In 2017 when disaster strikes, the media is never far behind. Technology has made it possible for journalists to report the news in real time, whether from a broadcast, through social media or via the remote capabilities now afforded by the internet.
But, 100 years ago it was a very different story for reporters had little more than typewriters, primitive phones, and a telegraph service.
“In an instant, nothing worked,” Michael Dupuis writes in the opening pages of Bearing Witness: Journalists, Record Keepers and the 1917 Halifax Explosion. But reporters got to work anyway, some filing stories a mere hour after a French cargo ship collided with a Norwegian vessel in the waters of the Halifax Harbour, wiping out the northern half of the maritime city, killing thousands of people just after 9 a.m., Dec. 6, 1917.
“This is about honouring the journalists who under the most difficult circumstances covered Canada’s worst maritime disaster,” says Dupuis who dedicated his book to marine reporter John “Jack” Ronayne, one of the first who rushed to the water to investigate a burning ship and was fatally injured as a result of the blast.
Dupuis, a local historian, writer and former teacher, says it was partly by accident Bearing Witness came to be at all. While working on a chapter for a book about Canadian journalists who covered the sinking of the Titanic, he discovered two Ottawa-based reporters covering that story were, five years later, assigned to the story of the explosion in the Halifax Harbour.
“There’s been an awful lot written about the explosion,” Dupuis points out, but none from the perspective of the journalists who were there.
“It was a tough assignment,” he says of those first sent to the harbour. “Reporters were there to get the facts. There was a lot of dead people, a lot of injuries, and you think – my goodness, how could they see what they saw and write so objectively?”
A story has to be compelling to buy a book, Dupuis says and he knew he had something unique when he pitched the idea to Fernwood Publishing in 2014.
They set a date of 2017 – the 100th anniversary of the disaster – to publish, and Dupuis set to work tracking down the stories of some two dozen journalists, only two of whom were women.
“Reporting in those days was hard-nosed,” he says, and much of it was graphic. “Without the press getting the story out, how on earth would the relief and recovery efforts have taken place in 1917?”
When Dupuis launched the book in June in at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, five descendants of the journalists featured in the book attended, three from the U.S. He says he was asked how he was able to verify the accounts of those “first responders” who came from across the country, and was proud to discover that 95 per cent of what was originally reported in 1917 was accurate.
In the book, he includes a quote from a former publisher of the Washington Post that reads, “journalism is the first rough draft of history.” That idea as well as other insights from Bearing Witness will be the focus of Dupuis’ talk at the Central Branch of the GVPL Dec. 2 at 2:30 p.m.
Dupuis is philosophical about it all now that the book is out and the journalists have seen some recognition. The book is in libraries in provinces across Canada, and as a historian, that’s a win, he says. And while he doesn’t consider himself a journalist, despite his penchant for researching and writing about them, he does share with them one similarity.
“My goal was to get the story out,” he says.