How an engaged citizen, new technology enabled one paper to get the Titanic story right in 1912

The 100 year anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic was marked this past weekend, and in recent weeks, by all manner of recollections and special reporting. (See Poynter’s collection of notable front pages.)

As I noted in a recent Toronto Star column, the onslaught of coverage led to some amusing and head scratching mistakes by news organizations.

But what about the reporting 100 years ago? How did the media do when the disaster was unfolding?

According to an article in the Birmingham Mail, among other sources, a large number of newspapers reported incorrectly that the Titanic was being towed to safety, and that all passengers were safe. For example, here’s a report from the Christian Science Monitor on April 15. The ship was already at the bottom of the sea when this hit the streets:

A report in the Christian Science Monitor dated April 15, 1912

A recent article published by Lloyds, the insurance giant that had underwritten the insurance policy for the Titanic, recounts that, “Even up to two days later some newspapers were still reporting that Titanic had not sunk and was instead being towed to Halifax or even continuing under its own steam.”

The report in the Birmingham Mail says its paper “was one of the first papers to report on the liner’s fateful end on April 15, 1912.”

It fact, it says, “the only other newspaper globally to print the news at the same time was the New York Times.” (Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark has a great look back at the Times’ coverage.)

So, how did it end up that a small paper in Birmingham had the information in some cases a couple of days before other newspapers?

It’s a familiar scenario in today’s news ecosystem, but was rare then: an engaged citizen with access to the right technology was in the right place at the right time. Then, critically, he shared his information rather than keep it to himself.

From the Mail’s article:

Back in 1912 it was a Black Country radio ham who gave us the technological edge on other local, regional and national newspapers and, aside from New York, international ones too.

As the story explains, the curator of a local museum recently discovered that a local amateur radio operator helped the Mail get the story correct before most other papers did. The operator is unnamed in the Mail story, but the curator, Andrew Lound, explained how critical his role was at the time in helping the Mail’s predecessor, the Gazette:

However, a radio ham of the period in the Black Country who had the most powerful radio sets in the Midlands was listening in and he was able to pick up messages that were being sent from the Carpathia [which rescued Titanic passengers] to other ships which eventually reached ground stations.

He was in touch with the Birmingham Gazette and from these messages it was clear that the Titanic had sunk, while other all other papers were lagging behind waiting for the information to come down the line.

Another fascinating account of how the news of the Titanic spread was published this weekend by The Forum of North Dakota.

“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,” it says.

The Forum story explains how amateur radio operators played a role in spreading word of the Titanic’s fate right from the moment the ship began broadcasting distress signals.

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

The Forum piece also provides an explanation for why so many newsrooms published stories declaring the ship was safe and being towed to Halifax:

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, [Titanic historian Daniel Allen] Butler says.

The sinking of the Titanic offered a glimpse into a future media world where critical information is disseminated by amateurs as well as professionals, and where it’s a significant challenge to separate signal from noise.

Hat tip to J-Source for spotting The Forum’s story.

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