After two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon yesterday, we got a clinic in the weaknesses of cable news as a format for covering breaking disaster news. In the absence of new, verifiable information to report minute-by-minute, networks ended up airing the same footage repeatedly, with varying degrees of context, bringing on paid commentators from former ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee Jane Harman to disgraced former Los Angeles Police Department detective Mark Fuhrman to fill airspace with commentary whose value or lack thereof will only be discernible in retrospect, and breaking to news conferences from Boston public officials and a statement from President Obama. It’s difficult to pull together context pieces in the midst of breaking news, but certainly not impossible. These are five segments or pieces of information cable networks might have considered pushing aggressively as a means of providing historical or regional context on the story that would have informed developments when they became available:
1. Details on Boston’s hospital system and first response system: Early reports of death and injury tolls were distorted by a report, still not explained, from the New York Post, that 12 people had died in the marathon bombing. Currently, the death toll from the attack stands at three people. In the absence of verifiable information about the death and injury numbers from the attack, one useful piece of context for national audiences would have been an explanation of the size and resources of Boston’s hospital system, which is exceptional for a city of its size, and means that the city had strong resources to deal with a tragedy of this magnitude. Explaining what the city’s hospital network looks like, and that the support network for the marathon included many medical professionals and first responders, could have provided context for the area’s medical resources and helped audiences manage their expectation of the death and grievous injury toll.
2. Information on housing and people-finder efforts: It’s important for news networks to remember who their audiences are—and as marathon runners were concentrated in Boston’s downtown hotels and meetup areas to get them away from the blast site, and particularly as cell service went down in the area, the audience for cable news included them and their families. In events like these, and even in the absence of a tragedy, cable news is on heavy rotation in hotel lobbies, bars, restaurants, and other public spaces. Regularly and clearly explaining how runners and their families could check in on the people-locator set up by Google, how they could access offers of housing by people in the New England area, and how businesses and residents could unlock their wireless networks to make them accessible to runners who’d lost cell signals or who hadn’t yet retrieved their checked bags and who didn’t have access to their phones again, would have been a significant public service.
3. Historical coverage of domestic terrorist attacks like the Atlanta and Oklahoma City bombings: In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Americans have become accustomed to quick, and verifiable, claims of responsibility for terrorist attacks, which was not forthcoming in Boston. Rather than treating those attacks as the only possible context for the Boston Marathon bombing, it would be useful to air short features on attacks like the Centennial Park bombing and the Oklahoma City bombing, as a reminder that there are many motivations for acts of mass murder, and that the investigation might be extended. The Oklahoma City bombing timeline would be a useful reminder that there were multiple theories about who had committed the attacks, including international terrorists following up on the first World Trade Center bombing, a drug cartel targeting the Drug Enforcement Agency, and conspiracy theory-minded Christian fundamentalists. All of these theories turned out to be false. And the Centennial Park bombing is an important caution both of the dangers of early accusations—Richard Jewell, a security guard who discovered the Atlanta bomb, was slandered as a suspect—and of the fact that these investigations will not immediately produce culprits. Eric Rudolph, who committed the Olympics bombing, continued to carry out attacks until 1998, and wasn’t caught until 2003.
4. Context on Patriots’ Day: The initial theories, without any particular evidence, about the motivations for the Marathon bombing seem to have centered on extremist Islamic ideology or extreme right-wing beliefs, given that the bombing happened on both Tax Day and the observance of Patriots’ Day in Boston. Without declaring whether those motivations are accurate, it might have been useful to explain in some detail what Patriots’ Day commemorates—it’s more than an excuse for morning baseball, a road race, and daytime drinking—why it might be claimed as an extreme-right symbol, and why that’s a distortion of actual history.
5. Local angles on the marathon that could have national interest: There are people, like Dick and Rick Hoyt, a local father-and-son team, who run the Boston Marathon every year, and who are significant symbols of the event to national viewers. Reporting on the safety of some of those people would reassure national television audiences, and elevate local stories to national attention—and it was possible to report some of this information fairly quickly. Similarly, it would have been interesting to see someone track down Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the marathon after she registered under her initials in 1967, giving race organizers the impression that she was a man. This is not to say that cable should cover feel-good stories at the expense of actual news. But stories of survival and recovery are part of the larger narrative as much as repetitive images of horror that add no new information. And social context on the marathon is as important as uninformed speculation on the national identity of potential attackers.