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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cell Phone Users Provided First Coverage of Disaster

NEW YORK -- Shortly after bombs ripped through London's transportation system Thursday morning, U.S. and British television networks began airing the first footage of the aftermath -- dim images of shaken commuters streaming through a smoky underground tunnel.

The video provided an immediate and intimate look at the scene but was hardly professional. That was because it was shot by passengers with mobile phones -- the first widespread use of that technology in covering a major breaking news story.

Because tight security prevented news crews from quickly reaching the bombing sites, the cell phone footage was all that was immediately available from underground. Its instant embrace by traditional news networks underscored how an evolving technology can take on new and unexpected roles.

The camera-equipped cell phone, which was not available commercially a few years ago, has become a worldwide cultural phenomenon.

"You forget how many people have these phones now and how much more of the first minutes of an event you're going to see," said Chuck Lustig, director of foreign news coverage for ABC.

British television network ITN received dozens of video clips, some by e-mail and others from survivors of the blasts who brought their phones directly to the London newsroom. Some of the video clips were too gruesome too air, one senior editor said.

Sky News aired a haunting 20-second clip captured by a commuter on a train between the King's Cross and Russell Square stations, who e-mailed it to the British television network.

The video did not provide the usual crisp images sought by news producers. But on a day devoted to coverage of the bombings, news executives said the video was able to convey the claustrophobic atmosphere underground.

"It's a harbinger of what's to come in terms of citizen journalism," said Jon Klein, president of CNN/U.S. "These days, you just have to be in the wrong place at the right time, and you too can cover the news."

But Thursday's attacks marked the first time cell phone video played a significant role in the coverage of a major breaking news event, a technique that could transform television news, analysts said.

"Through cell phones, almost every citizen has a 3-ounce still and video camera in their pocket or purse, and everything that happens will be recorded and shared for better and, much more often, for worse," said Jeffrey Cole, director of the USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future.

But the increasing availability of the footage will also raise the need for stringent standards about what gets on the air, news executives noted. In London, video technicians studied the footage to ensure it was authentic, said Justine Bower, a spokeswoman for Sky News.

"We have an obligation to make sure that what people say they have shot is indeed what has happened," Lustig added.