When I first stated teaching journalism classes four years ago, my students were in elementary school when the 9/11 attacks happened. They had clear, specific memories from that day — especially the ones who grew up in New York City or on Long Island.
Each year, those memories get more vague as the students get younger and younger. This year, most of the students in my Integrated Media Writing and Design course were in preschool on 9/11. One student was two years old.
Of course, they have no real memories of that day. A few said they remember their moms and babysitters sitting down, watching TV and being very nervous and tense, but they had no way of knowing why. The student who was two that day told our class that she apparently asked her mom “Why are the castles falling?”
Every year I’ve taught journalism, I’ve taught a class on the anniversary of 9/11. I spend most of that day’s class talking about it. I tell my 9/11 story, not because it’s special but because it feels important to talk about that day. We spend a lot of the class talking about the media aspect of 9/11. I bring in both editions that The Times Herald in Olean, N.Y. published that day to showcase just how far news media have come in 16 years. That second edition of the OTH that day was the single most up-to-date print news source our community had on the afternoon of the attacks. To think back on that is almost absurd.
We talk about what 9/11 would look like in the modern media environment. Of course, someone comments on how Twitter would be a nightmare, because it would be. We talk about the fake news, the memes, the instant conspiracy theories. We discuss the polarization of our times and how that’d be reflected in media. We realize how much more content there would be from that day. How many photos and videos would come from Ground Zero. From inside the planes. From inside the towers. From above the plane lines.
This year I realized it’s getting harder to talk about that day because my students were so young. In a year or two, I’ll be teaching students who weren’t born on 9/11.
It’s not their fault, of course. But every year, it becomes harder to teach the journalistic lessons of 9/11 to students who didn’t experience the day first hand. My students now experience 9/11 primarily as a historical event, the way I experienced the Kennedy Assassination or Pearl Harbor. As history. Something they’ve read about, watched documentaries about, seen pictures of.
There are still lessons to take from that day as journalists. To know where you are going, you have to know where you come from. To understand why news media have had such a hard time with the digital revolution, you only have to look back at that extra print edition from 16 years ago and realize that it was within my young students’ lifetimes that this technological shift happened.
Every year, I talk about 9/11. But as the students’ memories become more vague, it becomes harder for me to grasp the lessons of that day.