What's Changed -- and Hasn't -- in the Coverage of Breaking News

Fifty years ago, in 1963, the media landscape was still dominated by the printed word, and by the imperative of getting the story right before it was published in early and final editions of America's newspapers.
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Media coverage of the tragic and ongoing developments related to the Boston Marathon bombings highlights the dramatic changes in breaking-news coverage as the nation prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of another horrifying tragedy in our history -- the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Much has changed, and much has not, since that grim day in Dealey Plaza. In any case, as has been true for some time now, the implications for communications students at our nation's colleges and universities are significant.

The death of JFK, who once spoke on the Bethany College campus, was a watershed event in instant, breaking-news coverage. After initial voiceover bulletins announcing gunshots in the president's motorcade (Walter Cronkite of CBS broke in on the soap opera As the World Turns) on Friday, November 22, all three networks and some local stations went live with continual, on-the-air studio updates of the unfolding events in Dallas. Coverage would last all the way through Kennedy's funeral on that Monday. Memorably, Cronkite fought for composure as he announced on the air the "apparently official" death of the young president whom he had personally interviewed for a CBS special a little more than two months before.

"Uncle Walter," like most of his broadcast contemporaries, had come to the TV newsroom from conventional journalism (newspaper) backgrounds. Fifty years ago, in 1963, the media landscape was still dominated by the printed word, and by the imperative of getting the story right before it was published in early and final editions of America's newspapers. Indeed, Americans still received their daily news from the newsprint page -- cities had several morning and afternoon papers -- and from abbreviated nightly TV broadcasts by three major networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC) featuring trusted male-authority figures, like Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and others. There were limited visuals. Videotape and live, remote news coverage were in their infancy. Not every TV program was broadcast in color. The idea of 24-hour-a-day news broadcasting later pioneered by CNN, or a channel devoted exclusively to weather coverage, would have seemed then like science fiction.

Radio was terrestrial, often featuring live, original programming in contrast to today's digital, recorded formats. We had barely begun the age of human space flight, let alone launched the kinds of sophisticated, orbital satellites that now permit instant, global transmission of sight and sound. Online news sources and advertising, the hundreds of cable TV options we now have, webstreaming, and other media developments familiar to us today were decades away.

Film and still photography, not TV trucks with antennae positioned for satellite downloads, recorded the fatal shots in Dallas. Wire-service reporters initially called in the story.

Two days after the president's assassination, another shooting was captured live on TV with the stunning murder of the president's accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Television news was no longer studio-bound, but instead a live witness to history -- and in the minds of many, that weekend changed broadcasting media forever.

Fast-forward to the events in Boston of April 15. This time, the tragedy was covered from multiple angles; everyone with a cell phone was a potential witness. Indeed, digital photography, video and social media were instrumental in the tracking, days later, of the bombing suspects and the placing in custody of the surviving one. Daily coverage of the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, including the climactic manhunt in Watertown, continues. Four heartbreaking days in November 1963, in which the media were largely observers -- influential ones, yes, but in a much more limited role compared to today -- have been supplanted by instant, 24-hour coverage, commentary, opinion, speculation.

As with Dallas in 1963, much of the early reported information from the site of the Marathon was simply inaccurate. But today's media, with their blurring of the roles of reporter and commentator, with the on-air personalities becoming more and more a part of the story itself, with live TV and social media facilitating not just coverage but a national conversation about the story, make Walter Cronkite's suppressed emotion on November 22, 1963, seem like a model of restraint and dignity.

Further, what may have taken a generation for a photo to be considered "iconic" can now receive that designation in moments -- especially if it has a connotation of the events of 9/11 and the raw, vulnerable feelings of Americans, accompanied by scenes of instant, makeshift memorials, fist-pumping patriotism, the raising of a recovered American flag over Ground Zero.

Technology has ramped up the immediacy of any breaking news, and we expect that -- indeed, depend on it. Yet the lessons for students of what used to be known as journalism lead to longstanding, critical questions about whether we still require "getting it right" before going with the details of any story; what the limits should be, if any, in reporting on the workings of law enforcement (Oswald was surrounded by cameras and reporters when he was gunned down in the Dallas police headquarters; NBC's Lester Holt in Boston revealed to viewers that a police officer had yelled at him for venturing too close to barricades); what privacy victims' families deserve versus their own increasing, expected and highly visible roles in the public's hunt for justice; whether all the instant, constant coverage will continue to desensitize us not only to the horror of such tragedies but also to the agenda of prevention of terrorism and the preservation of social order. Most who lived through Kennedy's assassination were probably never quite the same afterward. Boston, admittedly a different kind of calamity, is the latest in a series. The media this time were quick to pounce with commentary on the supposed "complacency" of our nation in the intervening years since September 11, 2001.

Perhaps most compelling of all is the question of whether online and social media can, or should, ever be restrained or controlled. The accused Boston bombers reportedly learned their craft on the Internet; their demise was at the hands of dedicated, heroic police officers and a band of Big Brothers with mobile phones.

It's a conversation students and faculty should have as we brace ourselves for what might come next and which will, inevitably, not simply unfold as a story but explode.

Stand by....

Dr. Scott D. Miller is president of Bethany College and M.M. Cochran Professor of Leadership Studies. Now in his 22nd year as a college president, he serves as a consultant to college presidents and boards.

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