The Oxford English dictionary defines ‘reportage’ as:
1. [Mass noun] The reporting of news by the press and the broadcasting media.
1.1. The factual, journalistic presentation of an account in a book or other text.
In this section, we explore the way the sinking of the Iolaire was reported at the time. What can the differences tell us of the prevailing attitudes to reporting and consuming news? Have these attitudes changed since 1919?
Today, we can get first-hand accounts of events that happen anywhere around the world instantaneously and in graphic detail. When such events are reported by media outlets, editorial choices need to be made about what to include and what to leave out. Audiences can turn to any number of sources (whether accurate or not) to draw their own conclusions.
By contrast, in the early 20th century people relied wholly on newspapers and official government reports for accurate information. Here are two extracts from reports on the Iolaire disaster:
From ‘The Stornoway Gazette’, 5 January 1919:
'No one now alive in Lewis can ever forget the 1st January 1919, and future generations will speak of it as the blackest day in the history of the island, for on it 200 of our bravest and best perished on the very threshold of their homes under the most tragic circumstances. The terrible disaster at Holm on New Year’s morning has plunged every house and every heart in Lewis into grief unutterable. Language cannot express the anguish, the desolation, the despair which this awful catastrophe has inflicted. One thinks of the wide circle of blood relations affected by the loss of even one of the gallant lads, and imagination sees those circles multiplied by the number of the dead, overlapping and overlapping each other till the whole island – every hearth and home it is shrouded in deepest gloom.'
From ‘The Scotsman’, 6 January 1919:
'The appalling catastrophe at Stornoway still monopolises all thoughts on the island. The villages of Lewis are like places of the dead. No one goes about except on duties that cannot be left undone. The homes of the island are full of lamentation – grief that cannot be comforted. Carts in little processions of twos and threes, each bearing its coffin from the mortuary, pass through the streets of Stornoway on their way to some rural village, and all heads are bared as they pass. Scarcely a family has escaped the loss of some near blood relation. Many have had sorrow heaped on sorrow. Messages of sympathy and offers of what help is possible continue to pour in from all quarters.'
There is a great amount of emotive language rather than just dry facts in 'The Stornoway Gazette' extract. 'The Scotsman' extract, while still containing some degree of emotive language, is more reserved in its tone. 'The Stornoway Gazette' was, of course, the local paper and the community it served was the most closely affected by the Iolaire disaster.
It's important to note that before the advent of mass media, newspapers were the primary local source of 'official' news and information. Newspapers were regarded as trusted and authoritative sources. In these examples we see that not only were papers describing the details of the tragedy but also giving highly charged emotional accounts of communal grief.
These two extracts demonstrate how the newspapers of the day served not just to impart facts but to reflect the mood of the communities they served.
A 21st century maritime disaster
On 13 January 2012, 32 people died when the Italian cruise ship 'Costa Concordia' ran aground just hours after leaving the port of Civitavecchia. These were some of the headlines and editorials in Italian newspapers shortly afterward:
Headline in Roman paper 'La Repubblica': 'Concordia, a night of errors and lies'. The newspaper's website has a full dossier of the disaster:
Editorial in best-selling daily 'Corriere Della Sera': 'Italy owes to the world, to international public opinion, to the families of those who lost their lives or were injured... a convincing explanation and harsh punishments for those responsible for this tragedy'. The paper also has a special archive of its coverage including a section it calls 'reportage'.
Headline in Turin's 'La Stampa': 'The captain's position worsens: he did not raise the alarm and refused to go back on board'.
This is how BBC news explained the disaster.
Trustworthy news sources
While the sinking of the Iolaire and the tragedy of the Costa Concordia have little in common apart from taking place at sea, it is interesting to note the shift in news reporting in the last 100 years. Thirty two people lost their lives in the Costa Concordia tragedy and while there was palpable anger in the Italian press, it is less emotive than the coverage of the Iolaire disaster.
Has the explosion in mass media in the last 100 years made news audiences less empathetic? Do people now rely on one source of 'authoritative' information? With so many of us now creating and consuming news as it happens, does this influence what we expect newspapers and media to report?
The community affected by the Iolaire disaster expected the truth and demanded facts like we would today but their sources for accurate reporting and news were, of course, much more limited. However, does having more news sources necessarily ensure more reliable coverage? Were the people of Lewis and Harris served well by the news media of the day?
Look at the newspaper reports in the Sources section of the site and see whether you agree or not.