Media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings

April 23rd, 2013

Several news outlets, both traditional and social media, struggled last week in reporting the events surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings. CNN and the New York Post, among others, have been criticized for erroneous reports. Fred Bayles is a journalism professor and director of Boston University’s State House Program. In his 20 years as a national reporter for the Associated Press and USA Today, he covered the Branch Davidian siege in Waco, Texas, the Oklahoma City bombing, riots in Miami and Los Angeles and a variety of earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes. He is the author of Field Guide to Local News: How to Report on Cops, Courts, Schools, Emergencies and Governments. He offers the following opinion piece on media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Twenty years at the Associated Press taught me that although getting it first was high on the list of journalistic accomplishments, getting it wrong was the absolute worst thing you could do. That sensible dogma has changed in the frenzied world of media saturation. The downside of this shift was again on display during the week of the Boston bombing coverage.

Mixed in with very commendable reporting was very, very bad journalism. There were two explosions. No there were three.  Additional bombs were found and dismantled. A Saudi national, a person of interest, was under armed guard in a hospital surrounded by SWAT teams. Two days later came the report that suspects had been identified, arrested and were on their way to court.  None of this breathless reporting was right.

Bad information was so endemic that we heard a reporter on one cable network explain that this was the new normal. “You rarely get it right the first time,” he said. While that explanation could be used as a new ironic slogan (CNN, we rarely get it right the first time) in counterpoint to Fox News’ Fair and Balanced, this half-hearted explanation/apology unfortunately seems to define the new rules of journalism.

How did we arrive at this unfortunate destination?

News has always been a competitive sport, but there was a certain lag time built into reporting developments. Newspapers had 12 to 24 hours before the next press time to double check their facts. Television networks and local channels had similar intervals. If they broke into commercial programming, it was because they had real news.  The wire services did report news as it happened, but the responsibility chastened those organizations. Getting it wrong meant you were leading the whole media and its audience astray.

Not anymore. Almost all media outlets have non-stop deadlines. Each one feels compelled to yell out things (true or unproved) all the louder to stand out against the ever increasing din. Worse still is the new layer of news aggregators who echo, amplify and mutate original reporting into a deafening chant that drowns out essential context and balance that is supposed to be the mission of journalism.

This compulsion to forsake accuracy for “scoops” was best illustrated by the constant coverage offered to a scared populace by Boston’s local television stations. Even if we assume best intentions were behind the blather and speculation that spewed out, minute by minute, for the past tortuous week, the resulting product was full of ego and missteps.  Continuous coverage means that 60 seconds of each minute must be filled with something. What the street reporters and the meat puppets back in the station mostly provided, however, was low in real information. As the minutes ticked away to hours, viewers had to sit through repetitious conversations among reporters guessing at what had happened and what was going to happen. If something did happen, it was endlessly repeated, as was the case of a recording of a gun battle between police and one of the fugitives, which was looped, so the burst of gunfire became a continuous fusillade that made an action movie soundtrack seem like a pastoral sunrise by comparison.

Certainly it is hard to fill every minute with something relevant. But it is easier if reporters know what they are covering. One example of this was the farce that took place outside Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where reporters constantly noted the presence of a SWAT team by the entrance.  One New York outlet had reported that a Saudi national was being held in custody as a person of interest so reporters gathered outside to speculate that security was there because the suspect was there. Had the reporters known their business, if they had covered the emergency drills that Boston authorities conduct, or studied the doctrine set out for first responders, they would have known that in any large scale emergency one of the first steps is to secure the hospitals. That bit of pre-crisis knowledge, or reporting that there was a security presence at the other hospitals, would have given the audience the needed context to process the information.

Bad reporting has lasting consequences. The first erroneous reports become part of the conspiracy theories that develop after an event. We can expect that those wrong details at the beginning of the story will become the bedrock of theories about a government false flag operation under the control of dark cabals. The erroneous reports of extra bombs, of other suspects and the rest of the conflicting information that spewed forth last week will only increase the cynicism of the citizenry. People won’t believe the true details that are buried in the rubble of misleading reports.

Contact Bayles at 617-353-7736 or

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