The Boston Marathon bombing was another of those moments of national tragedy that give broadcast and cable outlets the opportunity to relay vital information and put events in context, and take on the responsibility not to exploit the situation for competitive purposes. We wish the media had fewer opportunities to test themselves in crisis-reporting mode.
The breaking news coverage of the tragedy was full of tough calls on what and how much to show, given that there were plenty of cameras in place capturing footage, much of which could not simply be put up on the screen.
Certainly some of those decisions could be second-guessed.
With social media, operating without filter, featuring images that don’t make it to air on national media past editors with public interest standards, there is increasing pressure on traditional outlets to push the boundaries. Those pressures should be resisted. Sometimes it seemed that anchors and reporters were bending over backwards to say they would not report rumor, then would do so anyway, using the schoolyard excuse of, “others are reporting that....”
We saw this in the Sandy Hook shootings coverage and were troubled by it then. There were the usual false leads and echo chamber information, like the multiple packages and “persons of interest.” There was some criticism of reports of a Saudi national being questioned. That proved to be true, and though that person turned out not to be a suspect, the fact that the police were questioning them either said something about a possible lead, or who the authorities thought of first, or, as it turned out in hindsight, was just someone in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But anyone who thinks broadcasters and cable news outlets don’t filter the raw footage that comes from such carnage has never seen that raw footage.
Sometimes it seemed that the test of whether something could be shown, and repeated frequently in the 24-hour news wheel, was that it did not actually show body parts. But the Boston Globe footage, with its crisp audio of endless screams and terrified voices, was almost as graphic for the images it conjured. Perhaps the further away the radio era is, the more people need to be reminded of how powerful the combination of audio and imagination can be.
For all the unforgettable footage of victims and heroic police, medical teams and bystanders, it was a simple image, and a line of text in an onscreen graphic, that packed as much emotional punch as the many—too many—repetitions of the Globe footage of the bomb blasts and their horrific aftermath.
“No more hurting people. Peace” read a hand-drawn sign held by eight-year-old Martin Richard. And then there was the heartbreaking summary of Martin’s family’s tragedy in a CNN bottom-screen text: “8-year-old boy among dead; sister lost her leg; mother has brain injuries.” Later, the more complete report came that his sister, an Irish step dancer, might lose her other leg, and their mom’s injuries were “traumatic.” Sometimes—like the simple hearts and peace sign on Martin’s poster—less is more.
And, using the best practices of those who tried to help, media outlets were a study in cooperation, with cable news channels relying on local broadcasters for footage and law enforcement using that footage and the electronic eyes and ears of an iPhone generation to help figure out the “who.” We wish anybody luck trying to figure out the “why.”
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