The bombing of the Boston Marathon taught us a lot:
1. Good people outnumber the bad.
2. People can respond well in a crisis.
3. Law enforcement can be excellent and relentless in the pursuit of justice.
And the media often sucks at this!
TV reporter John King went on CNN to say a suspect had been arrested for the bombing of the Boston Marathon. King spoke on camera with Wolf Blitzer (who repeated the word “exclusive” so often you’d think he was working up to an orgasm). King said reliable sources had captured a “dark-skinned man” they blamed for the attack. King was wrong, though CNN took their sweet time admitting the mistake. First was more important than right. As a former journalist myself, it was frustrating to watch the media raise a city’s hopes and then crush them (while contributing to the confirmation bias of racists.) It was a bad day for everyone and a black mark on CNN’s record.
The suspects were soon killed or caught and they were white. But the media mistakes don’t begin or end with CNN. For days it seemed that any picture of a dark-skinned person wearing a backpack at the marathon was reason enough to identify innocent bystanders as suspects. Identifying the wrong people for horrific crimes in photographs is dangerous business. A Saudi citizen was reported as a person of interest (a report the police quickly denied.) Newspapers printed pictures of suspects who were not suspects, leaving those pictured in fear for their lives twice over. What would these reporters say to the victims of these misidentifications, especially if they were murdered by well-meaning and misguided vigilantes? The potential damage outweighed any news value. The only reliable pictures were supplied by police investigators and the FBI at the news conference which identified the prime suspects.
In the absence of facts and with too much time to fill, reporters quacked through their 24-hour news cycle with more speculation than reportage. Some right-wing radio personalities, including professional alarmists, conspiracy theorists and gold hawkers Glenn Beck and Alex Jones, took a little information and spun it out into free association diatribes meant to inspire fear rather than enlightenment. However, they are commentators, not reporters, so they’re free to get it wrong and reframe their mistakes so, somehow, they’ll appear right. That’s free speech. Real reporters aren’t supposed to have the luxury of being gullible and making things up.
Old-school journalists were about facts and used multiple sources to confirm stories before they delivered the news. When they got it wrong, they were supposed to be first with that admission and an apology. Now, due to competition and relaxed standards, they’re just about getting it first, right or wrong, even if they’re “first” by only a few seconds. CNN used to be America’s most trusted news source. Now the most trusted man in news isn’t in news. He’s in comedy and he’s Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.
When disaster strikes, most of what you hear is wrong
Amid panic, rumours take root. Sometimes it’s a child’s game of telephone, where messages get skewed in transit and really screwed up upon delivery. Speculation is often treated as fact. On September 11, 2001, it was reported that the attack on the Pentagon had been an exploding military helicopter. No one remembers that now, but it was a serious consideration for a short time. Sometimes law enforcement releases leaks to mislead their prey and the media are dupes or useful tools. That stuff only comes out when books are written and historians take over from the journalists.
On that horrible sunny morning in September 2001, there was a brief brown out in my area. The TV was out and, as I listened to events unfold on my wind-up radio, I jogged next door to ask the neighbors if their power was out as well. One fellow wondered if the power outage was part of the terrorist attack, too. Maybe that sounds silly now (and I went into denial rather than give the thought any weight) but in the moment? You never know how widespread a disaster really is. On 9/11, we sure didn’t see an invasion of Iraq coming, for instance.
What should you expect from media amid a disaster?
Rumour. Panic. Speculation. Worst-case scenarios. Fear-mongering. Hype. Worry. Sensationalism.
Be particularly wary when you hear repeated use of the word “exclusive”.
Media: You have earned our distrust.
- Pete Williams and the threat to CNN (politico.com)
- CNN reports, retracts, explains over-reach on Boston bombing arrest (troyrecord.com)
- How the Media Failed in Its Coverage of the Boston Bombings (mashable.com)
- ‘CNN Shined This Week’: Zucker Applauds Boston Coverage In Memo To Staff (mediaite.com)
- CNN’s John King Explains His ‘Dark Skinned’ Comment on Twitter and Gets Schooled (colorlines.com)
- Media shrug at Boston blunders… (politico.com)
- The Arrest That Was, Then Wasn’t (jljohnson.wordpress.com)
- Social Media in a Time of Crisis (savvymktinggroup.com)
- Media Criticizes New York Post, CNN For Boston Marathon Bombings Coverage (kstreet607.com)
- How The Media Keeps Screwing Up Coverage Of The Boston Marathon Bombing (sunsetdaily.wordpress.com)