June 1, 2007
(Newseum Collection)

(Newseum Collection)

Disaster at Sea, Disaster in Print

When the “unsinkable” ocean liner Titanic collided with an iceberg in the North Atlantic on the cold night of April 14, 1912, and sank early the next morning, newspapers, in their race to get the latest information, carried conflicting accounts.

  • • "All Passengers Are Safe," the Los Angeles Express reported.
  • • "2,000 Lives Are Saved off Wrecked Titanic," said The Denver Times.
  • • "The Titanic Sinks With 1,800 on Board; Only 675, Mostly Women and Children, Saved," The New York Herald’s bold layout declared.

How could the facts be so mixed? The Titanic’s CQD, an early Morse code distress signal created by the Marconi company and exclusive to ships outfitted with its wireless equipment, had flashed approximately 35 minutes after the collision. But the signals sometimes were weak and garbled by interference, and the conflicting details caused some newspapers to get the story wrong. In fact, more than 2,200 passengers and crew were on the Titanic and more than 1,500 of them perished.

An hour later, the Titanic’s radio operator also sent an SOS to ensure the earlier CQD was not misunderstood. SOS had been adopted in 1906 as a new distress signal for use by any and all ships. But CQD remained popular and was still used. After the Titanic disaster, SOS was universally used. CQD gradually disappeared.

Among the passengers who perished on the Titanic was Pall Mall Gazette editor William Thomas Stead. The controversial British journalist pioneered the use of newspaper illustrations, sensational scoops and big headlines.

In 2006, nearly a century after Titanic, "miscommunication" was blamed for erroneous reporting on the fate of 13 coal miners trapped in West Virginia. The media — mostly East Coast newspapers — published or aired inaccurate stories that 12 coal miners had been found alive and that only one was found dead. A "miracle," some headlines proclaimed. In fact, all but one had perished. A three-hour time difference allowed West Coast newspapers to correct the error.

The story about the Titanic, and a display on how reporting errors are made, can be found in the News History gallery when the Newseum opens.

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