April 15, 2013 was a typical spring day in Boston. As people all over the city prepared for the last hours before the annual Boston Marathon, one person, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev would see life changed forever. He was hours away from being named first as a “person of interest” and then a suspect, known to the world as the Boston Bomber.
On January 30, US Attorney General Eric Holder held a press conference and announced that the federal government would be seeking the death penalty against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing. Other than a brief item on the news, the media largely ignored the announcement; it’s hardly surprising.
In the hours and days after the bombing, officials started disseminating the official and unquestioned account of what happened. Law enforcement authorities have continued to attempt to block public disclosure of documents that otherwise would have been turned over under the Freedom of Information Act.
Often when a tragedy strikes, American media is quick to put their own spin on what is happening. In an attempt to “scoop” the other outlets, facts get twisted, glossed over or plain ignored. This was seen in the coverage of 9/11, the Colorado movie shooting and the Boston Bombing. Americans are left to form their own opinions about what happened. Often, since the media is skewed so are opinions.
Three irrefutable facts are known about the incident known globally as the “Boston Marathon Bombing.” First, a bomb exploded killing innocent people. Second, the mainstream media was quick to place blame on anti-American monsters. Third, a man named Dzhokhar Tsamaev has been charged with carrying out the bombing.
Practically everything else about the tragedy and its aftermath has been largely pushed out of sight. A Pew survey showed that the majority of Americans believe the official story, and the investigation which followed, is full of questions, implications and holes. Americans are the product of the environment and in many ways, the media defines that environment.
The intention of this brief series is to look beneath the filter of official handouts, statements and press releases and see what else is said online about the greatest tragedy in America since 9/11. By setting aside the thoughts and beliefs of what the media said and taking a hard look at the facts, unbiased by opinion, a person might just find that the environment has changed.
Within minutes after the bomb exploded, while the smoke and smell hung in the air, the media started pumping out stories about what had happened. The coverage quickly became a text-book example, and is studied in journalism schools today, of the defects of normal news coverage. Talking heads filled the internet and television with “scoops,” “experts,” “updates,” and post-tragedy analysis. When the coverage finally started to quiet several days after the bombing, the average American didn’t know any more about what happened than before. Many studies have looked at the effects of “saturation coverage” as was experienced following the bombing. Each study revealed the same thing. The more a person watches, the worse they do on knowledge exams.
Following the bombing, it is understandable that emotions were running high. The media enlisted two elements in getting the story across: danger and reassurance. Some of the talking heads warned people of the dangers. Some spoke to placate and reassure the viewing public. Others did both. If one element, or the other, were alone in being present, most would find the news to difficult to absorb and understand.
With both elements being present, people tend to sit, stationery and let the networks’ decision engulf them. People become numb to critical thinking and fail to reflect on whether any useful knowledge at all is being imparted.
An example of this is the “expert” who appeared on CBS.
On CBS News, the expert stated, “It could be Al Qaeda, it could be someone influenced by Al Qaeda, or it could be a domestic lone wolf.” Actually, it could have been something entirely different. The “expert” didn’t provide any useful information. Instead he supported the typical stereotypes and set the parameters for public speculation. During much of the reporting, the “experts” had it all wrong about the Boston Bomber
Speculation takes center stage only when the media’s up-to-the-minute product, “scoops” are absent. Reporters are put into the field and on the phones to grab any morsel that may put them just a smidgen ahead of the competition. The energy spent in “getting it first” often overlooks the mandate of “getting it right.”
One outlet reports on Incident A. The next outlet repeats Incident A, and to scoop, adds a morsel about Incident B. A third outlet comes along and repeats Incidents A and B and continues to scoop with information about Incident C. That very thing happened to the CBS expert.
While the CBS expert was seemingly implying that the suspects may be foreigners, CNN had to top him. CNN correspondent, John King, went on the air and said that he was told, “…by one of these sources, who is a law enforcement official, that this was a dark-skinned male.”
The news about the suspect being a “dark-skinned male,” of course, turned out to be totally false.
If a media outlet can’t come up with “scoops” or “experts,” it resorts to another media slight-of-hand called “repetition.” Once a person has watched the news for a short spell, everything is repeated over again. The anchor’s face and name may be different for subsequent reporting, but the “news” is the same, although worded slightly differently. People sit blithely by hoping to learn something new.
When watching coverage of a tragedy, how many times has the average American heard reporters say, “our hearts go out to the family.” Or, “neighbors lit candles and displayed American flags.” Why all of the emphasis on empathy? Maybe the media does it to reassure people who humanity continues to thrive in tough times. However, don’t Americans already realize that?
One might say that building a “show of unity” is a basic responsibility of the American news. Is that actually the purpose of journalism? The definition of journalism that is taught in schools is simply “the production and dissemination of news.”
The Oxford Dictionary defines news as “newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent or important events.”
Quantity or Quality
In the changing climate of today’s journalism, media outlets are finding resources limited. Editors often choose to go with quantity over quality. It’s much easier to go for the profile piece and the man-in-the-street where softball questions can be asked, and answered, without the messiness of having to do any real digging.
When a major event, like the Boston bombing, leads to wall-to-wall coverage, people get tired and start to defocus on anything else that may be going on that day.
While the Boston story was monopolizing the news coverage, legislators in Washington DC were under attack by the National Rifle Association for seeking to impose restrictions on assault weapons. How many Americans, either pro or anti-gun laws, were aware of the fight in the Senate?
The explosion triggered by the Boston Bomber at the Boston Marathon had all of the ingredients needed for high ratings. Families gathered around the television and other stories in the news that week took a distant back seat.
An explosion the following Wednesday night at a Texas fertilizer plant caused more deaths than the Boston bombing. However, it lacked the “sales power” to boost ratings, so it wasn’t covered in as much detail. The news media already had their “sexy” subject with which to boost ratings and the fertilizer plant explosion was an ugly step-sister.
The owners and managers of news media outlets know that some things just grab and hold the public’s attention better than others. Because they have to sell ads, some things are focused on almost exclusively to anything else.
This is the first in a three-part series which will look at the people, places, organizations and events that day in 2013 when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev became known to the world as the Boston Bomber.
Editorial by Jerry Nelson
Shore News Today