Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Where the Media Failed (And Succeeded) in the Boston Marathon Tragedy

Amidst the tragedy in Boston, the media became part of the story as we saw the best of reporting from local outlets, especially the Boston Globe, and the worst of 24/7 media coverage, most famously CNN. What happened last week should be and will be studied for years on what to do, not to do and ultimately how money, guests and ratings have trumped.  
Cable news failed because of their failure to handle this information culture we are in. There’s too much information floating around and in an attempt to be relevant, they want to include everything or touch on every angle without considering if it matters or is confirmed.

CNN showed this when they along with others reported that a suspect was on his way to the courthouse. The normally reliable John King said it was a dark-skinned male, an announcement that drew the ire of the National Association of Black Journalists and others.

They also had Jake Tapper far away from the action, which made his reporting/analysis seem distant compared to MSNBC. Bad enough the media got it wrong on identifying the suspects by name and face and probably won’t go out of their way to apologize and work to repair their mistake. 

The worst part, though, was the analysis. As information was coming in, studio hosts turning to analysts who offered their opinion based on what was known and some of it was biased. It didn’t take CNN and Fox News more than a few hours after the bombing to find an analyst who mentioned terrorism and Al Qaeda.

On Thursday, I heard former Sec. of Homeland Security Tom Ridge mention Al Qaeda on MSNBC. While Ridge’s experience was noted, he clearly was reaching for an angle that had no evidence. It was all speculation and what was worse, the studio hosts didn’t step in enough to steer the discussion away from speculation.

This is what cable news have become over the last decade and half as they rely more on experts and opinions.  They don’t as much dictate and control the discussion as much as they let folks on to fight and debate and speak their mind without vetting to see if it’s a worthy discussion. It’s all because of ratings and drama and the only surprise is that it infiltrated a breaking news story of this magnitude.

When Walter Cronkite and others were employed, the anchor chair was one of control as much as trust. While some still honor the anchor chair, the over-reliance of guests and lack of control to steer a conversation has watered it down.
A great studio host needs to question the guests, not cater to them. They need to steer the conversation and remind their viewers that any information said it mere speculation. They need to provide context and dissect what is being said since that is lacking among viewers. That’s where the media failed the most in addition to sending out bad info.

It’s not going to get better unless media executives demand more than just ratings. This coverage will be studied for years in media courses the same way I studied 9-11 coverage a few years after it happened. Plenty of teaching moments and a sign of the devilish deal the media made in the name of ratings. This is why Will McAvoy’s apology speech from “The Newsroom” was so poignant last summer and now.

That said, plenty of credit should go to the Boston Globe for their stellar coverage of everything, especially reporter Wesley Lowery**. His reporting Thursday night/Friday morning from Watertown was stellar and for a kid barely a year removed from graduation, he’s already covered some big events in his career (he interned at the LA Times before leaving for Boston 1-2 months ago).

The media wasn’t all bad and I want to definitely give credit where it was due. But collectively, it was not one of our finest hours. It'd be great if we could apologize publicly like McAvoy but I know that mea culpas rarely go beyond a retraction.

The media must learn from their successes and failures and continue to try to serve the public as well disseminate information critically. We owe it to ourselves and those whose shoulders we stand on.
Some other thoughts

I was glad Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was taken alive. It appears that his throat wound will make it hard for him to speak but as long as he survives, I want him to explain why he and his brother allegedly did this. I don’t want him labeled as anything until we can prove what he did but more important – he alone holds the WHY question that deserves to be answered.

(As of Tuesday, it appears we have some of that answer. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars served as motivation according to Tsarnaev).

On a personal level, my close friend Sam was a few miles away from Watertown and we stayed up almost all night Thursday talking and watching the news. I listened to his worries and that made it even closer. We stayed in contact through Friday as he helped me paint a close picture of Boston’s state of mind.

A coworker of mine is from near Boston and she told me that her family was safe but she was worried at times. Seeing Boston native and writer extraordinaire Dart Adams paint the picture from his place near Copley Square and describe what was happening made it hit home. 

I’m sure that Dart will write his thoughts far more eloquently and personally than me and his critical eye will no doubt assess everything, including his own state of mind.

We also can’t forget how this week saw tragedy strike West, Texas in the fertilizer plant explosion. It was a tragedy that took away far more lives and will scar a town as well.

There’s a lot to take away from this tragedy – including the spirit of the people who’ll come through this stronger. But from a media standpoint, there’s a lot to learn that current and future media brethren/sisthren can start evaluating now. 

**I got to meet Lowery earlier this year at our local chapter meeting for the Nat’l Association of Black Journalists. He already had a maturity of somebody who had been in the field for a few years and I know that he’ll be the talk of the convention for his fine work.

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