Jan. 28, 1986: Challenger Disaster Plays Out On Live TV - News9.com - Oklahoma City, OK - News, Weather, Video and Sports |


Jan. 28, 1986: Challenger Disaster Plays Out On Live TV

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[AP Photo] [AP Photo]

The excitement lasted only 73 seconds.

On January 28, 1986, 1 minute and 13 seconds after liftoff, space shuttle Challenger exploded as thousands watched the launch in person and on television. All seven astronauts on board were killed.

It became one of the most iconic live breaking news events in television history.

"This is one of the first big ones," said Stacey Schulman, a media analyst with Katz Television Group. "It is one of those moments, particularly for the current generation, where they say 'where were you when?'"

So many were tuning in, partially due to the story line of Christa McAuliffe, set to be the the first teacher and ordinary civilian in space, was on board the Challenger. "That in and of itself became a massive PR moment [for NASA]," said Schulman.

"You had all of these children in school watching this moment live," she continued. "It was a very defining moment."

It was a defining moment, because there was no real precedent for how the media covered a catastrophic live event. At the time, 24-hour cable news hadn't taken off yet, and the Challenger disaster was one of the first major tragedies to play out on live television.

"There wasn't pressure to tell the story to fill time, the pressure was how do we tell the story right?" Schulman explained.

"It's really one of the first times that science and engineering have to be explicitly explained to the public and to the media."

In today's world, the massive reach of cable news outlets and social media has changed the way citizens consume live events -- from shootings, to terror attacks, to weather events.

It is not only journalists and experts who are contributing to the conversation, Shulman says, but also every day citizens.

"Now you have the 'any man' camera constantly poised on the street. There's a whole different dynamic in sharing news and obtaining news."

This also creates a question of, ethically, what media outlets can and should share -- especially when an event happens live.

"[With Challenger], you realize not only has something gone wrong, but you've witnessed the death of several brave Americans, including a civilian," Schulman explained. A similar statement can be made when discussing footage of other tragedies, like the 9/11 terror attacks.

In today's world of immediate demand for information, "that creates this very distinct line between what news organizations will and won't share, and what the every day man on the street will and won't share."

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