Friday A/V Club: The Amateur Cameramen of 9/11

Before the streets were filled with people carrying cameras in their pockets, nonprofessional news footage was still on the rise.


Fourteen years ago today, this happened:

Writing in Reason shortly after 9/11, I called that "the most staggering footage to emerge from the terror." It wasn't just the video's apocalyptic content that staggered me; it was the fact it had been captured by an amateur who happened to have a camera with him that day. That hardly sounds significant now, but in 2001 the typical cell phone didn't come with video capabilities built in. You needed an actual distinct device that you thought of as "a camera" to get footage like that. In this case, a doctor named Mark Heath had brought one to document the scene for future reference, as he always did when responding to an emergency. Not long afterward, his recording was playing on CNN.

It wasn't the first time a nonprofessional had captured some key footage. (Just ask Abraham Zapruder.) But it seemed to be happening more and more often. Video cameras were becoming cheaper, more powerful, and more common, and they were much more likely to be running when an unexpected event struck. Since you couldn't count on a professional TV crew to be in place during a natural disaster or a terrorist attack, news programs frequently drew on this additional material. Whenever critics complained that bloggers and other amateurs were heavily dependent on the mainstream media's work, I would think of people like Heath and remember that the dependence was running both ways.

When disaster strikes these days, you can usually assume that at least half the crowd will have cameras in their pockets. And in the age of livestreams and Vines, their footage will turn up not just on outlets like CNN but in more direct and unedited venues as well. It all feels very futuristic; but then, back in 2001, Mark Heath's video felt futuristic too. Who knows what vernacular newsgathering will look like in another 14 years?

(For past editions of the Friday A/V Club, go here. For a particularly relevant installment, go here.)