Fifty years ago, word of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy reached many Americans by television, a relatively new and unproven medium for news coverage. The events in Dallas, as reported by those covering the tragedy, became a case study for all television news organizations.
When radio reporter Bob Huffaker set out to cover Kennedy’s motorcade in Dallas, it marked a new shift in the way his organization, KRLD, was covering a live news event.
“Up until then I had done radio broadcasts from many scenes, but that was the first day we marshaled our mobile television facilities,” he said.
Newspapers, with daily editions in the morning and evening, were still popular sources of news and information, recalls former Fort Worth Star-Telegram Reporter Bob Schieffer.
“They didn’t, just quite didn’t believe it, until they saw it in the paper. And, then, that kind of made it sort of official," he said. "From that weekend on, of course, television would be the place where most people got their news.”
What was on television during a four-day ordeal, from the time Kennedy was shot to his funeral in Washington, was a mixture of fact, speculation, and unfiltered drama, as millions of people watched events, such as the killing of suspected assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, unfold on live television.
Through much of that coverage, Southern Methodist University history professor Jeffrey Engel says the American people got a healthy dose of misinformation.
“It was a truly chaotic situation, and constantly there is news being filtered into a news media and they are doing the natural thing… they hear something, and they are telling people about it,” he said.
Huffaker says he tried to be calm in a storm of unfolding events amid a sea of misinformation.
“We were concentrating all this time on reporting things as calmly as possible, to somehow encourage the world to keep its sanity,” he said.
In the resulting coverage, a steady stream of facts about the suspected assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, came through Huffaker’s competition, KLIF radio news reporter Gary DeLaune, who had a well-placed source inside the Dallas Police Department.
“And I would walk out in the hall for coffee or something, and he would say OK this is the story, and I knew this stuff before it had ever made it publicly, and they were all factual," he said.
But Engel says an analysis of the overall coverage shows the perils of live reporting to feed a public anxious for information.
“It’s really a case study of what we see today in many ways in which information is perhaps processed faster than people have time to think about it or verify it,” he said.
Schieffer, who moved on from print reporting to become a television reporter and, ultimately, a network news anchor, says the look behind the curtain of television journalism in its infancy during the Kennedy assassination had a downside.
“What they discovered was that it was not altogether a dignified process, people pushed and shoved and shouted, and there was a lot of back and forth," he said. "In a way, it may have affected the credibility of all journalism just seeing the process.”
But Schieffer adds it was the first time the American public saw that process, and, since then, the demand for more information sooner has only increased.