NEW YORK —
The Titanic went down at a time when wireless, a technology that would become ubiquitous, was just taking hold — comparable to our adjustment today to Twitter and the like.
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,'" historian Butler said in an interview. "This was very much a social network — they were using dots and dashes rather than images over an LCD screen."
And sometimes, the fragments of news, traveling lightning fast, got garbled.
That apparently explains some first-day reports of the ship being towed to Halifax with everyone safe. Amid the wireless chatter crackling across the airwaves, someone asked about the Titanic passengers' safety — and the response somehow got confused with a message that another vessel was safely under tow. Butler traced the mix-up to "two fragments picked up by a wireless station in Massachusetts."
Balancing speed with accuracy is, of course, a reporting lesson that persists, as do others that unfolded with the Titanic coverage — about finagling eyewitness accounts, about debunking dubious official claims, about championing the release of information.
This news story can be divided into three parts, answering three basic questions: At first, reporters simply tried to clarify the "what" — what had happened 400 miles off the Newfoundland coast; when survivors finally arrived in New York on the rescue ship Carpathia, the "how" could be gathered from eyewitnesses; and finally, as official and journalistic investigations examined the disaster, the public would start to learn the "why" that has enthralled us for 100 years.
The Titanic's owners, the White Star Line, contributed to the early, contradictory reporting with their silence or misleading statements. Rumors spread, along with hopeful speculation. Finally, an emotional White Star executive, Phillip A.S. Franklin, addressed the press.