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 247 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 247 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.

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