In the days following the sinking of the Titanic, the public had an insatiable appetite for information regarding what had happened to the supposedly “unsinkable” luxury liner. At the forefront of the media’s coverage was the London Daily Telegraph (at the time the world’s largest circulation newspaper), which, in the span of one week, published over two hundred articles related to the disaster. Unfortunately for the reading public, the newspaper’s editors weren’t always able to separate fact from fiction, and the coverage was frequently characterized by misinformation and erroneous reporting.
In “Titanic,” editor/writer Stephen Hines revisits those articles and editorials (many are reprinted in the book), and provides running commentary about the coverage, highlighting both its triumphs and shortcomings. Most famously, the April 15, 1912 edition of the paper reported that the Titanic sank at 2:20 that same morning, but that “no lives were lost.” And perhaps most unrealistically, an unsigned editorial from April 18 portrayed all crew members—“from the captain to the lowliest seaman and stoker”—as heroes: “‘Women and children first!’ was heard from stern to stern of the great leviathan; under the discipline of imminent death each man rendered back his life—his all—to his Maker, and did his part in buying safety for the weak and helpless,” or so claimed the editors.
Naturally, the Telegraph went on to profile many of the victims, and published accounts provided by survivors (including one by a passenger who the paper had previously reported lost). Subsequent articles also provided a sobering assessment of the dangers posed by icebergs in the North Atlantic, while others addressed the insufficient number of lifeboats, as well as the urgent need for safety reforms. “The truth is that passengers, until [then], had been pretty complacent about lifeboat accommodations. Shipping experts were supposed to know how to best protect passenger interests,” advises Hines.
But much like the Iroquois Theatre fire (1903) and Triangle Shirtwaist fire (1911) led to safety reforms in theaters and the workplace, the Titanic disaster prompted a reassessment of passenger safety at sea. “New regulations require[d] ships to carry enough lifeboats for every passenger, to have regular lifeboat drills, to pay more attention to the location of ice fields, and to keep their wireless radios manned at all times,” notes Hines, who reminds us that the Titanic’s sinking “signaled the end of a hubristic confidence in the Age of the Machine.” Or, as J.B. Priestly once observed: “A rapidly developing technology … is always in danger … of seeing itself as being irresistible in its might…. There are some places that might be healthier if they displayed large notices: Remember the Titanic!”