How the world learned about Queen Elizabeth’s death

12th September, 2022.      //   General Interest  // 

Few nations do ritual better than Britain. And no medium covers it more skillfully than television.

Both were in high gear Thursday with the death of Queen Elizabeth at the age of 96. Together they provided a sense of continuity and comfort at a time when many were feeling sadness and loss at the passing of someone who had been a part of their media lives for seven decades.

CNN and MSNBC started their rolling coverage Thursday morning. After the announcement of the queen’s death Thursday afternoon, ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox News interrupted their regular programming to do the same.

The imagery Thursday morning was one of foreboding and passage with shots of darkened skies and the gates of Balmoral in the rain. Even as experts spoke about the queen during morning coverage, split screens regularly held the scene-setting shots of the gates and the gloom and the rain. The images powerfully communicated a timeless feeling of waiting at the gates for word from the castle.

The nighttime images of a sea of black umbrellas in the rain outside Buckingham Place were just as evocative and moving.

As hard as it is for newspapers to compete with such imagery, The New York Times offered its online version of rolling coverage and was one of the first to report that “as the queen’s death was announced on Thursday, two rainbows were visible to crowds gathered near the Queen Victoria Memorial outside of Buckingham Palace.” A photograph from Reuters was used to show the rainbows. Social media provided video of the rainbow online as well as audio of crowds outside Buckingham Palace singing “God Save the Queen” as they stood vigil during the day.

Such emotional moments offer a bit of balm to the pain of loss, and media brought them to our screens.

Queen Elizabeth II Through the Years - Photos of Queen Elizabeth II

The queen, the media and changing times

One of the biggest challenges of covering Elizabeth’s life and reign has long involved balancing admiration for her sense of public duty with the actions of some of her children and changing attitudes toward the monarchy.

Of course, in the wake of the death of such a figure, the impetus is all the more compelling to only bring praise. But media generally found ways Thursday to sing her praises while not ignoring criticism of her family. And it was often done through good, sound, basic journalism.

CNN correspondent Scott McLean interviewed a young woman standing outside Windsor Castle and asked for her reaction when she first heard the queen was under medical supervision.

“I think it is pretty sad,” the woman said. “You wouldn’t want that to happen to your own family member. But I’m not like the biggest fan of the queen or the monarchy in general. So, I’m not that upset or overwhelmed by it.”

“So, you’re not the biggest fan of the monarch; I wonder why,” McLean responded.

The woman cited “British colonial history” and the allegations of sexual misconduct by Prince Andrew as her reasons.

The interview was less than a minute and quickly lost in a tidal wave of pundit praise and interviewees saying how profoundly sad they were at the passing of someone they not only deeply admired but came to think of as an island of tradition and stability in an era of disruption and conflict. But that voice needed to be part of the coverage even if it was only one minute among hundreds filled with praise.

At the time of the interview, all channels and many online platforms were carrying a photograph of Andrew arriving by car at Balmoral with his nephew Prince William and brother Edward as well as Edward’s wife, Sophie.

Online articles and on-air analysis at NPRDaily MailPolitico and MSNBC also included criticism of the queen for her mishandling of Princess Diana’s death and protective treatment of Andrew.

Katty Kay, a BBC Studios correspondent and MSNBC contributor, explained why she thought her channel and others around the world stopped what they were doing and went to rolling coverage of Elizabeth’s death Thursday.

“She was the constant, reassuring presence in an ever-changing world, and that’s irreplaceable,” Kay told anchor Nicolle Wallace.

Saying her words were not meant to “canonize” the queen, Kay added, “There were mistakes that were made. The death of Diana stands out as the biggest one.”

But, Kay concluded, “when she committed herself at the age of 21 to her people around the world, she meant it and she followed through on that. She won the trust of her subjects and she kept the trust of her subjects for 70 years. And in a world that has changed as rapidly as ours has … that is a remarkable feat.”

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