CNHI Special Projects

April 15, 2012

Titanic was turning point in global news coverage

(Continued)

NEW YORK —

Stories poured forth — careful and factual or speculative and wrong.

"NO LIVES LOST," a London headline reassured in the confusing early coverage. In Paris, Le Figaro lamented "La Catastrophe du Titanic." Front pages in Australia echoed the tragedy for days. Reporters everywhere sought to localize the story — one paper even measuring the ship's immensity by imagining it berthed on the town's street grid. A Kentucky headline solemnly summed up: "Millionaire and Peasant, Shoulder to Shoulder, Go to Their Death..."

Errol Somay who oversaw a Library of Virginia exhibit of the universal coverage, said, "The thing that struck me was the news cycle — like 9/11: the coverage of the chaos of the event, then the human interest stories, then the fingerpointing... We have to figure out whom to blame."

The Titanic story established "a full-speed-ahead, all-hands-on-deck kind of coverage," as journalism educator Roy Peter Clark of the Poynter Institute put it, that has been repeated in countless disasters since. "There's evidence that that goes back to this event."

The coverage showcased the benefits — and dangers — of seizing a new, instant-communication technology. It established standards and new standard-bearers.

The story became a turning point for The New York Times. Its coverage would distinguish it among the city's 20 or so dailies, setting it on course to "secure claim to a position of preeminence ... among American newspapers that it would never relinquish," wrote Daniel Allen Butler in his history, "Unsinkable: The Full Story of RMS Titanic."

Broadcast news, too, got a strong push with this story. David Sarnoff, a young Marconi operator, made a name for himself with days of nonstop updates from a storefront window in New York, drawing crowds so large the police had to keep order. It was the start of a pioneering radio career that saw Sarnoff become the long-serving head of NBC.

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