Media Mess: How 24-Hour News Reports a Crisis
In the wake of the tragedy that befell Boston last week during the Boston Marathon, we’ve had the opportunity, through news and social media, to witness some of the best of humanity. It began with an event which many took part in for a cause or to better themselves, and then when chaos struck, rather than throwing the values that brought everyone together out the window, the participants and spectators ran towards danger and helped in any way that they could.
Similarly, the local and national news media snapped into action, providing on-the-ground coverage and important updates on the situation to both keep everyone informed and put minds at ease. For the most part, the reporters and journalists on the scene did their jobs admirably, by passing on important messages from law enforcement and by touting the human spirit on display in the midst of catastrophe. Those news professionals deserve significant praise from those of us too far from the incident to do much more than worry.
This article is not meant as an indictment of those journalists, including those who were merely told what to report by their superiors and that there was no time to, let’s say, do things a little better. Instead, I intend to hold a microscope to a culture of 24-hour reporting that has evolved in the last decade; one that allows for, even forgives, false and harmful reporting that never should have seen the light of day. I also want to look at what role the media consumer plays in this culture, and why it may be beneficial in the grand scheme to steer clear of news and images that only cause anger or sadness.
Three key aspects of poor reporting come to mind when looking at the Boston attacks:
24-hour news networks have been in existence since the CNN’s launch in 1980 (followed by FOX and MSNBC in ’96), but became prominent in the public eye only for their live, daytime war coverage and, of course, their coverage of national tragedies such as the attacks on September 11th. Following that crisis, an evolution occurred amongst these competitors, as often happens in the free market, to a focus on appearances and one-upsmanship over quality and accuracy. Suddenly, it became important for CNN or FOX to claim their news stories as on-the-scene exclusives, as if getting there first meant they were reporting it best. Competition may drive commercial innovation, but there’s little need to “innovate” when it comes to the facts.
Which is exactly what happened last Wednesday when CNN reporters on the ground in Boston decided to “innovate” themselves a story, that an arrest had been made in relation to the bombing. In all the chaos still surrounding the event, prominent figures including John King and Wolf Blitzer felt it was more important to make a definitive statement about an arrest and call it an exclusive than to check the work of their unnamed sources and have the report confirmed. Most likely, onlookers had reported seeing a Saudi national being escorted by police to have his name cleared; someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, looking wrong to the wrong people, and who had in fact not been arrested.
The New York Post, who had also pointed the finger at this Saudi man, likewise jumped the gun with an early reported death toll of 12. When the actual toll turned out to be but three, the Post issued a non-apology, saying that law enforcement told them it “could be as high as 12,” which is like blaming your best friend when you failed an exam because you were cheating off him.
Beyond the obvious blow to general media integrity, these false reports conflict with more accurate ones meant to keep the public vigilant in an ongoing situation. False news of an arrest may have prompted some locals to put their guard down, while other outlets patiently awaited the direct words of law enforcement to be passed on to watchful Bostonians. False death toll reports from “major” media sources could drive viewers away, instead to seek news from even less reputable internet sources. At the end of the day, the facts are more important than your petty “exclusive.”
I’ve already mentioned the media harassment of one unlucky Saudi national. Well, it gets worse. Last Thursday, the New York Post printed a front-page photo with their trademark giant font saying “BAG MEN.” The photo was of two young men with black bags, which is a description similar to what many had heard from law enforcement about two possible suspects.
The boys plastered on the cover, however, proved to be completely innocent.
Unsurprisingly, that did not stop the denizens of the interwebs from poking around for whatever private information might be found via Facebook or other sources. Two innocents quickly came under potentially dangerous scrutiny and falling victim to what amounts to nothing more than tabloid gossip, all simply due to being at the event.
This is where I would go out of my way to shame the Post, but I’m pretty sure at this point Rupert Murdoch has re-purposed his shame as soap to wash his decrepit Aussie nether-regions. This is a primary point at which I must advise TV and print news consumers: don’t trust the headlines. With so much broadcast technology, you have the opportunity to hear information and advice directly from law enforcement on the scene.
And it doesn’t have to be an up-to-the-minute report! When my roommates and I were watching the news on Thursday, they cut to the police commissioner in Boston, then cut away because one of the four-dozen mics on his podium were malfunctioning. When they cut back, he had already spoken and left, and the reporter just gave the highlights. Live is not always better!
Of the three aspects of bad journalism I’ve highlighted, this is certainly the most contentious. Recently, I engaged in a debate over whether and in what context media should show graphic, potentially upsetting images. I’m still unsure where I fall on this subject.
Many who have written about the use of graphic images, particularly staunch supporters of media and internet freedom, have argued that to withhold images from the public amounts to little more than censorship. Then again, perhaps photographers snapped a photo of a cat crossing the street at the time of the bombing. Would it be censorship to withhold that photo from a story? Similarly, if a photo or footage of someone’s suffering adds nothing to a story and simply serves to upset or anger the viewer, must it be shown?
A known example of this is a disturbing photo (#8) circulated by The Atlantic (who warn of its graphic nature before you click on it), which shows a man being escorted from the scene in a wheelchair whose lower legs appear to be in tatters from the explosion. The Atlantic first ran the image without the victim’s face being blurred, then chose to blur it our of “respect for privacy.” Privacy matters aside, if the image could be run by blurring only the victim’s face, not those of the EMTs, was it right to show the image at all?
A journalist’s first responsibility is to provide context for a significant event, including photojournalists, which is actually a pretty good argument for reputable outlets erring on the side of information. Media history proves that people will seek out images which might be alarming or grim, but should they only discover these images as provided by less reliable sources (such as the New York Post), the significance or meaning of the scene will likely be diminished.
So, while I cannot accuse The Atlantic of poor reporting, I would urge readers and viewers of ongoing news stories to ask themselves why they seek out troubling displays of carnage, when stories of heroism and calls for vigilance are so much more important. Only by avoiding those things which stir our most irrational fears and vendettas will our culture make a substantial shift towards reliable, sensitive journalism. And once again, patience is essential for context and calm. This cartoon by Bruce Beattie has been circulated quite a bit already, but I think it sums up the truth perfectly:
Mikael Page, codename “Here’s Johnny,” is an NYC-based comedian, writer, and Amazon shopper. Check him out on YouTube, and if you see the UPS guy, tell him he owes Mikael two new electric toothbrush heads.