Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Media and the Manhunt

The Media and the Manhunt:
The Banality of Evil (and Good) 
Christine Deluna and Zach Crawford

On Wednesday April 17, CNN’s Peter King reported live on TV a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings was taken into custody. This would have been a huge victory for CNN and Boston…if it were true. King falsely reported this “breaking” story and started a media firestorm, which ended in every reporter in a 100-mile radius descending on a Boston courthouse only to find there was no suspect, and oh, now there’s a bomb threat at the courthouse.  Shamefully, CNN’s next BREAKING NEWS bulletin would feature its own journalist’s negligence.

CNN’s misreporting Wednesday became the catalyst to the media equivalent to a chicken running around without a head, wings, and legs. From the millisecond-by-millisecond coverage of the manhunt to the post arrest schmorgesborg of misleading and speculative coverage, the media’s response to the Boston Marathon bombings has revealed the flaws of many news outlets while highlighting the strengths in others. Unfortunately, these strengths were, and continue to be, outshined by hypotheticals and flashy attempts to contextualize and sensationalize a news story, even if some (or entire) details are completely irrelevant.

Oh, we know what you're thinking: but the terrorists are white.

Friday’s manhunt is a testament to the hard work and dedication people put into their jobs and how that brings about positive results. The various officers of the BPD, FBI, National Guard, and other bureaus showed true determination and courage can bring about swift results. The same goes for journalists. Peter Williams at NBC, local broadcast and radio stations, and The Boston Globe did fantastic jobs at informing the public, weeding out fact from fiction, and remembering their job is to be a resource for public awareness and, in this case, safety. However, there were some who seemed unable to meet the challenges the day presented and showed the weaknesses of the media in the process.

CNN had one of the poorest presentations of the events of the day. They spent most of the time focusing on journalists on the streets of Watertown making callous remarks about how there are no pedestrians around and it appears as if “a bomb went off” and flitted from one flustered journalist to the other claiming to have breaking news about something when in fact it was a passing police car or a non-descriptive sound.  Most of the 24 hour news programs followed suit. Instead of finding experts to talk about Chechnya or people who interacted with the Tsarnev brothers, like radio station WBUR, news, they scoured Watertown following officers trying to find the next "breaking" story. Bringing the news first took prescedence over reporting. The live coverage, most of which was during a lull in the information period of the day, did little to inform viewers more about these suspects. Even as the manhunt came to a close and the officers rounded in on the younger Tsarnaev in the boat, instead of keeping a safe distance and waiting for information and instructions from the BPD, broadcast journalists from CNN and other channels maneuvered their way through side streets, trees and fencing to get close enough to the boat you could see it. I understand and appreciate when journalists put themselves on the line for their job. However, this was not one of those situations. The officers have more important duties in this moment and should not have to shoo away reporters for their own safety. When you’re reporting is getting in the way of apprehending a suspect, you should rethink your strategy.

Twitter had similar issues of misinformation and dramatization. Journalists and civilians alike took to Twitter to update on “breaking” news from unreliable or no sources at all. While this can be a useful tool to keep an informed public during an emergency, this can also lead to incorrect information making their way to the public at large. One person tweets something false and ten minutes later, after countless retweets and mentions, it becomes true. This situation was clearest anytime people live tweeted what they heard on the police scanners. A person listened to the scanner online, heard something about gunshots, and suddenly people think a shootout is happening when and where it is not. The other problem with live-tweeting the police scanners was many tweets disclosed the locations of officers. This could be dangerous and detrimental to the manhunt if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev saw these locations online and knew to keep away from there. Although many journalists, especially those at The Boston Globe, used Twitter as a resource for themselves and the public, not everyone held the same restraint or fact-checked what they saw online.

Though there were many journalistic offenders, reporting on rapidly unfolding events is, of course, not easy. You scramble to piece together details that seem important, or at least flashy, in the hopes of figuring out the 'whodunit'. The 24-hour news cycle doesn't help either, pitting news agencies against one another for the next bold headline that will grab people's attention. What we saw in the media following the Boston bombings, however, was not just a product of hasty journalism in an industry competing for viewership. We saw context materializing around the lives of the two suspects. Subtle details built into a story of the suspects' broken home, likely ties to al Qaeda and religious and ethnic heritages. Familiar notions and stereotypes of 'Islamic extremism' linked to far away lands most Americans can't find on a map captured popular imagination. The bombing suspects became symbols of the religious barbarism that seem to characterize all of America's foes. In short, the context provided an easily digestible storyline that drew upon ignorance and preconceived, racist assumptions about Chechens and, more specifically, Muslims.

To underline this point, let's paint a picture. Amid the investigation into the lives of the two Tsarnaev brothers, we're given commentary on and context for the suspects. The basic facts at this stage of the investigation include pictures of the two brothers and the disclosure of their heritage. Doesn't sound like much, but that didn't deter news agencies from 'reporting' on possible explanations for the events, and in the process simplifying a complex reality. The brothers' family came from Chechnya, a region in the Caucuses known for bloody conflict. News agencies scrambled to connect the dots between the Boston terrorist attack and the war-torn region. Politico graciously reminded us of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda's links to Chechen rebel groups. One columnist even suggested Tamerlan was named after a brutal warlord. Once word of Tamerlan's religious affiliation broke out, this too became a point of speculation and suggestion. For the media praying five times a day and being a devout Muslim became important plot points, almost as if they're prerequisites for terrorist ideology. In addition to all of this, politicians such as Representative McCaul and others strongly suspect that the Tsarnaev brothers terrorized Boston with international backing, a speculation seemingly legitimized by all of this talk of terror cells and collaboration in the Caucuses. The list of suspicions and sentiments that tap into the American psyche goes on and on.

Follow these plot lines provided by the media and you're guaranteed to be less informed than you were before you turned on your television or checked Twitter. Political agendas and sheer ignorance are the glaring issues that come to the fore following the Boston manhunt coverage. What we should take away from Friday’s events is in times of crisis precision and patience is key. Digging for stories where there really are none, getting in the way of officers, and relying on the Internet to get facts can lead to a misinformed public which should be the opposite goal for any media outlet. As consumers of media, we have a duty to responsibly digest news from a variety of sources. We also have a duty to voice our concerns when journalists don't even meet their own standards, let alone ours. 

If there is one, central takeaway from media coverage, it's this: triple-check, reflect and digest. Don't connect the dots the way they are presented to you. Question sources, content and slant, and be mindful of the forces that wish to interpret and shape reality.

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