Information Literacy: How Does the News Change Over Time? The Sinking of the Titanic

Why is it important to evaluate and corroborate sources of information? These are not new questions, as a study of historical newspapers will confirm. Sometimes reports reflect an editorial bias, and sometimes they simply reflect what the reporter knows at the time, with updates being added as new information from more sources surfaces.

One dramatic news story that changed dramatically over time was that of the sinking of the RMS Titanic, which struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic early in the morning of April 15, 1912. Over a few weeks, news accounts of the event shifted from celebrations of a successful rescue to denunciations of a “criminal and needless” disaster. Tracing how a single newspaper described and reported this catastrophe can help students understand how information is conveyed, as well as the importance of evaluating multiple sources of information to construct an understanding of any event.

All Titanic Passengers Saved, Evening bulletin., April 15, 1912

All Titanic Passengers Saved, Evening bulletin, April 15, 1912

"White Star Line Official Nervous Under Grill of Senators," Evening bulletin., April 19, 1912

“White Star Line Official Nervous Under Grill of Senators,” Evening bulletin, April 19, 1912

"Ismay's Story Reveals Truth of Disaster, Evening bulletin., April 26, 1912

“Ismay’s Story Reveals Truth of Disaster,” Evening bulletin, April 26, 1912

Begin with a headline, such as “Liner Gashed But All Are Rescued,” from the Honolulu Evening Bulletin. Invite students to compare the information in the headline to any prior knowledge they might have about the sinking of the Titanic. What questions do they have? When they read the article, direct them to identify the source of the report that all were rescued. Why is it important to note that the information is credited to “Manager Mitchell of the White Star line”? Some students might suggest that the company would have the most accurate information about the event, while others might suggest that the company would have a vested interest in minimizing reports of damage and loss of life. Encourage a respectful discussion as students develop and support their ideas with evidence.

Continue tracing the reports from this newspaper. (Analyzing a different newspaper might introduce a different editorial perspective.) A few days later, the April 19 Evening Bulletin reported “White Star Line Official Nervous Under Grill of Senators.” The article describes the questioning of J. Bruce Ismay, chairman of the White Star Line, describing him as “visibly nervous under the questioning of the committee as to the facts of the tragedy.”

Finally, a week later, the headline is “Ismay’s Story Reveals Truth of Disaster,” and the story, which continues on page 6, focuses on the speed of the Titanic when it struck the iceberg, as well as Ismay’s experiences as a passenger on the ship. Again, students might read the headline and then generate questions to focus their reading. The long article has helpful bold subheads to guide reading, and students might read the full article, or focus on sections that pertain to their questions and then compare answers.

Invite students to reflect on why the reports changed from “all are rescued” on April 15 to “disaster” on April 29. What lessons do they draw that might pertain to reading news today?

Let us know in the comments what your students discovered!

 

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