As Americans tried to cope with and understand the assassination of their president 50 years ago, they turned, for one of the first times in history, to television for wide-ranging coverage of the unfolding event. On Nov. 22, 1963, television news earned the trust of a generation of viewers.
With the perfect confluence of events, experts and emerging technology, Paul Gluck, associate professor of media studies and production, said television news became the top resource for Americans to gather information about the death of JFK. For years, radio’s ratings had been deflating and the public needed visual images to help comprehend the tragedy.
“People didn’t rely on radio if they could see a television,” he said. “It was more comforting. America had an appetite to see it and understand it.”
And the industry was ready to step up.
Gluck, who teaches “History of Electronic Media,” said the early-1960s network news crews were the first generation of professionals who had “grown up” in the TV news business. Sensing the public’s thirst for detailed and up-to-the-minute information, it was the first time networks provided wall-to-wall news coverage.
Over the next several days, television aired images that have been permanently etched in the minds of the adults and children who watched the events live.
Sherri Hope Culver, assistant professor of media studies and production and director of the Temple School of Media and Communication’s Center for Media and Information Literacy, said TV coverage strongly affected the children of the 1960s, since kids don’t have the ability to remove themselves from the images they see on television.
“We know from research the earlier children learn something, the more likely that learning will stay with them as they age (assuming the learning is age-appropriate). Couple that learning with an impactful visual, and our senses make a connection that becomes a trigger for the memory,” she said. “That’s why advertisers like to make connections with young children. Something as basic as the type of toothpaste you use as a kid can affect which toothpaste you buy as an adult.”
Preschool age children process television imagery differently since they do not yet have the ability to understand how television works. Culver equates the experience of watching coverage of the assassination to the experience of watching 9/11 unfold on TV.
“Kids were seeing images of tall buildings falling and they’re not understanding that it’s a 10-second video clip being played over and over and over,” she said. “They get the sense that it’s continuously happening or that lots of buildings are exploding.”
Why the pictures remain
Adults, she said, have the self-awareness to take themselves out of the equation – to pull back and understand that the footage was captured by a camera operator, sent to an editor and is being replayed throughout the day.
“At a preschool age, kids are taking things at face value. Kids are not considering whether or not they’ve seen the footage before. What they see is what it is to them,” she said.
Culver believes children who had some sort of deeper connection to the assassination (whether they lived in Dallas or a place like it, or if their family had a personal connection to it) likely recall the images with more clarity.
“A child seeing a news report on the JFK assassination just one time might have minimal reaction, or might have a nightmare, but without a stronger connection or seeing the footage repeatedly, their fear would likely dissipate pretty quickly,” Culver said.
When national tragedy inevitably finds its way onto our televisions again, Culver believes it is up to adults to help children monitor and process the images they see and help them better understand the many levels of the situation.
“When a major news event takes place, this is an opportunity to have a conversation with your children or students,” she says. “Adults can help children to process the situation, evaluate whether or not this will affect the child personally, and help the child develop the coping skills to deal with the inevitable ups and downs of life.”