News Tickers: Everything Changed After 9/11

While everything didn’t change after 9/11, one of the things that did was the presentation of television news.  James Poniewozik for TIME:

The morning of Sept. 11, 2001, there was more news than the country could bear and more than a TV screen could fit. Beyond the plane crashes and burning buildings, reports and rumors abounded of other attacks, explosions, evacuations. There was chaos, fear and both literal and figurative smoke clouding the situation. There was too much to process and too much to transmit; the news was on overload.

Enter the ticker: the steady stream of headlines that glided along the bottom of the screen while anchors did interviews, while leaders addressed the public, while the towers fell. Fox News, which in so many ways set the tone, volume and attitude of cable news in the ’00s, was first to deploy the ticker that morning, followed by CNN and MSNBC. It was an improvisational call — a simple, old-fashioned solution (harkening back to the “zipper” installed on the New York Times building in 1928) to a modern problem.

After the shock wore off and the smoke cleared, the ticker remained. 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. At first, the ticker was like a relief valve, a way for millions of anxious viewers to tune in and quickly get updated: white house evacuated … faa has shut down all domestic flights … red cross appeal — blood donations … 2 aircraft carriers have been deployed … Then it became a kind of anxious Greek chorus of constant low-level chatter: anthrax scare … shoe bomb …

The emergency receded, but the signifier of emergency never did. Crawls were used on TV before 9/11 — but temporarily, for major breaking news, weather emergencies, elections, national crises. They asked for heightened alertness, gave your pulse reason to quicken just a little. And now, the data stream onscreen seemed to say, the emergency was permanent; the warning lights were always flashing.

Indeed, even on sports programming, where no such urgency exists, the ticker is now ever-present.  It’s been with us so long that I’d buried the origin.  But I still find it annoying and distracting, beckoning me to read to see what’s new rather than concentrate on what’s on the big screen.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. sam says:

    “Indeed, even on sports programming, where no such urgency exists, the ticker is now ever-present.”

    Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News Channel threatened to sue the makers of the Simpsons over a spoof news ticker, the show’s creator Matt Groening has claimed.Mr Groening said Fox News raised the unlikely prospect of suing a show broadcast by its sister channel, Fox Entertainment, because it wanted to stop the Simpsons parodying its famously anti-Democratic party agenda.The alleged row centred on a parody of Fox News’ rolling news ticker, which included headlines such as “Do Democrats cause cancer?”Mr Groening said the news channel backed down because it would have caused Fox to bring a lawsuit against itself.”Fox said they would sue the show and we called their bluff because we didn’t think Rupert Murdoch would pay for Fox to sue itself. We got away with it,” Mr Groening told National Public Radio in the US.”But now Fox has a new rule that we can’t do those little fake news crawls [tickers] on the bottom of the screen in a cartoon because it might confuse the viewers into thinking it’s real news,” he added on NPR’s Fresh Air programme.

    Heh, indeedy. I particularly like the Fox claim that the ticker on the Simpsons might be mistaken for real Fox news…

  2. J. Stephen says:

    I would assert that the constant stream of actual headlines at the bottom of the screen also freed these networks to stuff their schedules even more fully with more commentary/opinion shows and less actual news coverage.
    Of course, that was a condition of the mid-90s.  Now, anyone with a smart phone can pull up those same headlines (and much more) on a small device in the palm of their hands from anywhere at any time.  We have gone from the troubling condition of “news channels” not providing much actual news to not really needing “news channels” for news at all.
    For many of us, the “news channel” is effectively a “news-related commentary/opinion channel” 98% of the time and, for that other 2% of the time something really important is happening, an audio/visual security blanket.