The terrorist attack brought out some of the worst, but also much of the best in American journalism. That was true of 9/11/2001. I wish it were true of 4/15/2013 as well.
But sad to say, among all the other aching distress caused by the Boston bombing, its coverage in the major media gave us precious little of American journalism's best work.
It's become a truism since the entrenchment of 24-hour cable-news stations and their now well-worn habits -- reinforced by instant online commentary and cable-TV's much older stablemate, talk-radio -- that "more" does simply mean "worse." This time there was what seemed like even more than ever; and it was decidedly much worse.
The wall-to-wall team coverage that such appalling events now engender (by hallowed tradition, it would appear) inevitably operates to the severe detriment of meaningful journalism. Everyone is obliged to say something -- even when there's nothing to say. And to be the kindest I can be to colleagues who are thus placed in an untenable position, it is not conducive to helpful, informative work.
Worse, it brings -- and broadcasters were perhaps more guilty of this over Boston than with any previous disaster I recall -- a horrible kind of weasel-ness. How often we would hear an anchor solemnly intone warnings like: "It is really dangerous to speculate, when we know so little ..." only for that carapace of responsibility to crumble in an unstoppable flood of -- yes -- sheer baseless speculation.
Tellingly for the times, perhaps, it was in the Twitterverse where we encountered a more convincing adoption of that responsible stance. At #bostonmarathon we had, very soon after the explosions, this from @DustinSlaughter:
Folks, please source all information. We don't need speculation.
I inescapably recalled a conversation I had very early in Twitter's short life. It was at the 2007 South by South West Interactive festival, where the 'mini-blogging' site (as it was often called then) got its big leap off the launchpad, and the talk was with its co-founder Evan Williams. "This is not a social network," he emphasized, "It's a NEWS network."
As if to echo the co-founder all these years later, a lot more tweeting came on Monday in similar vein to Dustin Slaughter's sage advice, including this admonition from someone handled @emptywheel:
"News" consists not of posting links to bloody scenes but of thoughtful sorting of what really happened.
And remarkably enough, the posting of ludicrous non-starters as news reports did appear to diminish.
We should remember, though, that (to re-phrase Evan Williams) Twitter is not a cable TV company, either. It makes things easy for any tweeter that s/he doesn't have 24 hours to fill every day. The constraint of 140 characters or less can be remarkably constructive in this context. News can, ideally at least, get distilled to its essence.
But knowing if the essence of a report, however short, is actually true? Well, that's a different matter. And as ever -- since long before digital technology -- it comes down in the end to having good, or alternatively not so good sources.
By Wednesday afternoon -- two days after the explosions -- the hunger for something of real substance had gotten ravenous. And it was well-established news outfits who fell for some over-attractive bait. Tweeters, including self-proclaimed "responsible" ones, were now busily re-tweeting a "newsbreak" that came with all the authority of CNN, the Associated Press and The Boston Globe that a man had been arrested and would soon appear in federal court. And so it fell to a veteran broadcaster for the oldest network, Pete Wiiliams of NBC News, to use the Today program's Twitter feed to insist:
"All we can say for certain, is that all of our sources say no arrest."
It was good to see this abundance of firm caution. CBS, too, was firm -- almost yelling, in fact, corporately so with no individual reporter's name attached:
"JUST IN: @CBSNews has learned that NO ARREST has been made in Boston Marathon bombing."
And as we all know the public originators of the over-reaching story had humiliatingly to retract it.
It's all too unavoidable that, just as the "fog of war" -- an all-out war, that is -- makes things hard to be certain about ... the fog of two bomb-blasts killing three people and injuring nearly 200 will also be hard to penetrate for quite a time. We needn't be surprised, whatever the medium involved.
I'll conclude by recording that for me the very best journalistic contribution this week wasn't in the area of so-called hard news at all. It came instead in that dauntingly wide area that cries out to be filled in all media outlets (and not just on cable-TV news, with its most yawning maw of all) ... one to which we attach other terms of art, be it "features," "analysis," "interpretation" or other such loose labels. And it came from very much an old-school news organization -- The Washington Post -- albeit in one of the paper's now innumerable blogs.
Ezra Klein of "Wonkblog" normally delivers political statistics in profusion -- as his share of what I regard as another essential role of journalism (in this feature/analysis/interpretation category) ... that of finding revelatory sidelights and underlying explanatory material, off of the well-beaten news-track.
On Tuesday he offered a crisply written, unsentimental but deeply affecting look at marathon-running -- and to do so he employed his wife as an ordinary exemplar of the exhausting and rewarding (but to me deeply foreign) practice of arduously foot-slogging a distance of 26 miles and a bit. His piece did the valuable job of illuminating, especially for the vast majority of us Americans who do not run marathons, just what this bombing's target represents.
After describing the necessary training in his wife's case, as "a quiet, solitary triumph over the idea that she couldn't do it," Klein went on to draw out further significances, not least in the powerful values of community cooperation at work during any marathon.
He summed up by reminding us that despite the horror, the Boston Marathon and many others will still go on -- and that "this won't be the last time we gather at the finish line to marvel how much more we can take than anyone ever thought possible."
Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, The Media Beat, with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.
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