Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas. In the spirit of memory, all methods of communication have been flooded with retrospectives of that fatal day (1):
- Documentaries and films on National Geographic and TCM
- Hard news coverage of CNN, PBS, ABC and CBS
- Conspiracy theory specials on Fox News and History Channel
Not to mention the countless Twitter hashtags, newspaper stories, magazine features and online content that are exploring every angle of the JFK assassination fifty years later.
But what if the assassination happened today in 2013? How would the coverage be different than it was fifty years ago?
In 1963, many Americans learned about the assassination through breaking briefs in their regular television or radio programming (2). Many initial reports only included that the President was shot and injured, possibly fatally (3). The emotional announcement of JFK’s death came most famously from Walter Cronkite after unconfirmed rumors were broadcast. The next day, newspaper headlines across the nation and the world blared the tragic news, along with more complete details (2).
If the death of John F. Kennedy had occurred half a century later in 2013, coverage would have formed much differently. All the onlookers at the Dallas procession who witness the shooting would have their phones out, snapping photos and recording videos. History would be recorded from much more than a single camera lens like it was in 1963.
These same people would take to Twitter, Facebook and other online outlets to spread the news. Social media would be on fire with the latest details and rumors – this is how many Americans would find out about the shooting. Many cell phone users would get an alert from a news app, like CNN. Bulletins would reach people’s email inboxes at an astounding rate and text messages sharing the news would be sent around the world.
Instantly, all major news networks – both broadcast and cable – would be hosting live 24 hours coverage. They would be hearing from government officials in Washington, D.C. and nationwide; updating viewers the second they heard new details; broadcasting live video from any camera they could get in Dallas; interviewing witnesses; broadcasting tweets; and calling in experts.
Online news sources would be hosting real-time blogs, posting updates every moment they became available. Coverage would include not only what was happening in Dallas, but in Washington, D.C. and across the country. Analysis and predictions would be discussed along with fact. Questions would be raised about the future of the government, the future of the Kennedy children, the future of the nation.
How would this fast-paced, instantaneous news coverage affect viewers? To begin, the increasing race to be first with news would inevitably result in some rumors and conspiracies being broadcast as fact. This has been seen repeatedly when major crises occur in modern time, like the Boston bombings or the Aurora shooting. Children would likely find out at school before their parents could tell them. Government officials could find out from an outside news source before receiving an official government bulletin. Every single channel of communication would be filled with coverage; there’d be no return to regular scheduled programming like in 1963.
This overload of information could turn viewers off after a while; instead of anxiously waiting to hear the newest update on their nightly news program, Americans could grow wearing of being in the middle of the media frenzy.
The firestorm that would occur in 2013 about JFK’s assassination would undoubtedly provide more information to more viewers at a quicker pace. But would it also be as authentic, as weighty, as emotion as Walter Cronkite removing his glasses and solemnly addressing the camera with some of America’s most tragic news to date? I would hope so.