these things," said Vogler, adding that he felt compelled to record the event for history. "When you're viewing an experience through a viewfinder, you become bolder than when you're naked, without the camera."

TV networks have long turned to amateur video, a practice that was in full force after terrorist attacks last month that destroyed the World Trade Center and damaged the Pentagon. But a new form of video journalism is welling up as digital cameras, cheap editing tools and fast Net connections make it easier than ever to broadcast multimedia files over the Web.

Amateur clips of the Sept. 11 disaster have proliferated online, appearing on mainstream news sites, peer-to-peer file-swapping services and even sites that typically cater to pornography.

The wide and nearly immediate distribution of video footage of the disaster has renewed concerns over the accuracy and accountability of online media. But others say the trend merely highlights for video what has long been true for print journalism: the mainstream media's loss of control in the face of the Internet.

That realization comes at a sensitive time for news outlets, which must negotiate with law enforcement and the military over how closely they will be allowed to cover pending efforts to shut down global terrorism, including military strikes launched this week against Afghanistan.

On Wednesday, major TV networks agreed to review video statements from suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden and his followers before broadcasting them after the U.S. government warned that they might include secret messages to terrorist cells outside the country.

As war coverage continues, it remains to be seen whether online publishers will exercise the same restraint.

"The networks have stopped playing video of the planes crashing and the buildings coming down. But this is where the Web comes in, where you can actually see the video you want to see," said Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor of online media at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. "You don't have to be a hostage of the standards and practices of big media corporations."

Little media hits big time
Several small media organizations recently have sprung up, offering online news video as an alternative to mainstream TV broadcasts. Video Activist Network and Free Speech TV, for example, offer extensive video archives and breaking news coverage of events such as protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.

The Seattle protests sparked a new sense of urgency among alternative media sources, which sought greater cooperation through the creation of so-called independent media centers. Such networks of collectively run media outlets have made a mission of providing grassroots coverage of events.

Paul Richmond, interim Northwest regional director of the National Lawyer's Guild, said video and the Internet already are playing an important role in offering an alternative to news coverage from big networks.

"Fewer and fewer companies own a larger and larger share of the news market," said Richmond, who was among those videotaping the Seattle protests. "It's an equalizer...that can give some semblance of balance."

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, amateur journalists have been in high demand not only among alternative Web sites, but also among major media outlets. CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, The Associated Press and Reuters all confirmed that the vast majority of their visual reports were from amateurs, according to the Poynter Institute, a media watchdog group.

Experts say the increase in demand for online video was unprecedented and points to the growing importance of the Internet as a visual broadcast medium.

That growth is aided by the increasing prevalence of high-speed Internet connections. The population of U.S. households with broadband access this year is expected to reach 8.6 million, according to Internet research company Jupiter Media Metrix. By 2005, that figure could reach 28.8 million.

MSNBC.com, which experienced a tenfold flood of traffic Sept. 12, noticed a continued interest in its video of the plane crashes and collapsing towers weeks later. The site also streamed a video by Dr. Mark Heath, a local physician who was on his way to offer assistance near the World Trade Center when its towers came down. Heath's video, which showed some of the most vivid images of Ground Zero after the collapses, aired on television and the Web.

Michael Silberman, the east coast managing editor at MSNBC.com, said people visiting the site have mainly used streaming video to watch current developments in the story. The most popular video clip since the attacks has been President Bush's address to Congress, followed by reports from Afghanistan and press conferences from the FBI.

"Events and news of the moment have been the biggest draw," Silberman said.

The FeedRoom, a streaming-news Web site, saw a dramatic surge in traffic Sept. 11 because its streaming partner, WNBC--along with most TV stations in New York--lost its signal once the broadcast antenna on the World Trade Center's north tower fell. Many WNBC viewers blacked out by the collapse went to The FeedRoom to watch live footage, according to Bart Feder, senior vice president of the site.

WTC on fire Located just 10 blocks from the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, The FeedRoom turned two of its digital cameras toward the towers after hearing the first plane hit. Like most news sources, The FeedRoom caught the explosion from the second plane hitting. Within minutes, video of the attack was on its site.

"What the Web has been able to do is give people the choice in getting the specific video they want on demand," Feder said. "To be able to deliver TV on demand is something that never really existed until now."

An untamed Web
The proliferation of amateur video following the Sept. 11 attacks is drawing attention outside of traditional media circles.

Multimedia file-swapping service Morpheus, developed by Franklin, Tenn.-based MusicCity, posted a notice on its start page soliciting amateur video content in a bid to turn its service into an alternative news source.

"Important news is being captured by users each day, and it is never made available to the public," the notice read. "Now you can do your part to make sure the news will always be available to members of the Morpheus Users Network. Imagine the power of a news organization with 20 million reporters around the world. BE THE MEDIA!"

The notice links to keyword searches for the recent events. When a person chooses "World Trade Center" as a search term, Morpheus retrieves a long list of audio and video clips, including many from the Sept. 11 events. People can download these videos as well as other digital images.

A MusicCity representative did not return calls for comment.

Other sites with no professional news background also jumped on the bandwagon. For example, amateur footage of the attacks has shown up throughout ConsumptionJunction.com, a site that links to mainly pornographic and violent video clips.

With the proliferation of digital images online, experts warn that the Internet also has been the source of some false depictions making their way through e-mail boxes around the world.

Kenny Irby, who is in charge of visual journalism at Poynter, pointed to one digital picture that showed a man wearing a winter jacket and a ski hat on top of the World Trade Center with an American Airlines plane flying toward him in the background. The photo has since proven to be fake; the American Airlines plane hit the north tower, which does not have an observation deck, and the temperature that morning was in the mid-70s.

"The Internet is another source of information, especially for major news of this impact," Irby said. "But consumers, particularly American citizens, are still turning to legitimate media organizations to authenticate their validity."

Behind the camera's shield
Vogler, the New York graphic designer, plans to update his Web site with new videos of the disaster and images of the aftermath. He was allowed back into his apartment, which once overlooked a park just north of the World Trade Center, two weeks ago but has decided to leave Lower Manhattan for a while to escape the stench and clean-up effort.

Today, his apartment overlooks mountains of smoking debris at Ground Zero--a view he intends to videotape and share with the world from his Web site.

Vogler said his experience has given him new appreciation for what some journalists are willing to go through to get a story. But he said the real rewards have been primarily personal.

"I found that for me, posting videos and sharing these experiences was the best therapy," he said. "It's a modern way of a survivor of a disaster declaring, 'I'm still alive; look at this Web site. I got out.'"