Events That Changed How Media Outlets Cover News

Historical Events Related to Media

News coverage is constantly evolving. Sometimes the media industry gets a jolt from important news events, bringing instant change from the boardroom to the streets. Media outlets might seem impervious, but they're vulnerable to major events. They're affected and they change right along with the rest of the world. 

1963: Kennedy Assassination Puts Focus on TV News Coverage

Kennedys Riding in Dallas Motorcade
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Most serious journalists wanted to work in radio or for a newspaper before the assassination of President Kennedy. Television was seen as an entertainment medium. Then the Kennedy assassination unfolded in a way that demonstrated the power of television.

Radio couldn't show the shooting, and newspapers couldn't capture the moment-by-moment drama. A film of the event could be replayed over and over to a horrified nation. Live reports from the hospital became grimmer by the minute. The shooting death of Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was also shown on TV.

Television provided moving images as compared to the still photos in newspapers, and live TV broadcasts had the same immediacy as radio. The age of TV news had begun.

1968: Walter Cronkite Shifts Public Opinion of the Vietnam War

Cronkite Speaks
CBS Photo Archive / Getty Images

Personal opinions run rampant on cable TV news channels, but it wasn't always this way. 

CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite decided in 1968 that the Vietnam conflict could only end in stalemate. He spoke from his heart on an evening news broadcast in a rare departure from straight news reporting and said the war wasn't winnable.

Some have said that this led President Johnson to negotiate with the North Vietnamese, ultimately ending his political career. Some critics were still blasting Cronkite for liberal bias years after his death in 2009. At least he took the time to investigate before delivering his views.

1974: Newspapers Bring Down President Nixon

President Richard Nixon sits at his desk as he announces his resignation.
Photo by Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Investigative journalism reached its peak when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of The Washington Post began their pursuit of illegal activities involving President Nixon. This ultimately led to the Watergate investigation and to Nixon's resignation. Woodward and Bernstein spent years working sources like the famed "Deep Throat," and they had the support of their newspaper's editors and owner.

Woodward and Bernstein are immortalized in the best-selling book and Academy Award-winning film "All the President's Men." Both the book and the movie show what it took to get one of the biggest news stories of the 20th century.

Many journalists are eager to pursue investigative work, but corporate and political pressures have since made this kind of reporting tough.  

1979: Iran Hostage Crisis Creates New Type of TV News Program

Taking of US Hostages in Iran
Sygma via Getty Images / Getty Images

The Iran hostage crisis grabbed the country's attention like few other political crises when Iranian militants captured 52 Americans after seizing the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. TV viewers needed information beyond the networks' evening newscasts, so ABC News created a late-night news program that eventually became "Nightline."

This was a year before the birth of CNN, a time when Americans had few choices for news coverage. "Nightline" was different from shows like "60 Minutes" because it was produced each day with live elements that were made possible by new satellite technology. Viewers couldn't get the day's top story with interviews and analysis anywhere else. 

1986: Children Witness Disaster on Live TV

Spectators Watching the Explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger
Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Space shuttle launches had become so routine by 1986 that broadcast TV networks no longer provided live coverage. But thousands of schoolchildren were eagerly watching the January launch of the Challenger on NASA TV. Teacher Christa McAuliffe would be the first private citizen to fly, and she was already a household name.

The children got a close-up look at human tragedy that day when the space shuttle exploded. Parents who might otherwise have broken the news of the disaster to their children at home instead had to explain what their sons and daughters had witnessed in their classrooms.

The media lesson was simple: Live TV never offers a chance to preview content before it's seen, and the unknown can be heartbreaking.

1987: Fairness Doctrine Repeal Creates Modern Talk Radio

Rush Limbaugh on radio show
 Getty images /​ Mark Peterson

Most radio listeners might not have understood why the Federal Communications Commission's repeal of the Fairness Doctrine was a landmark decision, but the effects were easy to see.

The doctrine required that broadcasters who allowed discussions of controversial issues on their airwaves had to also present opposing viewpoints. That was the law beginning in 1949. Talk radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh could present just one side of an issue in 1987 before the doctrine was repealed. A host could even push a political agenda.

1991: The Persian Gulf War is Broadcast on Live TV

AFP/Getty Images / Getty Images

The technology presented new opportunities in media coverage when America entered the Persian Gulf War with Iraq in 1991. People at home could watch live as the conflict unfolded.

Although major events of World War II were covered live on the radio and the Vietnam War was presented on film, satellites made live TV coverage possible by 1991. The conflict produced a quick U.S. victory, and military leaders like Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf became instant celebrities. President George H.W. Bush's popularity soared.

But political leaders learned what those in the media already knew—live broadcasts have almost no shelf life. Bush's popularity plummeted and he was defeated for re-election just a year later.

1994: O.J. Simpson Drama Rivets the World's Attention

O.J. Simpson trying on the glove at his criminal trial
WireImage / Getty Images

People rushed to their televisions to follow one of the most compelling stories of the decade when the O.J. Simpson story broke. One of the country's most-loved football stars was charged with brutally killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman.

The story unfolded in Los Angeles, so the tools were there to cover it. Live helicopter shots of Simpson fleeing in a Ford Bronco wouldn't have been possible in a remote area. And unlike some states, California allows cameras in courtrooms. The word-by-word testimony was available for people to watch when Simpson went on trial—and millions did indeed watch. 

The "Trial of the Century" would've been a footnote in entertainment and sports history if not for television. Instead, it became a real-life legal drama no one can forget.

1998: Monica Lewinsky Scandal Puts Sex in the Mainstream

Monica Lewinsky
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

Taboo sex topics were forced into news media when the scandalous relationship between President Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky erupted. Never before had sex and politics become so entwined that it would impact U.S. history.

Words never before printed in newspapers or uttered by news anchors provided important details to the investigation. This story was more than just steamy fodder for the supermarket tabloids. Clinton's presidency was at stake.

Both Clinton's marriage and his presidency survived in the end, even though he was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives. But media coverage of his recklessness further tarnished Americans' views of the presidency.

2000: Presidential Election Errors in Judgment

George Bush Speaking During Campaign
Sygma via Getty Images / Getty Images

Election night 2000 provided the chance if you ever wanted to see network TV news anchors squirm under pressure. They all had to do the unthinkable on live TV—retract their network's projections over who won.

They first reported that evening that the race was Gore's. Then that changed to "it's too close to call." Then it was Bush's victory, again "too close to call," by the next day.

The only accurate projection was that the race was indeed too close to call. No one's estimates could handle a margin of error of just a few hundred votes. We might never again see a presidential race remain in question for so long. 

2001: Covering 9/11, the Country's Worst Disaster

September 11 Retrospective
Robert Giroux / Getty Images

Reporters have witnessed countless disasters, but nothing like the horror of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The violence changed how post-9/11 news is covered.

Threats of new attacks are covered very seriously. Rumors of violence have journalists re-thinking what is news. Rumors are reported in 2019 if they have any credibility. That was due in part to the government's color-coded terror alert system. The news media reported it when the government decided there was enough danger to change the code level from yellow to orange or red. 

The alert system was retired in 2011, but its effects remain. Possible violence is reported, no matter how vague the information, even though most people shrug off bulletins of possible trouble.

2007: Social Media Takes the Lead in Breaking News

Virginia Tech Community Mourns Day After Deadliest U.S. Shooting
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

The Virginia Tech shooting massacre left 32 people dead in 2007. Tech-savvy students showed the world the future of breaking news coverage because it happened on a college campus. TV news crews weren't necessary. Text messages relayed information while cellphone video could be transmitted in an instant.

This was a milestone in citizen journalism. The photos and video didn't have the polish of a professional news organization, but they captured the panic that people felt on campus. Everyday people producing raw news was now competing with professional journalists whose corporate sheen left some wondering if they were ever going to get the real news.

It's Not Over Yet

As surely as time marches on, something will happen in the next year or decade to shift media norms once again. Stay tuned.