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Boston Bombings Magnify TV News Mistakes

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Monday’s media coverage of the Boston Marathon explosion showed the incredible value of traditional journalism combined with social media. Within minutes of the explosion, you could turn on the TV or jump online to see video, pictures and witness descriptions of the chaos that followed.

This blanket coverage also revealed cracks in the system that have eroded many people’s faith in television news. In times of chaos, it is never easy for journalists to get a straight answer as to what happened, why it happened, and what will come next. That gives news organizations providing wall-to-wall coverage a lot of time to fill, and can result in speculation and mistakes.

Some media mistakes are understandable; the television newsroom gets incredibly chaotic. I spent nearly 20 years as a local television news producer and manager, and I can tell you first hand that it gets messy. Even if the breaking news is not in your hometown, your local TV news stations are scrambling to find a connection.

Here’s what happened behind the scenes at your local news station when they learned about the Boston Marathon explosion:

  • Reporters tracked down local runners and their families, some traveled to Boston
  • Photojournalists covered press conferences held by local security officials
  • Assignment editors directed crews, gathered information, and responded to viewers who were angry that the breaking news pre-empted their soaps / game shows
  • Editors cranked out video and pictures for immediate on-air and online playback
  • Producers created content for live coverage, rebuilt/rewrote scheduled newscasts
  • Digital producers were in constant cycle to report all updates
  • Anchors ad libbed on-air for hours, interviewed experts, monitored networks
  • News managers solved conflicts, reviewed story lines, made editorial decisions and watched the competition

Whether you work for NBC or the NBC affiliate in Albuquerque, when breaking news hits, every single person in the newsroom jumps into action. It’s no surprise that small mistakes slip through; a bad spelling on a graphic, a video runs out, the lip synch is off on an interview. Those mistakes are understandable. Usually, the production crew in the control room catches them quickly and few average viewers will even notice what happened.

I can forgive those mistakes, as well as the ones that start with public officials. Like when Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis said a fire at Boston’s JFK library actually was a third explosive. He later corrected himself and said it was a mechanical fire started by an “incendiary device” – not a blast.

As journalists everywhere scrambled to get information, we heard reports that police found additional bombs, cut off cell phone service to avoid accidentally setting off another bomb, and took an injured suspect into custody. The validity of all these depend on who you ask. It was a confusing time for emergency officials as well as journalists.

That goes the same for the people working in the newsroom when there was immense pressure to get on the air and get information online. But, there was no threat to the safety of the in-house news teams, making their mistakes harder to justify.

Not misspellings or misperceptions of witnesses. I am talking about editorial mistakes that use human suffering and tragedy to titillate viewers, and it is shameful.

1. Using speculation to stoke the fears of viewers: In the Boston Marathon explosions, CNN declared the explosions “terrorism” early on, suggesting al Qaeda could be to blame. Yes, it could be true. But you could make that argument for anything! Too many cable and local TV stations use the term “could” as a way to bring up any possible explanations with no credible ties. Others will let the experts that they interview make unconfirmed speculations, so they still get the inflammatory content without seeming responsible for misleading viewers. There are better ways to address possible connections without letting it creep into stories based on facts. For example: it would have been okay for a media outlet to acknowledge the OKC bombing and the Columbine shooting anniversaries, as long as they over-communicated that they had no evidence of possible ties to the explosions.

2. Overuse of adjectives to describe violent scenes:  Most breaking news scenes are startling enough on their own; using sensational language turns it into a sort of violent poetry that is explicitly designed to grab people’s heart and shake it around a little. I can tell you that news writers are juggling multiple stories with overlapping content, so they are trying very hard not to keep repeating the same words. But this can have a negative effect. In some instances, it can come across as if the anchor takes pleasure in detailing gruesome descriptions, when in reality they are just trying to sell the story. This is more likely to show up in a scheduled newscast on the day of breaking news, when the script is written for the anchor, as opposed to when an anchor is ad libbing.

3. Creating parallels to local stories with no real relevance: You see this mostly on social media and in promotional bumps on TV. The headline suggests there is already a similar danger in your town, but in reality it is connected only in that it is another violent act against mankind. They just want you to click on a link or stay tuned through a commercial. I saw one on Twitter Monday afternoon that said a hotel in town was evacuated from a bomb threat. Terrifying right? When I clicked on the link I found it was a ridiculous hoax that came up during a domestic dispute at a budget motel at 5:30 a.m. It made me so angry I was inspired to write this article. Viewers shouldn’t be treated this way. We know terrorism can happen anywhere, even in our hometowns, and yes – we fear it! Please don’t take advantage of our vulnerabilities.

During breaking news, journalists often work so fast they don’t take time to think. They are doing multiple jobs very quickly, often out of the realm of their normal duties. It is high-pressured and highly stressful. Everyone is so busy, content often makes it to air or online without being reviewed by a second set of eyes. It is unfortunate, because taking the time to check your work is a crucial step that could prevent mistakes and lawsuits.

That said, these three shameful acts designed to energize a news story are used by many media outlets across the country every single day. They are used to report on house fires, bank robberies, thunderstorms and bee attacks. As viewers, we usually just roll our eyes and ignore them as hype.

During a national tragedy more eyes are watching, hanging onto every word, desperate for understanding. During these times, the mistakes of TV news stations are magnified; making the responsibility of journalists to avoid sensationalism not only important, but imperative. That’s how I see it, anyway.

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  • Roger

    Having both TV and the internet media working together is a great way to share information with the world. We have become used to having news right this moment, and too many viewers demand what simply cannot be provided. Rather than admit that information is lacking (and being honest with the viewer), often times media outlets will grab at anything in a desperate attempt for ratings. What they don’t realize is that this creates a reputation of that station (or site) and it becomes very hard to change that. An honest station will be viewed as such and will create viewers who are loyal for that reason.

  • Laura Slawny

    Good point Roger. 15 years ago journalists collected information for the next scheduled newscast, now they must constantly turn new reports for online and news cut-ins. That puts a lot of pressure on journalists to keep giving the audience new information during breaking news situations.

    As a result, the line becomes blurred as to what is acceptable to report. Under pressure, a reporter may not get confirmation before passing along what they have seen or heard. For example, some stations report what they overhear on police scanners.

    It is slippery slope that has can weave its way into daily news gathering if a news station is not firm on its policies.

  • Laura Slawny

    The errors reported Wednesday by several media outlets that suggested there was an arrest in the Boston Marathon explosions is the latest example in the rush to get stuff on the air.

    It has only been 48 hours since the bombings, yet the national media is pushing so hard for new information that they will report things that have not been confirmed. Local affiliates then repeat it and the story blows up.

    It is sad when a news organization’s commitment to the truth is overshadowed in the race to be first.

  • John Lake

    I kept switching back and forth between CNN, and Fox News. They both did a great job covering the breaking news. My only criticism is that one (or both) of the stations began ragging on VP Joe Biden for calling the content “bombing” rather than “explosions.” It turned out he was right. Biden is a man’s man and many prefer him that way. It could have been a gas explosion, but wasn’t.
    The stations might have used cell phone video earlier. The shot of the man falling as he approached the finish line was repeated a thousand times. I’m sure most of us know the reference. Was he badly injured, or simply tired from the 26 mile run? Why was no one else was knocked to the ground? As it turned out, he was likely injured by shrapnel. I have spent less time watching since then, and still wonder.
    They showed a pool of blood on a sidewalk, but chose not to add commentary. We wondered if it might have been a suicide attack, or the blood of an onlooker.
    I hope this sort of coverage of breaking news continues, because economics and the domination of congress by gun lobbies becomes boring.

  • Laura Slawny

    John, thanks for your comment! I agree that it is so good that additional video came out of the explosions so we could quit seeing that same :30 air over and over again. Although, I have to admit that I had seen it dozens of times on television, but didn’t grasp the enormity of it until I watched it on my cell phone the next day. For some reason, perhaps because I was close to the screen and could hear the sound of people yelling – it just hit me.
    I am amazed that here were are just three days later and the feds already have pictures of possible suspects. I suspect it won’t be long before they are identified –