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Why Do the U.S. Media Get So Much Wrong?

Why Do the U.S. Media Get So Much Wrong?

The Boston Marathon story, the tragedy of the bombings and the intrigue of the subsequent manhunt, should have brought out the best in the U.S. media.

After all, here was an explosive story that seemed made to order for journalists. It took place in Boston, a major transportation hub and one where it was easy to “flood the zone,” to borrow the phrase popularized by the former New York Times editor Howell Raines. Many news agencies had reporters and stringers in the New England region so there was no problem getting to the center of the universe.

Plus, with people grieving openly about the misfortune in Boston, it was also essential for headline writers to keep a lid on their, um, flights of creativity. If there was ever a story crying out for the nub of the Joe Friday School of Communications — “Just the facts” — this was it.

And yet news organizations ranging from the New York Post to CNN and many in between flopped during the coverage of this story. It might be unfair to single out any news organization for making mistakes because the media in general dropped the ball with a thud on this one.

When journalists weren’t getting the death toll wrong (the NY Post) or presenting incorrect information about an arrest (CNN), they were letting down the public in other, more subtle ways.

Television networks seemed intent on turning this drama into a new version of “Ace in the Hole,” the movie in which a journalist exploits a heart-tugging story for his own benefit. TV journalists exhibited a remarkable lack of originality and enterprise skills. They showed the same old footage and parroted the same story lines throughout the week. 

They proved to be lousy story-tellers, They were adept, however, at selling fear to their viewers.

Unfortunately, many of the theories hatched and disseminated proved to be way off base. Many raised questions about whether the bombers were a part of a grand global terror plot. But when we later learned that these brothers in crime were so desperate for quick cash, to make their getaway, that they robbed a 7/Eleven store.

We were led to believe that the bombings were an elaborate scheme, carried out by master terrorists/criminals. But as David Remnick of the New Yorker noted on Charlie Rose’s talk show, their weapons of destruction were so unsophisticated that many people in the vicinity were unhurt altogether (thankfully). The two were so undecided about a course of action that it appeared they car-jacked someone and decided, on the spur of the moment, to travel to New York City and commit more acts of violence.

The point is that journalists should have taken a deep breath and not assumed anything about he aspects of the story. Yes, it would have been duller “television,” by their thinking. But at least they would have stood a better shot at getting the big story right.

MEDIA MATRIX QUESTION: How do you think the media should have comported themselves in Boston?

Feel free to leave your comment here.

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