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Yesterday, an act of pure malice occurred. At around 2:50 pm, 2 bombs (and a little later, an unrelated explosion), exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The current casualty count is 3 deaths (including an 8 year old boy) and 144 injuries, many of which are amputations caused by the nearby bombs.
I was on the phone with my friend in California when my mom told me to turn on the TV. When I first saw the early coverage a few minutes after the bombs detonated, I said to my friend and to my mom, “This looks like a coordinated attack”. Police and other officials were very careful in the first few hours about calling the event any kind of attack or concerted effort. When Vice President Biden used the term
“act of terror”–which is what this was–the media went crazy about the significance of this term. All kinds of national security phrases like “post-9/11 world” were repeated ad nauseum by frenzied reporters and anchors who freely admitted they didn’t really know what was going on. When President Obama spoke almost four hours later about what had by then been clearly defined as an attack, the media noted that he did not use the words “terror” or “terrorist”. A quick lesson in semantics: Anyone who makes a deliberate effort to attack a group of people with the intention of inciting fear in the public is a terrorist. A terrorist is one who performs acts of terror, aiming to terrorize the populace. This is very simple. One need not be a member of Al Qaeda or a related group to qualify as a terrorist. In fact, there are plenty of types of terror that don’t fit this mold. Eco-terrorism is one example.
My point in writing this blog post is to criticize the media response in the immediate aftermath of this horrible event.
My main criticisms are that:
1. Reporters should not worry about nuance and policy wonkery, and they should call a spade a spade. Of course people are terrified (the very hallmark of an act of terror), and of course they’re sad. Our collective conscience has been shocked. Many of the racers and bystanders admitted that they were still in shock. The media owes everyone a clear explanation.
2. Do not tell people how to make homemade bombs on national television. An “expert” on CNN began talking about the various compositions of bombs, naming chemicals such as C4, and then detailing other, easier ways to make homemade bombs since stores are now on the lookout for people who buy large amounts of fertilizer at one time. Thank you for that information. I sure hope the wrong people don’t use that. Would it inspire anyone watching? Of course not. What a silly idea.
3. If you are going to show pictures, make an effort to preserve the privacy and the dignity of those who are severely injured. It’s an incredible understatement to say that showing people with blown off limbs and people who are lying, bleeding in the streets and unmoving as they’re carted onto ambulances adds unnecessary insult to injury. Aren’t there editors who are paid to make such executive decisions? There are always going to be those disgusting people who post pictures of the most gruesome injuries on websites devoted to such things. This is obviously disgraceful. Associated Press and CNN, however, don’t have to follow suit. All I’m urging is discretion in coverage. We don’t see flag-draped coffins of soldiers who died in war on TV, but we can see potential corpses of civilians?
4. Stop trying to argue political significance. We know, you’re as confused and upset as everyone. And that’s ok. That’s human, and that’s understandable. You do, however, have an audience of millions of people who come to you to find out what’s happening. You have an obligation to take the responsibility of journalism seriously. I know, you’re so used to pundits “debating” each other for countless empty hours, you may find it difficult to escape that ethos. It’s fine that it’s Patriots’ Day. No one has school in Massachusetts on Patriots’ Day. Therefore, there are more potential (and likely) victims because more people (including a large number of children) will be on the streets of Boston, possibly watching the Marathon. Even if these people are not watching the Marathon, they might just be in downtown Boston. Fine. Please do not speculate on the significance of Patriots’ Day to the attack. Do not enter conspiracy theory territory to fill airtime. It’s unbecoming, not to mention a disservice to your viewers, readers, and listeners. Wall to wall coverage does not a credible journalistic institution make. Speaking of credibility, I want to hear things like “There were no threats deemed credible prior to the race”. This is real news. Thank you. More of that, please.
5. Twitter may be a source of misinformation. As you claimed, a lot of early reports can turn out to be wrong. CNN, you, especially should know this lesson well. (Remember that not so little slip up you made when you reported that the Supreme Court struck down the Affordable Care Act aka the disdainfully mocked “Obamacare” plan? Yeah. Oops. Rick Perry understands your embarrassment.)
Because of the ephemeral and near instantaneous nature of tweets combined with the echo chamber effect of the network, secondhand citizen journalists are bound to get key details wrong. I know for a fact that, even hours later, people were tweeting incorrect facts on Twitter. I saw it myself. Just remember: Twitter is often not an authoritative source.
6. Do not kill the story. I don’t know where the line is, and obviously, the Boston Marathon bombings are a huge story. There are, however, many other stories in the country, and especially, the world. It’s ok to report on those too. If you keep showing the same pictures and build an entire cottage industry out of a story, not only are you being exploitative, but you are numbing people to the significance of the event by bombarding them with it, uninterrupted, for days on end. Unfortunately, this is what occurred with the Sandy Hooking shooting spree story and the Trayvon Martin shooting (and subsequent obsession with shooter George Zimmerman).
Terror is terror. If you’re so careful about your phrasing of something like that, you should be careful of many other things.
One other quick note. Everyone immediately offers their “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of any tragic event. I’m sure most people’s intentions are harmless, and they genuinely feel badly about what occurred. People want to express sympathy and compassion in the face of something whose horror they can’t reconcile. The “prayer” part of that statement, especially, irks me. Obviously, one’s prayers are not going to undo the horror. No one can turn back time. What I think is truly insensitive is the people who claim that god saved them–or that god bless and protect the souls of those so callously murdered or maimed. I will be very blunt. It is unbelievably selfish to think you were spared when others weren’t. Maybe these people don’t realize this, but they should. Maybe they have survivor’s guilt. I’m not sure. Whether this slight is unintentional or not, no one needs this fact rubbed in his or her face–that you’re ok, and he or she is not; all but for the grace of god, of course. That brings me to another quite glaring logical fallacy. What kind of merciful, omnipotent,omnibenevolent god would allow for such carnage? If the answer is that people have free will, god is not doing a very good job of intervening to “protect” the innocent.
The terrorist attack that happened in Boston was unexpected and horrific. I feel terrible for everyone involved, and it scares me that authorities didn’t pick up on something so significant before a major event like the Boston Marathon which welcomes people from all over the world. I’m somewhat surprised that they don’t have any suspects at this time. I’m also floored by the incredible grace, calmness, and patience dislayed by the first responders, the officials tasked with holding press conferences, and surgeons such as Dr. Fegan of Massachusetts General Hospital, who took time off his break to talk to the press. He gave general details in a tactful way, without betraying anyone’s privacy.
An event like this is difficult enough. I just wish people–especially members of the media–would make an effort not to make these mistakes when events like this occur.