Quake, Fire, devastate San Francisco, 1906
On April 18th 1906, at 5:12 in the morning, an earthquake that has been estimated to have been between 7.8 and 8.25 on the Richter scale, struck along 296 miles of the San Andreas Fault line and could be felt from Los Angeles to Oregon. The epicenter was located just 2 miles from the San Francisco shoreline at a point called Mussel Rock. San Francisco was devastated by the quake and the resulting fire. Buildings collapsed or were badly damaged, and fires broke out seemingly everywhere in the city. The water mains were broken by the quake, and there was no water available to fight the fires. It is estimated that over 1,000 people died as a direct result of the quake and fires. The property damage was in the 100s of millions as 28,000 buildings were destroyed. Half the city was in ruins and over 200,000 people became homeless.
I took a look at the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle to compare coverage. I know that the Chronicle was in the quake, but according to a list of ‘The Buildings Destroyed’, published in the New York Times on April 19th 1906, the ‘New Chronicle Building was hardly damaged’. This article was clearly labeled ‘A Partial List’ so that it can’t be totally accurate by default, but it, and most of the articles in both newspapers do not give sources, verification of facts, or by-lines, in the stories. By that time, (1906), ‘yellow journalism’ had past its hay-day and Newspapers were trying to keep stories more factual, it was around the begining of the "Progressive Era" in Journalism. At that time there were also two different approaches to reporting the story, an informative approach, and the use of a story line to present the facts approach. However, I found no actual proof of anything in any article. They only reported in what seems like a well researched and trustable way. I could only find a couple of times that someone, like a mayor or a fireman, was even quoted. It was a time when investigative journalism was taking a firm hold on the industry, but reporters didn’t reveal sources. Large advertisers such as department stores were starting to emerge and both papers were very much into selling the idea of the “American Dream” in the way articles were framed and also in the advertisements.
The New York Times, now taking the ‘informative approach’, took full advantage of its city-dwelling reader’s interest in the tragedy. They had gained substantial market share and were attracting good advertising dollars. The paper was positioning itself as the newspaper of integrity and morality as well as honesty. Their target market was the upper middle class and well-to-do people of power. The Times articles about the disaster were extremely sensationalized and numerous. The Times at that time was a daily newspaper. Flashy headlines and articles about the Quake completely covered the front pages and dominated almost all of the other pages, sharing space only with advertisements targeted at the upwardly mobile consumer. Headlines such as:’ New York Stunned by Disaster News’, ‘Army Of Homeless Fleeing From The Devastated City’, ‘Half San Francisco Gone’, and ’Over 500 Dead, $200,000,000 Lost In San Francisco Earthquake’, grabbed the main stream readers attention. Headlines such as: ‘Insurance Loss Many Millions, Eastern Concerns Hard Hit by Disaster’, ‘The Buildings Destroyed’, ‘Congress Gives Aid To Stricken Cities’, and ‘The Disaster’s Effect On The Stock Market’, were used to attract and inform the Investor Capitalist. All the headlines were followed by articles that were mostly biased and slanted toward these two groups of readers.
The Chronicle, a once a week 52 page Sunday paper at that time, went right into a public service mode. They did manage to get out a six page paper on Sunday the 22nd and they also joined with the Call and the Examiner to get out a paper in the days after. The headlines and articles were framed to give hope and valuable information to devastated people. Articles with headlines like: ‘Saving The Mint’, and ‘Where People Can Be Found’, are examples of the Chronicles helping approach. People do expect that kind of public service to be a function of the news media during a crisis. I also found one article dated almost 15 months before the big quake,(1-22-1905), with the headline “Why San Francisco Need Not Fear Earthquakes”, about how the shocks were not big enough to hurt the city. It just goes to show how wrong Newspapers can be.
I think when you look at Newspaper and overall media coverage of earthquakes in modern times, things are pretty much the same in times of disasters, with regard to sensationalizing the story or becoming part of the emergency relief efforts, based on regional locations.
By Joel S. (JOUR 301) 4-18-2009
Schudson, Michael, ‘Discovering the News’,(1978), Basic Books, Inc.
JOUR 301 sp.2009 course materials and lectures
New York Times Historical articles on ProQuest at SFPL, News Dated 4-18-1906 to 4-23-1906
San Francisco Chronicle Historical on ProQuest at SFPL, News Dated 1-1-1905 to 4-23-1906