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News Coverage of the Sinking of Titanic

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100 years ago today, Titanic sank off the coast of Newfoundland after hitting an iceberg.  This was before technology like space travel, 24 hour television news coverage, satellites, and the internet.  How did people of 1912 get the news that Titanic sank?  It wasn’t instantaneous like it is today – News was delayed, had wrong facts, newspaper offices posted bulletins and basically word of mouth.  However the sinking of the Titanic was a turning point and changed the way news was covered.

Radio and telegraph could have played a huge role  in getting the news of the sinking of the Titanic back out to the world but that technology was very new. Marconi Telegraphs operators aboard the Carpathia, the ship that rescued many passengers sent out the initial list of survivors and details but the ignored other news requests. Carpathia was ordered by its captain to go under a news blackout. Newspaper editors simply had to wait.

There were a few problems.  Titanic sank 960 miles away from New York City, it took approximately three days for the Carpathia to make it to port.  Technology was not there for aircraft to fly to the location and back.  The White Star line who operated the Titanic, contributed to the early, contradictory reporting with their silence or misleading statements.

Even on the night of the sinking, the Schenectady Gazette only printed a small story about the sinking.  Days afterwards bulletins were posted in the windows of the newspaper offices for people to read. Newspapers across the globe struggled to get the disaster facts, many were careful and factual or speculative and wrong.  Even stating the Titanic was being towed to port.

As the stricken ship’s messages were picked up, sometimes by amateurs with Marconi receivers and they would contact reporters and editors at newspapers, and tell them what’s going on.  Others would respond by “playing the story safe” by printing the bulletins and writing stories that indicated that no great harm could come to the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic. Many could not believe the story was true.

Why was there a news blackout? It turned out that a Marconi company, who owned the rights to the radios aboard the ship, official had advised the ship’s telegraph operators not to divulge anything; the news would command greater value on arrival. In fact, a deal between Marconi and the Times for exclusive interviews of the radiomen had been worked out.

Titanic news appeared for weeks in newspapers after the disaster.  Balancing speed with accuracy is, of course, a reporting lesson that persists today, as do others that unfolded with the Titanic coverage.

Check out the New York Times Newspaper coverage.

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