How Australians heard the news about Kennedy assassination

How Australians heard the news about Kennedy assassination

When news about the assassination of US President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, sped across the world, most Australians were asleep blissfully unaware of the seismic events thousands of kilometres away in Dallas.

Due to the time difference, news of Kennedy’s murder only started trickling through to Australia at about 4.30am the following day, a Saturday.

Hours before, adoring crowds in the Texas city had watched the US president’s motorcade fatefully flash past them as it came under the aim of gunman Lee Harvey Oswald awaiting on the Texas School Book Depository’s sixth level.

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Like millions of people across the world, Australians were left stunned and grieving when they finally heard about the fatal shooting of the popular 46-year-old statesman, better known as JFK.

The tragedy consumed the public’s attention for days after.

But at the start of that momentous weekend, it also presented media outlets with a giant task in reporting the murder to a public desperate for news.

Obtaining photographs was a major hurdle for editors, with it normally taking three to four days for film to arrive in Australia from overseas.

But the history-making tragedy in Texas led that delivery time being slashed to about 30 hours.

Radio provided an instant source of news about Kennedy’s death for Australians in the early hours of that Saturday.

A regional North Queensland station, RTQ7, clinched an exclusive when one of its reporters phoned Dallas and interviewed the city’s police chief for a blow-by-blow telling of the tragedy.

But the relatively new medium of television – ironically a form of media the articulate and handsome Kennedy excelled in – was leading coverage of his murder in the US and other countries.

In 1963, the Australian TV industry had only been established for seven years, and the fledgling networks were left to broadcast coverage of the global event without satellite links or any of the technology available today.

In Melbourne, producers at GTV9 – which is today part of Nine, the publisher of this website – started working frantically on hearing the news from radio reports.

By 11am, it was broadcasting the news, accompanied by still images from The Age newspaper, to viewers and provided updates throughout the day.

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News coverage was supplemented with carefully edited newsreels from Kennedy’s life and commentary about the consequences of the momentous event.

For many among Australia’s population of 11 million in 1963, newspapers and other print media was the mainstay for their news.

With early Saturday papers printed by the time Australia learnt of Kennedy’s killing, editors frantically recalled reporters, sub-editors, printers and other staff for later editions through the weekend.

The Canberra Times was one of the earliest papers to publish an edition Saturday in the national capital, with the headline “President Kennedy Assassinated”, below the words “Shot down in open car by sniper”.

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The following day the NSW tabloid The Sun-Herald provided comprehensive coverage with its “Special Kennedy Issue”, bringing readers news about Oswald’s arrest.

By the end of the weekend, Australians, like the rest of the world, expected a respite from the dramatic, history-making events of the past 48 hours.

But the Kennedy assassination took another bloody turn when Dallas nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot dead Oswald in the city’s police headquarters live on television, with the news reaching Australia at about 3.30am on the Monday.

The JFK assassination continued to dominate news for the following days and weeks.

Television footage showed hundreds of thousands of mourners lining the streets of Washington as Kennedy’s body in a bronze casket was carried on a horse-drawn carriage to the Capitol. 

Then came the murdered president’s state funeral, with the famous images of the stoic family members standing beside 50 world leaders.

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