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Published April 14, 2012, 11:30 PM

How sinking of Titanic raised new era in journalism

Coverage showed benefits, dangers of new instant wireless communications
It was the news story that forever changed the way news was shared. One hundred years ago, when a “tweet” was simply the sound a bird made, the story of the Titanic’s sinking spread across the globe via a network of amateurs who used a then-cutting-edge radio technology.

By: By Tammy Swift and Christopher Sullivan, INFORUM

It was the news story that forever changed the way news was shared.

One hundred years ago, when a “tweet” was simply the sound a bird made, the story of the Titanic’s sinking spread across the globe via a network of amateurs who used a then-cutting-edge radio technology.

News that the Titanic had possibly hit an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland was picked up by other ships. The signals reached onshore receiving stations of the then-state-of-the-art wireless radio system patented by Guglielmo Marconi.

There, each scrap of detail was eagerly snatched up, passed on, then passed on again.

Media historians would dub the great ship’s demise as the first modern news story, which relied on a “global village” to spread information on an event of worldwide significance.

“I would say the single greatest news story of the 20th century was (the assassination) of John F. Kennedy, with the Titanic as a close second,” says Paul Heyer, a Canadian communications professor who wrote “Titanic Century: Media, Myth and the Making of a Cultural Icon.”

“You had the technology in place to spread the information – wireless telegraphy – so news could be spread very rapidly,” Heyer says. “You had never had a story of such global resonance.”

Headlines in The Forum, which ran from mid- through late-April 1912, perfectly illustrated the news cycle of one of the biggest stories of the century.

As readers will see here, the first headlines reflected disbelief and inaccurate early reports, followed by lists of who survived and personal accounts of what happened. Finally, we see a wave of blame as people struggle to make sense of an unthinkable tragedy.

‘Greatest Ocean Liner Afloat Struck Iceberg … Passengers Reported to Have Been Taken From the Vessel Safely’ – April 15, 1912 Forum.

After hitting an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland late on the night of April 14, the great ocean liner had sent out distress signals for more than an hour.

“CQD, CQD,” the Morse code repeated, followed by the now-universally used “SOS.”

The calls were picked up by other ships – some of which turned toward the Titanic’s reported location to help – and the signals reached onshore receiving stations of the wireless radio system.

Some of the most active communicators were amateur wireless operators, who kept circulating information before it could be verified. Consequently, some of those reports were confusing, misleading or wrong, Heyer says.

The public’s impatience to spread the story stemmed from another maritime disaster in 1909, in which two passenger ships, the Republic and the Florida, collided.

Wireless operator Jack Binns was able to successfully call for help, making the Republic the first ship in history to issue a “CQD” distress signal and resulting in 1,200 lives being saved. Afterward, Binns became an international hero.

Other aspiring heroes hit the airwaves, which helped word of the Titanic make its way to New York with an uncharacteristic speed.

In the Associated Press newsroom, bored city desk editor Charles Crane was pulled away from his H.G. Wells novel by a colleague bursting through the door. His co-worker waved a wire message from Canada: “Reported Titanic struck iceberg.”

AP editors leapt into action, contacting coastal receiving stations to glean whatever they knew. They also phoned the Titanic’s owners and cabled London for a list of passengers.

“We put out a ‘flash’ and a bare report of the crash,” Crane recalled years later in an account now kept in the AP Corporate Archives. That news story, which cobbled together the unthinkable bits of detail from wireless messages, went everywhere in seconds.

At the New York Times, now-legendary managing editor Carr Van Anda absorbed the AP’s one-paragraph wire dispatch:

“CAPE RACE, Newfoundland, Sunday Night, April 14 (AP)—At 10:25 o’clock tonight the White Star Line steamship Titanic called ‘CQD’ to the Marconi station here, and reported having struck an iceberg. The steamer said that immediate assistance was required.”

The Times’ presses were already running an early edition. Van Anda fired off assignments and began composing a new front page, trying to make sense of the eerie silence that had followed the repeated distress calls.

Editors around the country responded to this sudden dearth of news by “playing the story safe by printing the bulletins and writing stories that indicated that no great harm could come to the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic,” wrote Meyer Berger in a history of the Times.

The Forum followed suit. Its April 15 coverage was cautiously optimistic. “Greatest Ocean Liner Afloat Struck an Iceberg Early Today—Passengers All Reported to Have Been Taken From the Vessel Safely,” its first headline read.

The accompanying story speculated that, “There were 1,170 passengers aboard and, of these, it is believed, none was killed.”

But Van Anda took a different tack.

“He was just a rarity, with an absolutely brilliant, brilliant mind,” Heyer says. “He had translated hieroglyphics, he had checked a proof of Einstein’s and corrected it, and he published all this stuff on the latest developments in science and technology without a byline.”

Van Anda plunged into the newspaper’s morgue, where he digested everything he could find on icebergs and shipwrecks.

His research led him to a bleak conclusion: If the ship’s wireless no longer worked, despite the vessel’s auxiliary power, the worst possible thing must have happened. “He decided no news was bad news,” Heyer says.

The great ship’s fate wouldn’t be confirmed for many hours. White Star Line officials confused the issue further by casting doubt on the seriousness of the accident when contacted.

But the Times city edition headlines anticipated the worst:

“New Liner Titanic Hits an Iceberg; Sinking by the Bow at Midnight; Women Put Off in Lifeboats; Last Wireless at 12:27 a.m. Blurred.”

‘How News of Sinking of Titanic Came to be Withheld from World For So Long After it Went Down’ – April 22, 1912 Forum.

From then on, the New York Times became the primary go-to source for Titanic news. “The Times took a lead they’ve never really relinquished,” Heyer says.

The Titanic story established a “full-speed-ahead, all-hands-on-deck kind of coverage” that had rarely been seen before that, says Roy Peter Clark, a journalism educator at the Poynter Institute.

The coverage showcased the benefits, and dangers, of seizing a new, instant-communication technology.

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

The first stories concentrated on the most notable passengers aboard the mighty ship. Forum headlines on April 16 concentrated on men like Maj. Archibald Butt, aide to President Taft; John Jacob Astor, the wealthiest man aboard the Titanic; and affluent North Dakota bonanza farmer H.F. Chaffee going down with the ship.

But much of that early information wasn’t so easy to verify.

“All the women saved!” an April 16 news item read.

The Titanic went down at a time when wireless, a technology that would become ubiquitous, was just taking hold.

As the stricken ship’s messages were picked up, sometimes by amateurs with Marconi receivers, “you’d get these wireless operators that knew reporters and editors at newspapers, and they said, ‘Here’s what’s going on,’ ” Titanic historian Daniel Allen Butler said. “This was very much a social network – they were using dots and dashes rather than images over an LCD screen.”

Broadcast news, too, got a boost. 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 be called. Sarnoff eventually became head of NBC.

Sometimes the fragments of news, traveling fast as lightning, got garbled.

This explains some first-day reports of the ship being towed to Halifax, Nova Scotia, with everyone safe. Amid the wireless chatter crackling across the airwaves, someone asked about the Titanic passengers’ safety – and the response somehow got mixed up with a message that another vessel was safely under tow, Butler says.

Another information blackout followed, this time courtesy of Marconi and the New York Times. The rescue ship Carpathia relayed lists of survivors, but didn’t respond to the clamor for additional news – even when the requests came from the president and the military.

It turned out that a Marconi company 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 struck – a news-withholding arrangement that enraged other media outlets and that Marconi himself later promised to never try again.

‘Sickening Horrors of Screams ... of the Titanic Victims Were Described Before Probe Committee’ – April 23, 1912 Forum.

Editors knew the story would reach a crescendo with the Carpathia’s arrival in New York harbor, and they prepared as if for war.

Julie Hedgepeth Williams, a journalism professor at Samford University, Birmingham, Ala., wrote “A Rare Titanic Family,” which chronicles how her great-uncle Albert Caldwell, his wife and their infant son survived the shipwreck.

Her uncle often relayed how “reporters were lining every jetty, every constructed piece of land” as the Carpathia pulled into the New York harbor.

The Times was among them. Van Anda sent 16 reporters to meet the ship, even though it was quarantined and journalists were strictly forbidden.

But Van Anda had an ace up his sleeve: He sent reporter Jim Speers to meet Marconi, who was dining with another company official, John Bottomley. As VIPs who had a contract with the White Star Line, the Marconi men were among the few allowed to board the Carpathia before passengers disembarked.

When Marconi, Bottomley and Speers arrived together at the Carpathia’s gangway, a policeman, thinking Speers was part of Marconi’s entourage, allowed the journalist to come aboard.

Speers sought out a Titanic radioman and interviewed him for a riveting front page story.

An Associated Press reporter also managed to sneak aboard the Carpathia before it docked. In the process, he met an English schoolteacher named Lawrence Beesley who told of the view from the lifeboats just after the Titanic disappeared.

“There fell on the ear the most appalling cries that human being ever listened to – the cries of hundreds of our fellow beings struggling in the icy cold water, crying for help with a cry that we knew could not be answered,” Beesley’s harrowing eyewitness account read.

Heyer was impressed by how quickly the scribes worked, using the most basic of newsgathering tools.

“They went aboard the Carpathia Thursday night and by 5 o’clock the next morning, the paper was full of all this information, which they collected using shorthand and a telephone,” he says.

But not all eyewitness accounts were accurate. Some of the early reports revealed a thread of xenophobia: One witness claimed that Italian passengers went crazy and threw other people out of the lifeboats, Heyer says. However, no one ever said such things when under oath during the Senate investigation, which started soon after the Carpathia docked.

“The thing that struck me was the news cycle,” says Errol Somay, who oversaw a Library of Virginia exhibit of the shipwreck’s universal coverage. “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.”

Newspapers closely watched the U.S. Senate investigation for more developments. Rumors abounded that the surviving Titanic crewmembers planned to head back to England before authorities could question them, so a restraining order was issued to keep them in America.

Sen. William A. Smith headed the inquiry, which ran from April 19 to May 28. During the hearing, top editors were called to testify about how well or poorly the public was informed. AP officials spoke against withholding information from the public in a major disaster, calling it a “mistake to make merchandise out of that.”

But the public didn’t really seem to care about exclusive press stories; their real concern was that the White Star Line was brought to justice, Heyer says.

When the Senate inquiry turned to whether aid might have reached the Titanic sooner, it got an explosive assist from a news story.

There were suggestions that the ship Californian, which had stopped for the night because of ice danger, might have been close enough to make a rescue; its captain waved that notion away.

But crewmember Ernest Gill told The Boston American that the Californian had turned off its wireless after 12 hours of operation and the captain ignored the ship’s distress flares.

On seeing the story, the committee summoned Gill, and his testimony led to legislation that requires ship communication systems to be manned around the clock.

“It was the first real global demonstration not only of the possibilities of modern technology, but also the limitations,” Heyer says.


Christopher Sullivan is a reporter for the Associated Press.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525

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