Today marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and revisiting the iconic news footage serves as a reminder of how dramatically the digital age has impacted the way media process and cover current events.
In 1963, it was broadcast media that broke the news that President Kennedy had been shot, and it became the primary source of information the nation relied on to help make sense of that unthinkable act.
The broadcast media didn’t have to worry about the 24-hour news cycle or competing with more nimble online outlets. This gave them the luxury of time – even if it was a finite amount of time – to add context and vet the accuracy of new details before sharing them with the public.
It was a very different scenario in the early hours following more recent tragic events, like the Boston bombings and Sandy Hook shootings, where Twitter and Facebook tremendously influenced how both the general public and media got their news and responded.
A cursory glance at Twitter gives us a glimpse of what the JFK assassination would have been like if it happened today, with trending hashtags like #JFK50 and an outpouring of commemorative messaging from not just media, but people and brands.
The way news breaks has had a seismic shift in the social media era. Pew Research Center reports that roughly half of Facebook and Twitter users get their news from those sites.
Social media essentially sped up the 24-hour news cycle to a point where journalistic integrity may even be called into question. For example, CNN, AP and The Boston Globe each presented false reports that the individuals behind the Boston bombings had been identified and taken into custody, and then barely flinched as they issued corrections and continued their coverage.
The misinformation reported following the Sandy Hook massacre was even more rampant. Some of the worst offenses included reports that the Sandy Hook shooter was a student who the school buzzed into the building, a detail reported by The New York Times and later retracted. For its part, The New York Times did reflect on the error and expressed remorse over the new pressures social media has placed on today’s journalist.
It’s not to say that media didn’t make mistakes in the pre-digital era, but they seemed to be fewer and far between. Perhaps in the absence of social media we simply weren’t aware of most of them.
In 1963, it was Life magazine that was the first to uncover and purchase the famous film of the JFK assassination, a behind-the-scenes story that has become journalist folklore. Today, with one in five people in the world owning a smartphone, the news media would most likely have hundreds of iPhone videos of the assassination to choose from.
But would we gain anything from this added onslaught or just be chasing falsehoods? (In the end, it seems the single-bullet theory, a conclusion which was reexamined by CBS, USA TODAY and many others this week, seems to still hold up.)
Is today’s availability and unfiltered access to information a positive or negative? Whatever your opinion, we can all agree that it has added a layer of complexity to how we learn about and react to current events.
So as we commemorate the passing of one the nation’s most beloved presidents, killed in the prime of his life, we might also mourn a simpler era of communication.