In my pursuit of great procrastination viewing material, I stumbled across the Retro Report series on the New York Times’ YouTube channel. The set-up is simple: Show a major news event of the past 60 or so years, provide historical and cultural details of its reporting, and reveal how it ultimately impacted the world. In the space of a long, reasonably productive day, I mainlined through the entire series, becoming hooked after two videos and refusing to watch anything else until I’d finished all 70 or so of them.
Everything was covered: The Thalidomide scandal, the Baby M surrogacy case, genetically engineered tomatoes, the Three Mile Island panic, the Challenger disaster, Biosphere 2 (hey, turns out it wasn’t just a bad movie, that actually happened!), and Dr. Jack Kevorkian, to name but a few. Some of these events were things I had knowledge of, while others were totally new to me, but what every video did was contextualize these situations, both as historical events and the focuses of journalistic reporting. Some figures who experienced the events first-hand were there to share what they saw, and a strong variety of experts were in each video to cover all sides of often thorny debates. They managed to do this without resorting to fake ‘but both sides’ condescension, which made my hours of watching all the more insightful. If you’re ever looking for something new to watch - or, like me, some informative procrastination - give Retro Report a go.
Ultimately, what the videos did was make me think about my own history of watching the news and how I came to understand what news even was. For most kids, the news is that boring show with no cartoons or songs that your parents insist everybody watch, even though The Simpsons is on the other channel at the same time. It never dawned on me at that age that there was some sort of correlation between the 6 o’clock news, the newspapers my dad brought home from work, and the dull conversations adults always seemed to be having when I most needed their attention. I was a voracious reader from a young age, but even when I read the papers - to this day, my dad’s choice of tabloid is The Sun, so you can imagine the hijinks and boobs there - it never seemed like real life. I knew my Cinderella picture-book wasn’t real, so this wasn’t either, right? (Insert fake news joke here).
The first major news story I remember is also the first time it truly hit me why we had the news in the first place. I was a 5-year-old girl in Perthshire when the Dunblane Primary School massacre happened in 1996 - the same age as most of the victims. I don’t remember if we were informed of the event while at school, or if anyone at my school was briefed about the event. It seems reasonable that my teachers were probably informed at some point before us, given how early in the day it happened. After school, I walked home with my next door neighbour, the short walk something I’d been doing from the youngest age, and my mum was watching the news. I knew what most of the words meant. I knew what a gun was, what death was, I almost knew what suicide was. I knew that people putting flowers on the ground meant something bad had happened. Putting the pieces together took time, and a chat from my mum, but the magnitude of the event was still entirely understandable. 16 kids my age had been gunned down in their school gym, as well as their PE teacher. The killer then took his own life.
Looking back, I think it took me longer to understand how major this event was not just to our community - Dunblane was reachable within the hour by car from my town - but specifically to my parents. I can’t imagine the scenarios that must have gone through their heads thinking about something like this happening so close to home, and with a kid the same age as those who were so brutally murdered. For the first time, the news was something thoroughly of our world.
There are other moments in my life heavily defined by the news of the moment. The death of Princess Diana and 9/11 still linger heavily in the mind. I acutely remember the strangest details of the day of the Twin Towers attack, like the French exercises we were doing in computer club when the news broke.
I’ve asked this question to a lot of people. The answers say a lot about our ages, the times we grew up in, the way various events were reported, and so on. The Challenger disaster is a frequent answer since so many of my friends saw it happen live on TV, a moment of hope turned unbearably tragic. I have friends who didn’t just bear witness to the news through TV but life itself.
And so now, I ask you the same question: What is the first major news story you remember? Do you recall how it made you feel? Let us know in the comments.
(Header image of BBC Breaking News indent from BBC Website)