The Assassination of JFK in a Digital Age

One of the things I really love about the Internet as an adult is the access to information. I spoke about it last week, how I’ve used the Internet to learn about weather. YouTube gets a lot of credit for funny animal videos but I want to take a moment to remind everyone that YouTube has become a historical video archive while we were all busy figuring out what the fox says.

I was always a geeky kid - interested in things like the weather and history. How many kids think Santa is the greatest because he brought you Encyclopedia Britannica on CD-ROM? What a lot of people don’t know about me is that I got a minor in history in college, almost enough credits to double major.

As a child and I was learning things, it was the “big events” that fascinated me. None so much like the assassination of JFK. I often asked my dad to tell me about it. He doesn’t remember much, but he remembers sitting in his 3rd grade class, when one teacher came in crying. She whispered to my dad’s teacher, and then they both left the room crying. The same goes for his mother - he remembers going home from school and seeing her crying too. After September 11th, 2001, I came to this strange realization that my children would one day ask me to tell the story of “where I was” over and over again. As I started to compare the two events in terms of importance, I started to look at the reporting between the two events and noticed interesting differences about the journalism.

(Mostly) Zero Sensationalism

Listen to any of the live coverage you can find on YouTube for “as it happened” and the thing that lacks versus a “national” event of today is the sensationalism. A lot of that is due to the time it took for information to travel. If you’ve ever been to the Texas Book Depository Museum (do it!) you’ll see the AP wire that came across, announcing the death of JFK. With time between reports, there was time that these details could be confirmed, vetted. Today, social media is used to find “breaking” and “real time” reports and they are often reported as true.

It Was a Pioneering Day of Live Journalism

When the reports first broke into soap operas and commercials for laundry detergent, most “big” affiliates reported the the President has been shot and would return to regular programming. At WFAA here in Dallas, Texas they went live, read a bulletin, and never left the air. The WFAA broadcast offices are just a few blocks south of where the assassination happened. Jay Watson ran back to the studio and interrupted the regular program - still out of breath from his sprint as he delivered the news. (Watch the landmark footage - it’s absolute chaos in the most amazing and professional way.)

If you ever visit Dallas, I highly recommend the visitation to the Texas Book Depository. The infamous floor where Lee Harvey Oswald took the shot is a a museum now, with lots of Kennedy artifacts. You can also go up to the top floor and look down to the street, giving you an almost exact view of what Oslwald would have seen. Just wandering around Dealey Plaza leaves a heavy feeling in your heart though, no matter how old you are.

Have you ever stopped to wonder what the reporting would have been like on that day if social media had played a part? Do you think reporting would have been different or the same?

Mike Wallace’s Death Leaves Questions for Today’s Journalists

The sad news of veteran TV anchorman and 60 Minutes patriarch Mike Wallace passing this weekend moved a lot of people to stop and remember a pioneer in the field of journalism. Mike Wallace was known for his curveball interview style ("Forgive me...."), his documentary style presentations on 60 Minutes, and a number of lawsuits filed against him. He was also known for his personal losses (the death of his son in the 60s) and a personal battle with depression.

Over the last sixty years and his personal struggles, Mike Wallace leaves the world known as one of the most respected journalists in the world. His pace set the stage for many of the men from my father's generation - the late Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and even Dan Rather.

Mike's passing made me stop and take pause about the state of journalism today - what's changed and how journalists approach news stories today. The truth is that everything has changed since the days of Mike Wallace. People don't get their news in the same way that they did in the 1960's and before, and I can't help but wonder where are all the journalists?. In forty years, will my children be able to recognize the people who brought the news to the world? Will there be archives for them to reflect upon - the same way that I watched Walter Cronkite announce the death of JFK on a black and white news reel? Who will fill the gap in the newsroom? More importantly - will there even be a news room to fill?

The Landscape of "Journalism" Has Changed

Perhaps many of us don't want to admit it but the way that news is sent and received has changed. When Osama Bin Laden was killed, it was Twitter that knew first, thanks to the messages sent by a guy who was unknowingly live tweeting the Navy SEAL operation taking place near him. When social media networks often do a better job of getting news stories out to the masses, why would we wait until six PM to turn on the Nightly News to see what is going on in the world?

The advent of the 24 hour news networks (CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, etc.) has also changed the way that we receive our news updates. Again, it becomes a question of why wait for the nightly news breaks. Even if I don't want to get my news from a source like social media, I have the ability and the option to tune the television to a news network right away. Breaking news is always the top of the news - and the 24 hour networks love to follow every piece of a story.

How does a "standard" journalist keep up with the always available news streams? What do they do to make people want to turn to them, instead of the 24 hour a day channels?

Enter the Journalistic Narrative

As my husband and I were discussing Mike Wallace and his passing, he made an excellent point. Journalism is nothing more than a narrative at this point. As much as we'd all like to say that there are still journalists who present the news in a way that doesn't have a slant, or a shtick, I wonder if there really are. Well - let me rephrase, I'm sure they are out there but no one is listening. Why? Because no one wants to read the facts. Journalism has evolved (devolved?) to the point that without a narrative, no one wants to read it.

When we read a news story we expect to read a story that panders to our beliefs. We want to read something that confirms our beliefs and opinions. We want to read or hear a presentation that will make us feel like the way we feel as an individual is validated by a news source. The ones that do not verify our opinions are the ones that we stay away from. If we think that the news is too serious, we turn our attention to the John Stewarts and Steven Colberts of the world.

But this appeal can go too far and that's where you start to get doctored 911 calls and documents. Even the respected Dan Rather was not immune to this phenomenon and got himself into trouble, and ultimately lost his position on the CBS Nightly News.

When did we stop watching the news to get the facts and instead turning our backs on the programs or outlets that didn't pander to us? Is it why so many people are now gathering their information from smaller sources - even down to the local outlets? Has the need to appeal turned the networks that created journalists like Mike Wallace and Walter Cronkite to nothing more than content marketers?

When did all the journalists become storytellers?