The Challenger explosion, the Egyptian uprising and the communication revolution

I’m teaching a new course in Digital Journalism this semester, where the class is studying the use of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter as reporting tools and story-telling platforms. We’re talking about how these and other “Web 2.0” applications, such as YouTube and Flickr, are changing journalism.

Two stories that were in the news yesterday are perfect examples of these changes.

The one that’s illustrative of the way things used to be was, of course, the 25th anniversary of the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Just like the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and later the terrorist attacks on the U.S. of Sept. 11, 2001, it was one of those “I remember where I was…” events for a generation of Americans.

And I do remember where I was, and how I found out about it, and it’s a great contrast to today’s world of instantaneous 24/7 news and information. I was in graduate school at Texas A&M University, working for my dissertation chairman as a reseach and editorial assistant. I was with him in San Antonio helping him with a presentation he was making to a meeting of Texas school administrators.

We were either on the road or in sessions all day. My professor wasn’t much of one to listen to the radio, and Blackberries and even cell phones were still the stuff of James Bond movies in 1986. The only time we ventured out of the hotel was to go and visit The Alamo just down the block. So I literally did not find out about the awful event that had happened that morning until I got home to our apartment in Bryan that evening and Jayne told me all about it.

She was working for a newspaper at the time and all they had done there all day was to stand in front of the TV and watch the story unfold along with millions of other shocked Americans. It’s hard to imagine someone in the U.S. in 2001 not hearing about the terrorist attacks, which happened at about the same time of day, until after 5 p.m.

Somewhere in our house, we still have a copy of the front page of the next day’s Houston Post with that newspaper’s coverage. (Actually another example of a big change in journalism. Like many major American cities in the last 25 years, Houston has become a one-newspaper town. The Post stopped publishing in 1995.)

Contrast that story with the one unfolding rapidly in Egypt right now, where thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand the resignation of the country’s longtime autocratic ruler, President Hosni Mubarak. The 81-year-old president, who has been in office for 30 years, has announced he plans to run for re-election in the fall. (These are the kind of elections where the incumbent gets 96 percent of the vote and later you wonder whatever happened to those other 4 percent.)

He would be 87 at the end of his term, and many Egyptians have decided that, given the declining prospects of employment and prosperity, especially for the young people that make up most of the country’s population, enough is enough.

Opposition has been mobilized through Facebook and Twitter, which journalists reporting from the country cite in their accounts of what’s happening. The government has disabled Internet access and cell phone (and thus text-messaging) to hamper the demonstrators, but that may backfire as it’s forcing people into the streets to be able to communicate with one another. And the lack of cell phone networks is also hampering the business community.

And we can sit in front of our computers and watch it all just as it’s happening. And that’s another kind of revolution in itself.


About theoldperfessor

I'm a college professor, teaching journalism and public relations classes at a small private university, and a freelance writer.
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