Titanic Proportions

The 100th anniversary of one of the world’s most-covered stories

You can’t sink a good story.

The past few months have produced countless articles, columns, photo galleries, videos, and sundry media clips about the 100th anniversary of the RMS Titanic striking an iceberg and foundering in the frigid North Atlantic in the early hours of April 15, 1912.

The Washington Post’s Joel Achenbach reported that the president of the Titanic Historical Society found himself “besieged with interview requests” as he tried to survive the centennial. Wrote Achenbach:

This has become a media event as huge and flamboyant as the great ship that lies in ragged ruin at the bottom of the Atlantic.

The Titanic has never been bigger. The story has defied the rules of history, brightening rather than fading with time.

Reminding readers of historian Steven Biel’s quote—“the three most written-about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War, and the Titanic”—Daniel Mendelsohn proffered an explanation in The New Yorker:

The inexhaustible interest suggests that the Titanic’s story taps a vein much deeper than the morbid fascination that has attached to other disasters. The explosion of the Hindenberg, for instance, and even the torpedoing, just three years after the Titanic sank, of the Lusitania, another great liner whose passenger list boasted the rich and the famous, were calamities that shocked the world but have failed to generate an obsessive preoccupation… unlike other disasters, the Titanic seems to be about something. But what?

Front-and-center in the anniversary coverage was, as Mendelsohn described it, the “parable about the scope, and limits, of technology.” Scientific American produced a terrific special report, “The Titanic: 100 Years Later,” which focused on that angle with headlines such as, “Could the Titanic Disaster Happen Again?” “The Science behind the Iceberg that sank the Titanic,” “Is It Possible to Build an ‘Unsinkable’ Ship?” and “Titanic: Resonance and Reality.” Interesting pieces from Discovery News and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette revisited questions about why so many perished despite the fact that the ship had the most advanced wireless radio system of its day. (At The Atlantic, Megan Garber (formerly of CJR fame) posted a short transcript of transmissions to and from the Titanic following its collision with the iceberg.)

The New York Times’s weekly Science Times section explored alternatives to the technological-hubris narrative. In a fascinating article, William Broad outlined two new theories—about king tides and atmospheric mirages—which “argue that rare states of nature played major roles in the catastrophe.” In a similar vein, posts at the National Geographic News and the Los Angeles Times’s environment blog quoted Frank Lowenstein, head of climate-adaptation strategy for the Nature Conservancy discussing the possibility that, in a warming world, a ship travelling on the same route as the Titanic might encounter more icebergs today.

The bigger, or at least more widely covered, scientific controversy to emerge from the anniversary coverage surrounded a federal official’s assertion that there may be human remains at the 2.5-mile-deep site of the shipwreck. His claim is based on a 2004 photograph of the debris field released for the first time this week, which shows coat and boots embedded in the mud in the arrangement of someone wearing them.

“These are not shoes that fell out neatly from somebody’s bag right next to each other,” James Delgado, the director of maritime heritage at the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, told The Associated Press in a phone interview.

The New York Times quoted a variety of experts, including filmmaker James Cameron, who’s visited the wreck 33 times, disputing the claim, however. Its article also offered a detailed description of the conditions—particularly the amount of oxygen dissolved in the surrounding water—that govern decomposition of organic materials in the deep sea.

Referring to the wreck site as “hallowed ground,” Sen. John Kerry introduced the R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Preservation Act last week, drawing fairly wide coverage. The bill would strengthen legislation passed in 1986 and seeks to penalize disruptive exploration and illegal salvaging. Because the Titanic’s remains lie in international waters, however, many see new UNESCO cultural heritage protections, which are also getting some media attention, as a better safeguard.

Those protections don’t prohibit all exploration and salvage, however. Over the years, thousands of artifacts have been recovered and sold. There have been a variety of articles about the biggest-ever auction of Titanic artifacts, comprising 5,500 items, arranged by the New York-based Guernsey’s. A few outlets have photo galleries of the stunning collection, which includes a 17-ton section of the hull. A court order stipulated that the items must be sold as a single lot, not piece by piece, and that the buyer will have to maintain the pieces and make them available for public display and research.

Unsurprisingly, the best gallery of new images of the Titanic came from National Geographic, which produced an anniversary package for its April issue. The magazine worked with William Lange, the head of the Advanced Imaging and Visualization Laboratory at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, to construct “a meticulously stitched-together mosaic” of images of the large wreck site. As the cover story, “Unseen Titanic,” explained:

In recent years explorers like James Cameron and Paul-Henry Nargeolet have brought back increasingly vivid pictures of the wreck. Yet we’ve mainly glimpsed the site as though through a keyhole, our view limited by the dreck suspended in the water and the ambit of a submersible’s lights. Never have we been able to grasp the relationships between all the disparate pieces of wreckage. Never have we taken the full measure of what’s down there… until now.

There’s so much more, with outlets pursuing almost every angle imaginable to mark the centennial. A self-deprecating blog entry at The Washington Post about “oversaturated media coverage” linked to over a dozen reports from its own writers. The New York Times has a Topics page for the Titanic, which shows a similar breadth of coverage in recent weeks. The BBC, The Telegraph, and The Daily Beast all created special reports on their websites.

There’s also plenty for those interested in paleo-journalism. From The Huffington Post and Patch to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and WNYC there were many retrospectives on how news of the disaster broke in April 1912, and Discovery News posted a nice slideshow of the photos that accompanied that coverage.

Between the anniversary collections and those original reports there has, of course, been a steady stream of year-to-year reportage as well. As the Post’s Achenbach rightly put it, “Even if Titanic wasn’t unsinkable, fascination with it seems to be.”

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , ,