Today is April 19, 2012, the 17th anniversary of the day the red earth of Oklahoma City turned a darker shade of crimson.
This, of course, was the day 168 Sooners lost their lives and some 800 others were injured in the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building bombing.
I was living in Boston at the time, teaching at Boston College, but I was home visiting my parents in
the Oklahoma City area when Timothy McVeigh lit the fuse to the rented Ryder truck filled with homemade explosives.
I spent the next two months covering the aftermath for an area daily newspaper whose town lost 26 souls in that bombing. It was a life-changing experience for all of us, and hardly a week has gone by since then that I haven’t thought about that tragic day.
I always try to relate my profession of newsgathering to the coverage of significant events, and recently I’ve been wondering how this day of April 19, 1995 might have been covered had it been April 19, 2012.
To begin with, people would have known about that event today even faster than they did in 1995, and more people would have been aware of it. In fact, it’s hard to believe anyone, anywhere would have been unaware of it by 10:30 a.m.
First word would have gone out in less than a minute over an iPhone or Droid cell phone. Live pictures would have accompanied it, and probably a video as well on many phones.
And some of these uploads would have come from surviving victims themselves, some still buried in open spaces under piles of building rubble. The videos might have been incredible. Some of these calls and uploads might have helped find buried victims quicker.
Before long, the viral nature of digital communications would have done it’s job at the grassroots level rather than waiting for people to turn on their TV sets or car radios.
Facebook a factor
The same people phoning word out to friends would have also been uploading that word and those visual images to Facebook, then Instagram, then YouTube. By nightfall, there would be at least 20 million hits on these YouTube video uploads; maybe 80 million by the end of the next day.
By that next day, someone would have set up a dedicated FB page to the Oklahoma City bombing. It would be a place of information exchange, coming-together of those in grief,
and of outpourings of support. If anyone needed help, this would be a good place to find it.
Other recent tragedies like the tsunamis of Indonesia and Japan, as well as the tragic loss of life in African countries, have shown the power that can come from such focused Facebook pages that serve as a meeting place for victims of tragedies.
What about accuracy?
As for the accuracy of the information itself, that may be another question. Whether in a digital age or not, the truth has a way of emerging slowly. Something like the blooming of a rose when exposed to the glare of sunlight.
Yes, there would have been more windows on this tragic world. There would have been more voices talking about what was happening. But solid facts about how many were killed, who they were, who survived, and who pulled the trigger igniting this misery – all these would all have to wait for journalists to do their jobs in the old-fashioned way: Asking questions of informed sources.
Life takes time
Having Facebook, Droids, or iPhones would not have enabled reporters to learn any faster who was buried under nine floors of concrete rubble. That technology wouldn’t have made finding the children in the second-floor daycare any easier. The search-and-rescue teams needed time to do their jobs, no matter how sophisticated the communication technology.
Of the many things I will always remember about April 1995, one is the way that journalists and search teams seemed to work in synch, albeit on different parts of the task at hand. The search teams would locate the bodies, the journalists would attempt to answer the myriad questions everyone had about this tragedy.
People doing their jobs
At the interface of these two groups – searchers and journalists – stood a handful of dedicated public affairs officers for the Oklahoma City Fire Department, Police Department, and FEMA. Their regular updates were helpful, and the coverage system they devised for journalists proved to be generally successful.
Nearly everyone seemed to be focused and doing their jobs in the days and weeks following that bombing, and the friends and families of the dead and survivors seemed grateful for that.
Both parts needed
Today’s interactive, digital media have shown what they can do in spreading the word to more people, faster. But the newer media forms, alone, are not enough when disaster strikes.
You have to plug in the dedication of trained responders and professional journalists, all focused on doing their jobs, for the recipe for resolution and healing to begin taking shape.