Burns Essay: Mediated Memories of 9/11

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Lisa Burns

“Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?” Most of us who are old enough to remember the events of September 11, 2001, can easily answer country singer Alan Jackson’s question. It’s one of those rare historical events – like the bombing of Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination, or the moon landing – where people can recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard what happened. Each individual’s memories are unique. But these lived memories quickly become shared once media coverage comes into play.

On  9/11, people almost immediately turned to television, radio, and the Internet to witness history unfold. They heard the news of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center, watched the second plane hit the Twin Towers, saw the Towers collapse, heard reports of a plane hitting the Pentagon and another crashing in Western Pennsylvania, and witnessed plumes of smoke and clouds of dust overtake the New York City skyline. These same images and accounts were replayed on TV, printed in newspapers and magazines, and posted online not only in the days that followed, but repeatedly over the twenty years since the event occurred. Media coverage is a significant part of the collective memory of 9/11, illustrating the important role media play in shaping individual and shared memories of major historical events.

Collective Memory

I’ve taught media history at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Connecticut since 2003. In my classes, I use collective memory as a framework to help students make connections between the past and present. 9/11 is the first topic we discuss. Over the years, I’ve seen individual memories fade and mediated collective memory become dominant as my students are increasingly removed from the events of 9/11 due to age, physical proximity, or personal connection to what happened.

Collective memory refers to how groups remember their past.[i] John Bodnar describes it as a “body of beliefs about the past that help a public or society understand both its past and its present, and, by implication, its future.”[ii] The individual memories of people who lived through an event, news media coverage, historical accounts, books, movies, television shows, museums, monuments, artifacts, media history classes, and more combine to create collective memory. As Barbie Zelizer notes, “memories are often pieced together like a mosaic.”[iii] Many of the pieces of the mosaic are provided by the mass media, which Carolyn Kitch argues are the “primary means by which most people understand the past.”[iv] Journalists in particular play a key role in “building American collective consciousness and memory.”[v] These “media memories”[vi] are so pervasive that they become ingrained in people’s minds, sometimes causing people to misremember, like those who swear they saw the Zapruder film on television days after JFK’s assassination even though it didn’t air until over a decade later.[vii] Meanwhile, for those who weren’t alive or personally impacted by an event, media memories are often their primary source of recollection.

Four primary factors that influence memory are age, physical proximity, personal connection, and media consumption.[viii] When I started teaching in 2003, my students had been in high school on 9/11 and could easily recall when they first heard the news. As the years passed, age impacted my students’ individual memories. Now, all of my undergrads were born after 2001, causing me to modify how I approach this topic. Meanwhile, most of my students are from the Greater New York City or Boston areas. Because of their physical proximity, they often have personal connections to 9/11. Some lost a parent, relative, or close family friend that day. Many have parents who work in New York or fly out of Logan for business. This makes their individual memories more vivid than someone who lacks such connections and experienced 9/11 mainly through media reports. Even so, my students’ individual accounts and parents’ stories are still heavily shaped by media consumption since it was the main source of information even for those directly affected.

The Power of Media

I use 9/11 in my classes to illustrate the relationship between individual, media, and collective memory. For many years, I asked students to recall how they first learned of the terrorist attacks. Now my students interview a family member about their memories of the event. In both cases, my first objective is to illustrate how quickly a person’s story references media coverage. The memories of a majority of my students and their relatives include turning on the TV or radio to get more information, typically as soon as they heard the news. As their personal stories start to incorporate media references, we witness the genesis of collective memory, which is the second goal of this exercise. Their individual memories start to overlap because they saw the same images and heard similar news reports. Even students who were too young to remember 9/11 can recount what happened because they’ve seen the images and heard the stories so many times. This shows the power of the media to shape our individual and collective memories of historical events, which is the ultimate purpose of the activity.

One of my biggest takeaways over the years is how important age, proximity, and personal connection are in shaping memory, which is where my students’ experiences might differ from those living outside of the Northeast. I’ve had students who could see and smell the smoke from their houses after the collapse of the Towers or view the lights from the 9/11 memorial. So many recall frantically waiting to hear from family who worked in the city or were flying out of Logan and couldn’t call because cell service was down. They tell stories of their parents’ harrowing journeys home after NYC transportation came to a standstill. Then there are those who lost loved ones whose grief will always be a reminder of that day. I used to ask my class, “How many of you knew someone who died on 9/11?,” and almost every hand in the room went up. But that has changed over the years. Many of my students still have a personal connection to that day, but they don’t have their own memories. They’ve heard the stories and seen the images, but there’s a detachment that didn’t exist a few years ago. Michael Schudson calls this loss of detail and emotional intensity “distanciation,” which comes with the passage of time.[ix] My students are becoming like the majority of Americans whose memories of 9/11 have been shaped by the media and other institutional sources. Some students have said this assignment is the first time they talked to their parents about 9/11, which shows that these personal stories aren’t being routinely shared.

As a media history researcher and educator, it’s been fascinating to see the collective memory of 9/11 take shape and evolve. Doing this exercise each year with my students consistently proves the power of media in shaping memory at the micro and macro levels. In discussing the topic, viewing the images, and hearing recollections from that day, my students and I are also actively shaping our shared memories of 9/11. Yet it saddens me that individual memories of 9/11 are already being lost after just twenty years. Those oral histories are important pieces of the memory mosaic. Even though forgetting is an inevitable part of memory, we need to preserve as many pieces of the mosaic as possible to ensure that future generations have the most complete picture of what happened on that September day.

About the author: Lisa Burns is a professor of media studies at Quinnipiac University. Her research and teaching interests include the connections between media, history, and collective memory.

Featured image: United Flight 175 crashes into the South Tower. Credit: “Memorial 9/11 World trade center” by Cyril Attias (cattias.photos; CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


[i] Henry Roediger and Andrew DeSoto, “The Power of Collective Memory,” Scientific American, June 28, 2016, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-power-of-collective-memory/.

[ii] John Bodnar, “Public Memory in an American City: Commemoration in Cleveland,” Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, ed. John R. Gillis (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 76.

[iii] Barbie Zelizer, “Reading the Past Against the Grain: The Shape of Memory Studies,” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 12 (1995): 224.

[iv] Carolyn Kitch, “‘Useful Memory’ in Time Inc. Magazines: Summary Journalism and the Popular Construction of History,” Journalism Studies 7, no. 1 (2006): 94, https://doi.org/10.1080/14616700500450384

[v] Janice Hume, “Memory Matters: The Evolution of Scholarship in Collective Memory and Mass Communication,” The Review of Communication 10, no. 3 (2010): 187.

[vi] Motti Neiger, Aren Meyers, and Eyal Zandberg, eds. “Introduction,” in On Media Memory: Collective Memory in a New Media Age (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011), 1-2.

[vii] Neil Schoenherr, “Flashbulb Memories of JFK’s Assassination May Not Be So Accurate,” The Source, November 5, 2003, https://source.wustl.edu/2003/11/flashbulb-memories-of-jfk-assassination-may-not-be-so-accurate/.

[viii] William Hirst et al., “A Ten-Year Follow-Up of a Study of Memory for the Attack of September 11, 2001: Flashbulb Memories and Memories for Flashbulb Events,” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 144 no. 3 (2015): 605.

[ix] Michael Schudson, “Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory,” Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past, ed. Daniel L. Schacter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 348-349.

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