- The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks ushered in many changes in American life.
- One of the lesser-known changes was that the attacks prompted news networks to introduce the scrolling news ticker at the bottom of the screen.
- The news ticker quickly became a staple of the news-watching experience, but also came to reflect a society that was always in crisis mode.
The September 11 terrorist attacks had a profound impact on just about every aspect of American life, from the rise in hate crimes to the creation of the TSA. They even had a lasting impact on the way Americans talk.
But one of the lesser-known changes ushered in that day took place on TV screens, specifically, the displays of cable-news networks covering the tragedy.
For cable news outlets, September 11 was the day they introduced the scrolling news ticker at the bottom of their screens. Now a ubiquitous part of the news-watching experience, the news ticker was largely unused before the 2001 attacks.
According to the Observer, prior to September 11, news tickers had mostly been used to alert viewers of emergency weather updates, sports scores, and stock market quotes, and were used intermittently at most.
That all changed the day of the attacks, when news networks suddenly found themselves scrambling to keep up with a disaster that was rapidly and simultaneously unfolding in New York City, Washington DC, and rural Pennsylvania. At 10:49 a.m., 21 minutes after the collapse of the World Trade Center’s North Tower, Fox News launched its scrolling news ticker at the bottom of its screen featuring the latest facts and headlines. CNN followed suit within 20 minutes, and MSNBC debuted its own news ticker at 2 p.m., according to the Observer.
For viewers, desperate for information and answers, the news ticker was a welcome innovation. It served something of a therapeutic function, too:
“Every news channel — and many non-news channels — broadcast short clips of video footage in loops that were transfixing until they became nauseating,” Kate Stoeffel of the Observer wrote in 2011. “In lieu of watching the sequence of events again — no more believable for how many times it’d been viewed — the crawl was a place to avert one’s eyes without interrupting the consumption of news. It informed and it soothed.”
Americans remained glued to their TVs for weeks following the attacks, and networks kept pace by keeping the ticker on their screens. Unlike past emergencies, this time the news never stopped scrolling. Networks continued to employ it in the days, weeks, and months after the attacks, until viewers could hardly remember a time before it existed.
“To remove the ticker, after all, would be to say life had gone back to normal, to reject the national shibboleth that everything had changed,” James Poniewozik wrote for Time magazine in 2010. “Who wanted to be the first to do that?”
As months turned into years, observers began to recognize the news ticker as a reflection of a country that was perpetually on edge, and of news outlets that were willing to capitalize on viewers’ fears.
“After the shock wore off and the smoke cleared, the ticker remained,” Poniewozik wrote. “It became not just a tool but a symbol. It was a message in itself, a constant prod, an emblem of a media era of constant crisis mode and steady overstimulation.”
The scrolling updates became an “anxious Greek chorus of constant low-level chatter,” he wrote, adding that “now, the data stream onscreen seemed to say, the emergency was permanent; the warning lights were always flashing.”
Seventeen years later, the ticker is still going strong, although networks have begun to curtail its use. Fox News nixed the news ticker during its daytime programming, only bringing it back for primetime coverage every night at 7 p.m. MSNBC ditched the news ticker entirely in April, although CNN continues to use it around the clock.
It’s just one of the many ways life in America was irreversibly changed that day, and an example of how the effects of the attacks are still playing out today.