Michelle Johnson spent the first half of last April’s Boston Marathon Monday overseeing carefully orchestrated coverage of the 26-mile race by the BU News Service. The reporting was to consist of upbeat student-produced profiles, photographs, videos, graphics, and live blogging. That plan changed the moment Johnson got a call from student reporter Lisa Kashinsky (COM’13), who told Johnson she was near the finish line and had heard a loud bang.
Johnson told Kashinsky to tweet out what was happening, and word quickly spread to other College of Communication students to begin reporting what they were seeing and pulling together stories in the aftermath of what turned out to be two bombs that killed 3, including BU student Lu Lingzi (GRS’13), and injured approximately 250.
Over the next two weeks, two and a half dozen students working for the BU News Service produced more than 60 text, audio, and video stories that covered the shock of the initial blasts through the death of one of the suspects and the eventual capture of the second. Many of their stories were picked up by local and national news organizations, including CNN, NBC, boston.com, and WCVB-TV, as well as appearing on the BU News Service website, which showcases work produced by BU’s journalism students.
“The students knew what to do in an emergency and swung into professional mode,” says Johnson, a COM associate professor of the professional practice of journalism. “We jelled as a news organization.”
Their coverage has been recognized by the Online News Association (ONA), a nonprofit professional group comprising more than 2,000 members, which nominated the BU News Service as a finalist in two separate categories, best Breaking News (Small) and best Student Projects (Large). This year’s awards will be presented tomorrow, October 19, at the 2013 ONA Conference and Online Journalism Awards Banquet in Atlanta, Ga. Johnson plans to attend the ceremony with Taylor Walker (COM’15).
Presented by the ONA in partnership with the University of Miami School of Communication, the Online Journalism Awards honor outstanding digital journalism around the world. Among the nominees in other categories are the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Mother Jones, and Frontline. Because the BU News Service is the sole nominee in the Breaking News (Small) category, the COM students have a lock on that award.
“ONA is a premier professional organization in our industry,” says former Boston Globe editor Johnson, who was recently named 2013 Educator of the Year by the National Association of Black Journalists. “The students worked nonstop on this package and did professional-quality work, right alongside the professionals. I’m really proud of our team and that they were recognized in such a big way.”
Stories in the package, called Triumph, Then Tragedy: The Boston Marathon Bombings, include video interviews with runners who were stopped after the bombs exploded, an interactive timeline that traces the history of bombings and terrorist attacks in the United States, an audio slideshow of a bell-ringing service in tribute to those killed, held at the Arlington Street Church a week after the attacks, a text story detailing the FBI’s release of images of the two suspects, and a selection of tweets compiled when the Watertown manhunt for the suspects was over.
Among the stories that Walker covered was an interfaith service attended by President Obama at Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross. She didn’t have the proper press credentials, but arrived with a photographer at 5:45 a.m. hoping they would be allowed in. “We ended up sitting next to the Boston mayoral candidates,” Walker recalls. “They didn’t have their spokespeople there, and we got to talk to them for a while about what their neighborhoods were going through.”
In the days following the bombings, Walker says, work became a way for her to deal with her grief. It was her first time interviewing people who had lost someone close to them. “I switched into my journalist persona,” she says. “And I think I filtered my own fears by talking to other people about what they were experiencing.”
Johnson says the Marathon bombings underscored to COM faculty the importance of preparing their students to cover breaking news while at the same time staying safe. Last month, Christopher Daly, a COM associate professor of journalism, organized a workshop that brought veteran reporters to campus to talk to students about how to deal with these types of stories. Johnson says COM faculty plan to incorporate similar lessons into the curriculum in future.
“I felt like I was prepared as best I could be because of what I learned in my classes,” Walker says. “But covering the Marathon was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life.”