Last summer, with grandchildren in tow, I was in the small house that is now the town library for Inverness, California, a lovely community overlooking Tomales Bay. The house had been the residence of a longtime newspaper reporter who had saved many historic front pages. Alongside papers reporting King Edward VIII's abdication, FDR's death, JFK's assassination, and similar events, was the San Francisco Chronicle for December 8, 1941, the first edition with news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The paper quoted White House Press Secretary Stephen Early as saying that in Sunday’s attack on
Hawaii an “old” battleship was capsized; that an American destroyer was blown
up and several other small ships were hit seriously; that a large number of
American planes were knocked out, and that 3000 persons had been killed or
wounded. In fact, of course, eight battleships were hit; one capsized and another sank in the shallow water, the others were eventually repaired and sent into action months later; 3 cruisers, 3 destroyers, and 200 planes were sunk or destroyed. The casualty figure was 3,500. Even a year later, the U.S. Navy fudged the damage by saying only five battleships were "sunk or damaged."
I understand the need for censorship in wartime, but was curious to learn what people had actually been told in official reports. Looking at historical archives, however, I discovered that some news organizations got around the censorship. The New York Times included a report from NBC news: “The U.S. battleship Oklahoma was set afire by the Japanese
attackers, according to a[n] NBC observer, who also reported that two other
ships in Pearl Harbor were attacked.” The Washington Post quoted damage claims reported from Tokyo and Berlin.
Event though first reports are often incorrect, it's interesting that we still can learn more than officials are willing to tell us.