As the situation on the ground continues to unfold in Boston, the phrase the “lamestream” media has popped up more than once on my Twitter feed in regards to the ongoing coverage by the networks and cable news channels. I actually made the decision to unfollow an actor that I like and have respected in the past because of his criticism of the media coverage. I think criticizing the way the media, especially the broadcast media, has handled this event since the bombing on Monday is completely valid. But then, said actor pointed his followers towards Alex Jones’ site. Yes, the Alex Jones site whose reporter started off the press conference about the Boston Marathon bombing by asking if this was a “false flag.” Again, criticizing the quality of the coverage is perfectly legitimate, but directing your nearly 175,000 followers to a conspiracy theorist’s website is irresponsible and, frankly, stupid.
Besides my friends and family, most of the accounts I follow on Twitter are journalists and bloggers. I’ve always seen and used Twitter as a micro news aggregator. During breaking news events, I’ve found Twitter to be a much better resource than cable news. The reporters on the ground are able to tweet bits of information as they receive it from officials. Twitter is also excellent during local news events, as local reporters have more knowledge of the area and more sources in the departments that matter. During the crisis in Boston, the Boston Globe‘s reporters have stepped up in a big way.
But the vast majority of Americans are still turning to broadcast media for their news and while there has been valid criticism of some of the coverage, I feel the need to explain what’s probably going on behind the scenes and commend the many producers, bookers, writers, researchers, directors, tape deck operators, etc. who are working incredibly hard to get the right information out as quickly as possible.
I’ve worked on a lot of breaking news events and honestly, I don’t love it. Give me a special event, the State of the Union, election day, and I’m all over it, but breaking news is hard and I don’t envy my friends and former colleagues right now. One of the most challenging breaking news events I worked on was the Japan earthquake in 2011. On the second day of coverage, we first learned about the dangerous situation at the Fukushima power plant and when I walked into MSNBC on Saturday morning, I was immediately tasked with finding nuclear experts to weigh in. No small feat on a Saturday morning. Especially when the other cable news networks are trying to book the exact same guests. At that point, my goal was to find someone, anyone, who could get to a camera and join us on air. Ultimately, the guests I ended up with were biased (for and against nuclear power) and, in an effort to finally book an expert from a non-partisan source, I was scolded for putting those guests on air, despite the fact that the organization I was trying to book was unresponsive to my requests.
Watching the coverage of Boston, I knew my former colleagues were dealing with that exact issue. You want the police chief on the scene to tell you exclusively what’s going on, but the police chief on the scene is too busy doing his job to take the time to join you on air, so you end up with a former police chief speculating on what might be happening. Is it the best coverage? No, but it’s coverage. You want to speak with victims and eye witnesses, but while the victims and eye witnesses are heading to the hospital and talking to police, you end up speaking with someone who was three blocks away and felt the explosion, but did not see the explosion. And you want to talk to reporters on the scene, but every minute they’re talking to you, they’re not talking to sources and every minute they speak to you means their information is a minute more outdated.
That said, there have been mistakes made during the coverage that are very simple cases of “you should know better.” We do live in a media climate where the goal is frequently to get it first, rather than get it right. The New York Post did a glorious job of wrongly reporting that an arrest had been made and falsely accusing a man who ended up being a witness, not a suspect. CNN jumped the gun, saying a suspect was in custody, only to backtrack within 20 minutes. We’ve come a long way from Walter Cronkite on the phone on air to verify information before reporting it to the public. And, not to pile it on, but CNN made a mistake commenting on the possible skin color of the perpetrators, implying that the bombings were undertaken by Muslim extremists when, at that point, no information had been released in that regard either way. And like I said, they should really know better.
But on the flip side, other media outlets and reporters are to be commended for their handling of the coverage. On NBC and MSNBC, justice correspondent Pete Williams has been exercising extreme caution during his reporting and hasn’t been afraid to say, on-air, “I don’t have an answer to that right now.” We should see more of that, but when you don’t have the answer, viewers may turn to someone who does, even if the wind up being wrong.
Breaking news means very long hours with very few breaks. We expect a lot from the news media and the news media should do better. But it’s important to remember that covering breaking news is a hard job and, try as they might, mistakes will be made. And as I watch this story unfold, all I can say to my former colleagues is hang in there.
And if you really can’t take it anymore, check out The Onion. They’re nailing it today.