This paper is an examination of the press coverage of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, a devastating natural disaster that remains vivid in the public memory in part because of the destruction it caused and in part because of the detailed journalistic record that kept the public informed of the unfolding events. The earthquake occurred just as American journalism was coming into its own as a serious institution, and, while press coverage of the time still used some of the sensationalistic language and irresponsible tactics that had been the accepted way of reporting the news, the majority of the coverage was relatively accurate. Examining the ways in which the press covered this terrifying milestone in history provides a fascinating glimpse into the nature and purpose of modern journalism.
San Francisco in the early 20th century was an important port on America's Pacific coast, described by contemporary authors Richard Linthicum and Trumbull White as "a city of magnificent splendor, wealthier and more prosperous than Tyre and Sidon of antiquity, enriched by the mines of Ophir." The city had been founded by the Spanish in 1776 and named Yerba Buena. By 1847, the town had been taken by U.S. naval forces and renamed San Francisco; three years later, California became a member of the Union.
The 1900 census put the population at 343,000; by 1906, estimates placed this figure at 425,000. The city had grown rapidly through the second half of the 19th century because of the gold rush and the construction of the Central Pacific railroad. By the time the disaster struck, half the population of California was living in San Francisco and its outlying towns. The city included large populations of immigrants from Italy, Ireland, and China, as well as emigres from the east.
Gold, the railroad, and the many industries that both made possible had turned many of San Francisco's citizens into millionaires nearly overnight....