I woke yesterday just after 8.00am to catch the tail end of Morning Ireland’s news headlines on RTÉ Radio 1.

So the first I knew of the bombs in Brussels came via old fashioned radio, though it was actually delivered via the relatively new-fangled TuneIn Radio app on a tablet.

Then as I made coffee, further details of the attacks in the Belgian capital came through, not only on radio, but also, on Twitter.

It hit me once again, how not only has the way we consume news changed so dramatically in such a short period of time but so too has how it’s reported.

A day after the social media site’s highly-publicised 10th birthday, my timeline was now being filled with updates, pictures, videos and comments on the three explosions across Brussels.

Meanwhile over on Facebook there were fewer news postings but far more personal statements of support and hoping friends and colleagues there were safe.

I imagine this says as much about my own social media settings as anything else, but this noticeable content variation also undoubtedly reflects one of the most important differences between how both platforms were designed and have developed.

What they had in common was the fact that once again it felt odd to see people posting a host of unrelated relatively flippant and light-hearted material in the midst of this very tragic story.

Nothing wrong with this, of course, in the same way that in the real world a multitude of conversations go on at the same time, but when something particularly solemn and gruesome has grabbed your attention, you’re always somewhat surprised that everyone else isn’t as taken by it as you.

At 9.00am I switched on BBC News on my TV. Unsurprisingly the Brussels bombings was the lead – and for the initial three hours I watched (and I expect it was the same on other news channels), the only – story.

And while I already knew by then the basic details of what had happened, as I expected, television had pictures and witness accounts I hadn’t yet seen, much of it coming in chaotically live and unedited, both via professional reporters and amateur eyewitnesses.

And as I also expected, given the nature of rolling news channels, very quickly pictures and reports began to repeat themselves, with new bits of information and images being added as they came in and were (you hoped) verified.

Two and a half hours later when I returned from a meeting, this time to Sky News the attack was still getting blanket coverage, though by now this coverage had moved on considerably.

Almost eight hours after the first bomb at Brussels airport we were now very much into the broader analysis sphere.

More details, images and witnesses had emerged, local and world figures had commented, commiserated and condemned, and speculation had gone into overdrive, with everything from the identity and backgrounds of the perpetrators, the reasons for the attack, possible lapses in intelligence and likely increases in security all going under the interrogative microscope, though without anything close to all the evidence.

It was particularly noticeable at this stage that the various networks were very comfortable with guest being interviewed over Skype and their journalists using their smartphones as newsgathering tools when necessary, even if the audio and picture quality weren’t what we’re used to.

At times like this low resolution sound and visuals are always better than no sound and visuals.

I saw numerous examples of reporters grabbing interviews with people caught up in the chaos or doing pieces to camera in front of pertinent backdrops on their own phones, I assume because they were for some reason somewhere camera crews couldn’t or hadn’t yet been able to access.

I was especially taken by a report I saw at least twice on Sky News of what I later found out was one of their staff, correspondent, Alex Rossi who was in the airport when the bombs went off and was now part of a crowd being evacuated, all the while talking to a news anchor on his own phone with synchronised visuals provided by someone shooting him on their phone as they walked alongside.

And on it went; it wasn’t until the main 6.00pm bulletins – at least on the BBC and RTÉ – that any other stories were given airtime.

I was in London for the 2005 7/7 bombings so I can imagine the confusion and fear in Brussels right now.

That morning two already full-to-capacity Piccadilly line trains came through my local Manor House tube station around 8.30am without my being able to get on.

I decided that taking the overground-train route, a-short-bus-and-Victoria-line-ride away, was probably a better option.

To this day I occasionally wonder how close those two Piccadilly line trains were to the one that was blown up after King’s Cross at 8.50am.

It probably wasn’t either of them but I’ve never actually sat down to work it out.

And even if I had all the necessary timeframe details, I’m not sure there’d be any point.

Meanwhile, in this pre-Twitter era, the first I knew about the explosions that July morning was when I got a text while on that overground train about 9.15am from my brother in Kildare asking me if I was ok.

I had no idea what he was talking about and told him I was grand, wondering if he meant to send it to one of his kids.

When he replied that there had been explosions in London I was gobsmacked.

I don’t remember if other mobile phones in my carriage were lighting up with similar messages and calls but when I got to the office 20 minutes later the attack was the only topic of conversation and was being covered wall to wall on all available TV news channels.

Back then I was intrigued that my brother nearly a few hundred miles away and in another country knew what happened in London before I did.

Now, of course, we’d all have known almost immediately as we did yesterday.

I have a particular interest in these kinds of major, live, breaking-news stories that reverberate around the world since developing and pitching a documentary series idea – sadly never commissioned – back in 2001 on such global media events.

I was actively working on it when 9/11 happened that September so you can only imagine how bizarre it felt to be watching a news story unfold that you knew fitted all the criteria for your television idea.

Some years later, still well before the arrival of social media, I worked up a series idea – also sadly never commissioned – about how UGC – user-generated content – or citizen journalism footage as it was known for a while, was playing an increasingly significant role in news reporting.

The infamous Rodney King beating home video camera footage would probably have been the lead, kick-off story, such was the impact its broadcasting had, not only on King and the Los Angeles police officers involved, but on the city of itself, culminating in the LA riots of 1992.

After making Reporters At War in 2003 I was particularly interested in how amateur-shot propaganda messages from “the enemy” were also becoming more common in our TV news bulletins, such videos by the likes of Al Qaeda, many showing Western hostages pleading for intervention to save their live, being regularly sent to news organisations through the old traditional postal system.

Today ISIS have fully grasped the shock news value of their even more disturbing footage that they distribute online.

And it’s this ability to get eyewitnesses and their pictures on our television screens with such ease and speed that is for me the most striking characteristic of the modern news-gathering machine.

In 2004 the vast majority of the footage we saw of the December 24th Asian tsunami was shot by locals and tourists who just happened to have their home video cameras to hand as the massive destructive wave came ashore and swept inland.

Twelve years ago, however, social media was only in its infancy: Facebook was just over 10 months old when the tsunami hit; YouTube wasn’t created until February 2005; and Twitter didn’t go live until March 2006.

So unlike today, back in 2004 local and international news crews had first to get to the various locations around the Indian Ocean affected.

Then they had to find people who had usable footage and either be given the physical tape it was on or buy it from them.

Only then could they send the pictures we’ve all seen since of the awful damage and devastation unfolding as the wave came ashore and then surged out again back to their network bases via their portable satellite technology.

Pointedly, at the time I noticed how little footage we saw of the wave’s impact on the east coast of Africa where significant destruction also occurred.

Then of course I remembered that there probably weren’t that many tourists in the countries concerned, particularly the likes of still war-torn Somalia or neighbouring Kenya where only a couple of years before suicide bombers had blown up the Paradise Hotel killing 13 and injuring 80.

And I imagined not many of the locals who witnessed the wave could actually afford video cameras.

Contrast this with Japan in March 2011 when chilling eyewitness footage of both the immediate effects of the initial earthquake and the subsequent killer tsunami was on our global TV screens within minutes.

Seven years after the Asian disaster, Japan was a completely different scenario.

In one of the world’s wealthiest, most high-tech countries, nearly everyone had a smartphone that was able to shoot and upload to a multitude of social media sites that were immediately accessible to newsrooms around the world.

I particularly remember that morning as I saw the news break on Twitter clicking a link on a BBC News tweet that took me to a video, probably only moments old, of a huge sheet of black, seething, burning, rubbish-filled water seen from a plane or helicopter overhead moving in over flat brown farmland peppered with industrial sized glasshouses, annihilating everything in its path.

In the distance you could see cars driving along the surrounding roads, many oblivious to the impending disaster that would probably cost them their lives.

You could also see pedestrians; you knew that in a few minutes they too would be dead.

It made for uneasy viewing.

Yesterday I followed news of the Brussels attacks, as I imagine did a lot of people, online, on radio and on TV, usually on two at a time.

And it was no big deal.

It’s at time like this I realise I now take for granted that this is how I, and increasingly more and more of us, consume our news.

Likewise I now fully expect our news providers to use all available digital tools to deliver fast and accurate news to me wherever I happen to be, on whatever platform is to hand.

This I suspect is a pretty big deal.

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10 Comments. Leave new

  • Michael Foley
    March 23, 2016 12:52 pm

    I know someone who did not know anything about the Brussels bombing until today. The reason was she found the deaths of the family in Donegal so disturbing she did not want other anything more about it. Her’s was a reaction against the sheer amount of news coming at us all the time.

    It was Live Line that caught the sheer horror of of Brussels for me, old fashioned radio with people telling their stories.

    As for ISIS and its sophisticated understanding of news media. It creates media events, events so compelling the news media cannot stay away, not should it. ISIS uses our right and wish to be informed to get across its own nihilistic message and when all else fails, they can behead a journalist, as they know the killing of a journalist will usually make news.

    • Wow, I’m amazed that person was able to blank out all news of Brussels yesterday, so ubiquitous is our modern, 24-hour media.

      I missed Liveline but when it does catch a story it’s unbeatable. Funnily, I’ll be producing on it for a run from the beginning of April.

      And I remember we analysed the propaganda value of the beheading of Daniel Pearl back in 2003 in Reporters At War.

  • Good piece Pat. Sometimes I avoid the football scores on a saturday to watch either Setanta or BBC highlights programmes that night without knowing the scores. This means a total blackout of TV / Radio /Twitter / facebook / Mobile phone etc. Much harder than it sounds.
    The day of the Omagh bombing it was 10pm before I heard anything about it for the above reason.

  • Hugh Linehan
    March 23, 2016 7:16 pm

    I have always quite liked the theory that terrorism is a media product. The use of spectacular acts of violence to impact on the consciousness of the population at large is intimately linked with the emergence and growth and development of an independent-from-the-state mass media. It’s not an accident that this form of political violence first emerged in the second half of the 19th century, when mass market newspapers were really beginning to create the idea of a mass audience I think if you look at the spectaculars of the 60s and 70s such as hijackings or sieges or bombings or kidnappings associated with movements like Baader-Meinhof or indeed the IRA, they seem to me to be very much part of the “golden age” of linear television. When it comes to 9/11, that certainly looks like the supreme spectacular of the 24 hour rolling news channel era – as an event it was perfectly tailored for that. Now, in the situation you’re. describing yesterday, I think you see acts of violence tailored to the era of UGC, YouTube, Twitter and all the rest of the technologies we are familiar with. I do wonder whether organisations such as Isis will start using some of the other technologies which have become prevalent, particularly in relation to live streaming and maybe even virtual reality. There is already evidence that some of the people taking part in these acts have attempted to use Go Pro cameras for example, although they haven’t managed to upload or distribute the associated content so far. It’s surely only a matter of time before they succeed in that.

    • I agree. If news didn’t cover these incidents – or indeed now if they weren’t spread online – then what would be the point? Then again, any news organisation would be mad not to. It’s a real catch 22. But that impossible choice will, I suspect, increasingly be taken out of the hands of news editors as social media makes the decision for them.

  • Still have vivid memories of 9/11. Heard news first from a colleague who was listening to headlines on RTE radio bulletin. Couldn’t make contact with my sister for some hours. She witnessed 2nd plane impact from apartment she lived in at the time. SKY news was our main source. How things have changed. Where next?

    • I saw it unfold on TV in ITN Factual in London…and then was glued to coverage for days after…and ever since I have to watch/listen to as many news bulletins every day as I can.

  • Benefitted from a fascinating lecture on news gathering by the inspiring, late Derek Davis, about 1982. At that time the big debate was should newscasters on RTE be experienced journalists like Derek or presenters like Don Cockburn. Anyway Derek asked our class what is news? Eager to please and like all hopeful hacks not short for answers we all gave numerous opinions and Derek just said no, no, no, no, not even close, no! Eventually he enlightened us. News is, and only is, what the Editor decides. As only Derek would he shared funny examples referencing a Radio One news editor who, when he was working somehow managed to work “news” of Pope John Paul II into most bulletins. “I ask you is ‘the Pope returned to his Summer residence, Castlegondolfo this evening’ f–king news? It is if he is the Editor.” There is a point here Pat. Social Media has reduced the Editor’s role. The Citizen is now not just citizen journalist but citizen editor and once he/she upload compelling pictures, footage, reports, or witness accounts traditional media has to follow. That is not just a change it is revolutionary.

    • Agreed, to a point. Social media still works in tandem with ‘traditional’ media and I think we’re a long way off a situation where we don’t consume news that has been filtered through editorial eyes. It may have reduced the editor’s role but it’s nowhere near eliminated. And in fact, in the wild west of the online world we probably need MORE verification and sense made of all the noise, hence the growth of the likes of Storyful.


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