Burriss: Telegraph still important

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One of the sorts of fun considerations about media is the debate about which media form has had the most impact. Of course, there is no good answer, especially since it is becoming more and more difficult to figure out just what we mean by "media," "hardware" and "software."

But I'd like to nominate a 170 year old technology celebrating an anniversary Tuesday, May 24: the telegraph. It was on that date, in 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first official telegraph message from the capitol building in Washington to Baltimore.

OK, no one sends telegrams today. In fact, the last Western Union telegraph transmission was in 2006. But the impact is still being felt.

Certainly high-speed communication began with the telegraph. And in many ways the telegraph was the precursor to the Internet, in that the technology provided almost instantaneous communication between sites around the world.

But news coverage is where the telegraph probably had the most impact.

Before the telegraph news stories had to be relayed by hand and it may be weeks before a story made its way several hundred miles.

But more significantly, the telegraph made the fact of news coverage different, particularly news from the battlefield. Now, news of military engagements and casualties could be printed almost in real time, which, during the Civil War, made some field commanders more than a little nervous.

In fact, General William T. Sherman nearly executed several correspondents he thought were spies because of the way they were reporting news about the battlefield.

But there was also a psychological change in the news business. The ability to get news quickly naturally led to more competition to get the news published first. That in turn led to Yellow Journalism and the newspaper wars around the turn of the 20th century.

And this is what this news was like: exaggeration, scandal-mongering and sensationalism. Now that I think about it that sounds a lot like some of the news today. Maybe we need to rethink those benefits.

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Larry Burriss
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