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Professor shares how JFK assassination shaped America's news media evolution

John F. Kennedy’s assassination 50 years ago this Friday was one of the first salvos in a cataclysmic decade that left the nation’s psyche battered.

November 21, 2013

Peggy O
Peggy O'Neill-Jones directs the Library of Congress Teaching With Primary Sources Program at MSU Denver.

By Robert Gelchion

John F. Kennedy’s assassination 50 years ago this Friday was one of the first salvos in a cataclysmic decade that left the nation’s psyche battered. It also marked a maturing of television news and its emergence as an important player in the information landscape.

“TV captured our naiveté,” said Peggy O’Neill-Jones, professor of technical communication and media production. “It captured what an innocent nation we were.” The four days of marathon coverage of the assassination made the nation a “collective community” in mourning, she said.

From flustered TV announcers to talkative police officers who gave live interviews, the medium entered uncharted territory. “We were not prepared to process these images,” O’Neill-Jones said. “Walter Cronkite crying on TV, blood on Jackie Kennedy’s skirt. These were powerful images and they were live and coming at people.”

O’Neill-Jones was 9 when Kennedy was killed. She remembers going to her Catholic elementary school in hair curlers in preparation for a fashion show. When school staff heard the news, the students were sent to Mass. “There was some question about whether to cancel the fashion show,” she said. “It went on.”

For four days that weekend, TV was a “lifeline” of shared events, from the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald to the pageantry of the president’s funeral. TV was a relatively new medium. O’Neill-Jones said her family got their first TV set in the mid-1950s. “We thought of it as radio with pictures,” she said. “It didn’t deliver emotion.”

The weekend’s coverage changed that. “Before that, news was delivered in 30-minute packages (CBS had just become the first network to begin a half-hour news broadcast). But here the news was on all day long.”

O’Neill-Jones has written that the television coverage allowed the public to “hold virtual hands — a new and groundbreaking experience.” What has followed in the years since — the 24-hour media cycle and special broadcasts — has sought to take big news stories “and turn them into another Kennedy event,” she said.

Coverage of such an event today would be different because of social media, O’Neill-Jones said. “People would turn to Twitter and other sources to get a different perspective. Today, news channels often check social media to see what’s trending. Reporters then had to get to a [landline] telephone. Today people have cell phones. TV was in its infancy when Kennedy happened. Social media is in its infancy today.”

“We took care of each other,” she said of 1963. “TV let us connect with people we didn’t even know. TV was coming at us, but social media makes it a conversation.”

O’Neill-Jones has been with MSU Denver since 1990. In addition to her faculty work, she directs the Library of Congress Teaching With Primary Sources Program at the University, which serves 14 western states. She is also involved with a project designed to test the use of  social media to connect teachers with the vast resources of the Library of Congress.

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