USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





Shuttle Disaster Coverage Mixed, but Strong Overall
Mainstream coverage varied greatly despite the number of sites sharing elements via AP and wire services.

Trying to recapture some sense of normalcy late Saturday morning, I went on my weekend errands, including a stop at the newsstand for the bulldog edition of the Sunday paper.

The bundles of newspapers seemed hopelessly outdated. Ditto for the rack of newsweeklies waiting for new editions:  They were being ripped up and remade, and probably still would seem like history instead of current events by Monday.

It struck me then how profoundly life has changed since that terribly similar day 17 years ago when Challenger disappeared before our eyes. I knew I wouldn?t have to wait for the next day?s papers or rely solely on broadcast news to carry me through.

[Google's] algorithms missed the magnitude of the event spectacularly at points, including the moment when you couldn?t even see any reports about Columbia on the first screen.

The Internet and online services like Compuserve were around at the time of Challenger but couldn?t come close to offering the kind of informational and emotional bridge we have now. The spread of online access -- including the proliferation of broadband connections -- coupled with the maturation of the Web as an interface, and advanced software now being used by news organizations far surpasses anything back then or even as recently as the Oklahoma bombing.

We started to see the full power of the Internet after 9/11. Today we have the odd mix of news sites limiting access to all or parts of their coverage to subscribers only.  Plus, there is the increasing democratization afforded by services that make it easy for anyone to chime in. (These combined at one point Saturday when people started to mirror video material available to subscribers only on CNN.)

Even before I left the house, information was spreading across the world via the Internet. News sites were remaking their pages on the fly, calling on every resource to offer as many details as possible in as ways as made sense.

Out of a need to do something, anything, while I watched the video play over and over as though I would see an answer or maybe a different result, I grabbed my laptop and started taking screenshots of various sites. 

Within minutes the news evolved from bulletins, to wire stories. Within an hour packages began to build.

(sm) The New York Times Posts its First Bulletin

The New York Times posts its first bulletin.

When I took a final round of shots late in the evening some sites looked completely transformed. Much of the rapid response was made possible by the immense store of knowledge already available about the space shuttle program, the mission of STS-107 and the flight crew. Access to data like radar maps and the ability to quickly share images also played a key role.  Journalists used listservs and Web sites to share tips and resources.

Bloggers and online communities were sharing stunned and emotional reactions -- and whatever information they had as well.  The byproduct was predictable -- Slashdot citizens had to wade through a series of rude and sometimes nasty messages; speculation even more wild than that on the television started to pop up; and an unsubstantiated message from a woman who claimed to have been fired by NASA for saying the space shuttle was unsafe started to pop up as gospel.

(sm) Chron Switches to Disaster Mode

8:45 AM Central Time: Houston Chronicle shifts in to?disaster mode.

By the time I returned home enough new material was being published to warrant link lists while criticism of news coverage was starting to flow.  Some people were fixated on an AP prewrite about the re-entry of the shuttle that could be found at washingtonpost.com.

The language of the story about the shuttle streaking to a landing -- which indeed it was at the time the story posted -- and the fact that it was still easily accessible after the need for a write-thru became apparent, had some suggesting the washingtonpost.com editors should be embarrassed for leaving it up and the reporter should have chosen her language more carefully given the potential for disaster. Someone even suggested the comments from the flight crew in the story were made up -- as if the site and others who used the story had been caught with a pre-written fake.

(sm) NYT Leads With a Wire Story

The New York Times leads with a wire story

It wasn?t, of course. It was a wire story written to be topped out as events progressed. In fact, it showed up on CNN.com at 9:35 AM eastern with a new lead.

The accusations that it was anything else show what can happen when people who don?t understand the news process write about it as though they do. That includes the journalism student on a listserv who seems to think reporters write copy that goes directly to publication. That filter between reporting, writing and publication known as editing is the key difference between journalists and bloggers -- even bloggers who are journalists.

The story also was offered up as an example of automated news sorting gone bad. There were much better examples. Take Google News, which did not have a great showing Saturday. Its algorithms missed the magnitude of the event spectacularly at points, including the moment when you couldn?t even see any reports about Columbia on the first screen.

(sm) At 9:48 AM Google had Nothing

A 9:48 AM Google still had nothing on its top news screen.

The site still came in handy as a collector of coverage as it sprouted. That?s how I found my favorite example of AP wire feeds directly to sites: an article focusing on Dr. Laurel Clark was used all over the Web as the main story about the disaster when it was clearly intended as a regional story with the headline ?NASA loses contact with shuttle carrying Racine woman.? I saw it first on Ohio.com; a Google News search turned up numerous nonsensical instances.

In a February 2 New York Times article, John Schwartz described the wealth of information online, offering as an example the supplemental coverage provided by members of the SlashDot community. He brushes aside the nasty messages as the usual insults, singles out consultant Donald Drake for putting together an animated radar map and quotes David Farber as saying "It turns out it's not something that the conventional media does very well. It does not have the variety of technical talent that pulls it all together.?

Poppycock.

Animated radar maps were all over ?conventional? journalism sites within hours. Without taking anything away from what Drake, Farber and numerous others contribute, it?s completely unfair to suggest that without their efforts there would have been a gaping hole in coverage.

In fact, much of the information being shared on blogs and in communal discussions as awareness about Columbia spread came from ?conventional? media outlets. It?s not that I think everything the mainstream media does is right; it?s just that I don?t see journalism through the us versus them filter so many seemed determined to employ. 

(sm) CNN Made use of its Space Archives

CNN made use of its space archives.

Mainstream coverage varied greatly despite the number of sites sharing elements via AP, other wire/syndication services or their own chains.

Those sites that pay attention to space in between disasters had a much better head start and a chance to achieve actual depth.  CBS could draw on its Eye on Space features including histories of the space shuttle and a  flash animation of a shuttle?s journey from launch to landing. Similarly, CNN, often the commercial equivalent of NASA TV with its consistent coverage of the space program, had a great deal of information on hand before the disaster.

On the newspaper side, for the Houston Chronicle and Florida papers including The Florida Times-Union space is covered 24/7 and it showed in their online efforts.
 
For some outlets -- those covering the hometowns of the flight crew, their current residences, the cities with NASA facilities, the areas where debris fell -- this was an intensely local story. Others scrambled for every angle that tied their community to NASA -- relatives of the crew, former astronauts, locals involved with experiments.

(sm) Ohio.com Singled out one Crew Member

Ohio.com ran an AP story localized for another region.

At the Racine Journal-Times site, the emphasis was on Racine native Laurel Clark from local reaction to the collection of links to videos on the NASA site featuring Clark. The same was true in Madison where Clark studied as an undergraduate and medical student; that?s how I learned the music played during Challenger?s last wake-up call was in her honor. In Denver, RockyMountainNews.com highlighted University of Colorado graduate Kalpana Chawla.

The Lawrence Journal-World web site stuck to its ?local news rules? policy. Late Saturday evening the site?s lead story was about KU salary scales; the Columbia coverage was a story about a KU professor who worked at the Johnson Space Center when Challenger exploded. The story had a link to a Quicktime video, which in turn had a link to more coverage from CNN.com -- where video was still subscription only. (CNN uses the pay product to support the costs of video.)

In fact, most sites seemed to keep their commercial efforts intact. Pop-up ads were everywhere, including one promoting the newspaper?s cookbook at the Racine site. The pop-ups felt more intrusive than usual and the juxtapositions of the unfolding tragedy with some of the products being offered was often jarring. I think everyone -- advertisers, producers and users -- would be better off if the pop-ups were shut down or converted to banners for at least the first 24 hours of a tragedy.

Imagine if Sunday?s somber New York Times print front page with a garish ad for air travel smack in the middle and you?ll get some sense of the negative impact.

When I first tried the Jerusalem Post Online Saturday it was offline for maintenance. By Sunday it was demanding that I register to read a story. I?m not sure when this policy started but it was incredibly annoying to run into it at a time like this. I still wasn?t allowed to read the story until I received and responded to a confirmation e-mail.  Even more irritating, the site didn?t accept my confirmation log in the first time, requiring me to resend the message and try again. That didn?t stop jpost.com from displaying pop-up ads -- one for car rentals in Israel and another much more appropriate one for a special section about Ilan Ramon.

Other items stood out as if in bas relief, intensified by the importance of the story. Looking at so many interactive offerings in a row made me realize just how overused -- or misused -- the term has become. Maybe it's time to find a new term for some elements. Is something interactive simply because the user has to click on it make it advance?

Some sites tossed headlines into lists that only grew more difficult to manage as the number of stories increased. At other sites, like Madison.com, coverage prominently displayed on Saturday was mystifyingly difficult to find by Sunday evening.

It's tempting to excuse flaws in the middle of an unexpected major news event. But that's exactly when everything needs to work. Any site -- no matter the size -- that doesn't have a contingency plan for major breaking news should set one up as soon as possible. The events of Saturday morning showed us all too clearly just how suddenly national news can become a local story.

Staci D. Kramer is Editor at Large at Cable World and was a contributing editor to Inside.com. Based in University City, Mo., Kramer's clients have included Time, Life, the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Multichannel News, APBNews.com, mediainfo.com, Editor & Publisher, The Sporting News, St. Louis magazine, several major papers in Canada, and numerous others. Her work has been syndicated by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, reprinted in two books and she has even co-produced a segment for "Nightline."