Covering the Awful Unexpected

News organizations scrambled to catch up with the catastrophe

The videotape opens with a long shot of the spacecraft climbing steadily into the sky, cuts to a telephoto closeup just seconds before the sudden fireball, then switches to a wider view of the billowing smoke and steam. It was played and replayed countless times, run in slow motion and stop-action, narrated by anchormen and pored over by technical experts. For all the resources and manpower deployed by the news media after Tuesday's shuttle explosion, everything seemed mere annotation to that single two-minute clip.

The deluge of TV and press coverage that follows a disaster has become an unavoidable feature of...

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