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Student Voice

When the sirens sounded, my COM training kicked in.

By Honah Liles (’14)

Boston Marathon photos by Hannah Klarner/Boston University News Service. Above: Runners were corralled by marathon officials and police officers at the 25-mile marker of the race.

Editor’s note: The Boston University News Service won two 2013 Online Journalism Awards (Breaking News in the small staff category and Student Project in the large staff category) for Triumph, Then Tragedy: The Boston Marathon Bombings.

I was working in COM’s computer lab when I heard the sirens. There were just a couple of them at first, so I didn’t pay much attention. It was Marathon Monday—there were bound to be a few dehydrated runners needing an ambulance. It was just Associate Professor Michelle Johnson and I left in our makeshift newsroom, posting the last of the BU News Service’s marathon coverage. We had been preparing for weeks, creating a special homepage for the event and enlisting COM students as reporters. But by the afternoon, the winners had crossed the finish line and most of us had gone home. Then Professor Johnson got a call from one of our reporters at the finish line—she said she’d heard explosions—and everything changed.

Three women fleeing the scene of two explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon

We did a frantic head count—we had a lot of people at the finish line. I jumped on the wires, grasping for any information, but no one actually knew anything. Our reporters and photographers left the bars, parties and sidelines to rush toward the chaos. They used their smartphones to record what was happening, even jumping security barriers to join the race and interview runners.

From the time the first call came in from the finish line, I was operating in a journalist autopilot mode I didn’t even know I had.

Over the next two weeks, the other BU News Service editors, Professor Johnson and I were in constant communication, trying to make sure we had reporters at every event—the vigils, the press conferences, the presidential visit. I wrote stories and updates, and coordinated with Professor Johnson and the other editors to make sure our coverage was up to date.

From the time the first call came in from the finish line, I was operating in a journalist autopilot mode I didn’t even know I had. In the first hours after the bombings, while my friends were staring at the news in disbelief, I was sitting on the floor, editing iPhone footage for the website. I wasn’t trying to figure out what to do; I was just doing what my instincts and eight months of graduate school classes told me to do. Going into producer/journalist mode, focusing on what is happening as a story—what events are occurring, who can be there, who can file a report—that is the only way I could be productive in a horrifying situation.

First responders and Boston Police officers care for a victim affected by the two explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

A few weeks after the lockdown, the city was starting to go back to normal, but I was struggling to decompress. I still froze every time I heard a siren. I still hit refresh on the AP wire every couple of minutes. I was still on alert because so far I had only processed the bombings as a journalist. I hadn’t processed yet that this story was also happening to me. At some point, I should have hit pause on being an editor and let myself process my own emotions about this tragedy happening in my city, on my campus and to me.

It’s a balance I think all journalists struggle with—how to stay human but stay out of the story. My professors had talked to us about it, of course. I had thought about war photojournalist James Nachtwey and wondered how he stays distant but not jaded. I debated about whether CNN National Correspondent Anderson Cooper should have helped less during Hurricane Katrina. It was an important conceptual exercise—How would I react? What would I do in those situations?—but it was only an exercise for me until the marathon.

I don’t think finding that perfect balance is something a journalist ever achieves. Rather, the tug-of-war between maintaining the integrity of the story and one’s own humanity is just a part of the profession. I didn’t achieve the perfect balance during the marathon, but I did start to figure it out.

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