How Breaking News Broke in Boston

The media continues to come up short, precisely when it matters most.

Susan J. Douglas

Before the FBI released this image of the Boston bombing suspects on April 18, 2013, false rumors as to their identity swirled, some fanned by the media. (Creative Commons / Google Images).

In September, Gallup reported that distrust of the news media had hit a new high, with 60 percent of respondents saying they had not very much” or no trust in the news. The recent coverage of the Boston bombings will hardly help. The whole event has raised serious questions about how speculation — some of it quite pernicious — has come to infect the news media. The New York Posts screaming headline Bag Men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon” — next to two young men, one of them a 17-year-old kid, both totally innocent — rightly created a furor, especially since Murdoch and the Post refused to apologize for this egregious defamation.

When people stop trusting the news, they often stop following it, and such disengagement has serious consequences.

I will hardly idealize the news of the past, before the rise of the 24/7 cycle. As critics from Robert McChesney to Noam Chomsky to everyone at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting have pointed out, for decades the mainstream news media has been filled with biases and crucial omissions. But the news, typically, reported the day’s events in the immediate past tense: Congress passed a bill (or failed to), a storm hit, a court issued a ruling. Although mistakes can happen, this was relatively safe ground. Journalists had a window to get their facts straight.

But beginning in the early 1990s, around-the-clock news has become the norm, driven ever-faster by audiences primed by the Internet to receive constant information. The gaping 24/7 maw demands to be fed, and it has to be fed cheaply to maximize profits, so instead of investigative reporting or international news (both deemed too expensive), we get talking heads guessing about what might happen next. Just watch with a pad in your hand, and count how many times the words could,” might,” would” and the like are used. Last fall, for example, voting machine levers had barely settled back into place before we got the speculation about whether Hillary Clinton would run in 2016.

Within this recent norm of speculation-as-news, a disaster like the Boston Marathon bombing, unfolding in real time, presents serious hazards, especially when you add Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, multiple blogs and other user-generated media to the mix. Within this maelstrom came John King’s instantly infamous claim that a law enforcement source had told him a dark-skinned” suspect was in custody, when no one, especially no one of a café au lait hue, had been arrested. Then there was the utterly moronic: a CNN reporter speculating that something was about to break because a dog was barking — and she smelled smoke. (“We’ve got a dog, a dog that’s on its way. Interesting, that dog is barking. Whether that’s a K-9, we don’t know. But we can smell smoke.”) But probably everyone’s favorite was CNN reporter Susan Candiotti’s line during the Boston lockdown: It’s eerie; it’s as though a bomb had dropped somewhere.” Right…

That’s not to say that media outlets haven’t pointed out these flaws — in their competitors. As soon as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was taken into custody, after wall-to-wall coverage, we got Round Two: wall-to-wall coverage of the coverage. Who got it wrong — John King of CNN (big time), the AP, the New York Post (also big time); and what role did social media play — like Reddit’s circulation of the rumor that a missing Brown University student was a suspect? (Reddit, to its credit, apologized for generating what it called a witch hunt.”) CNN’s Howard Kurtz took on NBC’s Pete Williams for reporting that police were closing in on a body” when the suspect was in fact alive; ABC derided the New York Post; David Carr of the New York Times chastised King of CNN. There wasn’t only intense competition among the corporate media to be the first to break the news, which led to both totally irresponsible and utterly inane reporting; in the aftermath there was competition about how to allocate blame and to determine who came out the worst, which led to … nothing.

Therein lies the problem. The finger-pointing is fine up to a point, and more than deserved for the Post and CNN. But past journalistic scandals have not prevented further scandals. Where is the more broad-based call for a renewed examination, across the board, of journalistic ethics and practices during disasters like this? When people stop trusting the news, they often stop following it, and such disengagement has serious consequences for maintaining anything resembling a democracy, already in deep peril in our country.

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Susan J. Douglas is a professor of communications at the University of Michigan and a senior editor at In These Times. She is the author of In Our Prime: How Older Women Are Reinventing the Road Ahead.

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