You canât 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 Postâs Joel AchenbachÂ reported that the president of the Titanic Historical Society found himself âbesieged with interview requestsâ 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 BielâsÂ quoteââthe three most written-about subjects of all time are Jesus, the Civil War, and the TitanicââDaniel MendelsohnÂ proffered an explanation inÂ The New Yorker:
The inexhaustible interest suggests that the Titanicâs 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 preoccupationâŚ 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 âparable about the scope, and limits, of technology.âÂ Scientific American produced a terrificÂ special report, âThe Titanic: 100 Years Later,â which focused on that angle with headlines such as, âCould the Titanic Disaster Happen Again?â âThe Science behind the Iceberg that sank the Titanic,â âIs It Possible to Build an âUnsinkableâ Ship?â and âTitanic: Resonance and Reality.â Interesting pieces fromÂ Discovery News and theÂ 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. (AtÂ The Atlantic, Megan Garber (formerly of CJR fame)Â posted a short transcript of transmissions to and from the Titanic following its collision with the iceberg.)
The New York Timesâs weekly Science Times section explored alternatives to the technological-hubris narrative. In aÂ fascinating article, William Broad outlined two new theoriesâabout king tides and atmospheric miragesâwhich âargue that rare states of nature played major roles in the catastrophe.â In a similar vein, posts at theÂ National Geographic News and theÂ Los Angeles TimesâsÂ 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 officialâs 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.
âThese are not shoes that fell out neatly from somebodyâs bag right next to each other,â James Delgado, the director of maritime heritage at the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration,Â told The Associated Press in a phone interview.
The New York Times quoted a variety of experts, including filmmaker James Cameron, whoâs visited the wreck 33 times, disputing the claim, however. ItsÂ article also offered a detailed description of the conditionsâparticularly the amount of oxygen dissolved in the surrounding waterâthat govern decomposition of organic materials in the deep sea.
Referring to the wreck site as âhallowed ground,â Sen. John Kerry introduced the R.M.S. Titanic Maritime Memorial Preservation Act last week, drawing fairly wideÂ coverage. The bill would strengthen legislation passed in 1986 and seeks to penalize disruptive exploration and illegal salvaging. Because the Titanicâs remains lie in international waters, however, many see new UNESCO cultural heritage protections, which are also getting someÂ media attention, as a better safeguard.
Those protections donât prohibit all exploration and salvage, however. Over the years, thousands of artifacts have been recovered and sold. There have been a variety ofÂ articles about the biggest-ever auction of Titanic artifacts, comprising 5,500 items, arranged by the New York-based Guernseyâs. A few outlets haveÂ 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, theÂ best gallery of new images of the Titanic came fromÂ National Geographic, which produced an anniversaryÂ 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 âa meticulously stitched-together mosaicâ of images of the large wreck site. As the cover story, âUnseen Titanic,â explained:
In recent years explorers like James Cameron and Paul-Henry Nargeolet have brought back increasingly vivid pictures of the wreck. Yet weâve mainly glimpsed the site as though through a keyhole, our view limited by the dreck suspended in the water and the ambit of a submersibleâs 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 whatâs down thereâŚ until now.
Thereâs so much more, with outlets pursuing almost every angle imaginable to mark the centennial. A self-deprecatingÂ blog entry atÂ The Washington Post about âoversaturated media coverageâ linked to over a dozen reports from its own writers.Â The New York Times has aÂ Topics page for the Titanic, which shows a similar breadth of coverage in recent weeks. TheÂ BBC,Â The Telegraph, andÂ The Daily Beast all created special reports on their websites.
Thereâs also plenty for those interested in paleo-journalism. FromÂ The Huffington Post andÂ Patch to theÂ Australian Broadcasting Corporation andÂ WNYC there were many retrospectives on how news of the disaster broke in April 1912, and Discovery News posted a niceÂ 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 theÂ Postâs Achenbach rightlyÂ put it, âEven if Titanic wasnât unsinkable, fascination with it seems to be.â
Picture Credit: Copies of original newspapers describing the sinking of the Titanic rest in an exhibit at the South Street Seaport Museum commemorating the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic in New York April 11, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson