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What did news media get wrong while covering the Boston Marathon and what lessons does that crisis offer for future live breaking news coverage?
Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson discusses those questions with Deborah Becker, senior correspondent and host at WBUR, and Scott Helman, reporter and editor at the Boston Globe.
On how to know what information to trust in a breaking news situation
“I think it’s very difficult, I will add that in full disclosure I think the Globe was one of the news outlets that had information about that allegedly arrest as well. And I know we put it out there briefly. So I mean I think everybody in general performed very well in those chaotic days and hours after the bombing. But there was a lot of things that people got wrong. And you know, it’s so difficult because in that situation people turn to these trusted news sources because they were so panicked, that feeling of anxiety because we didn’t know at that point, was there one bomber, two bombers, were there 10? We had no idea that the extent of it and I think having to be that sort of voice of reason but also get that information out to people very quickly is so difficult.”
“I was actually at the Weston Hotel that day and so the officials there were supposed to hold a press conference but kept pushing it back. And they said we’re having a press conference at 1, nope it’s gonna be at 2, nope its gonna be at 2:30, nope, and they just kept pushing it back. And there were planes surrounding the federal court house, there were boats coming in, everybody thought that there was an arrest and someone was going to be brought into the federal courthouse and be charged with the bombings. So it was just wild speculation. I think the big lesson from that is, you know, watch how fear can sort of fuel all of these things, and anxiety. And there was a little snip-it of a report here, and a little snip-it of a report there and you can’t necessarily put those threads together and make a narrative.
On whether media outlets need to change their crisis reporting policies
“I think there’s more awareness about this than there is in years past, in part because some of the disastrous election nights that we’ve had. I think you’ve seen this tremendous rush, everybody wants to be the first one to say he won Florida or he didn’t Florida or whatever. And so I do think there’s a little more consciousness about this. But still, I don’t know in some sense if it’s totally fixable because there’s always going to be that desire to be first and to be that one that everyone turns to and then we kind of lionize those news outlets and those reporters who do get it right afterward, and we say ‘Deb Becker was the first one to report that.’ So I don’t know if it is totally something that can be repaired completely.”
“Right, but I do have to say, I just did a story about preparedness and how folks are preparing for this year’s marathon, and I’m surprised at these preparedness plans for crises. And we really don’t have them, quite honestly, and I think it’s a good idea to sort of tell journalists, look, you know, this is a checklist of what might be beneficial, and these are the lessons that we did learn from the marathon bombings, of what we should do and how we should verify, who we should trust.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, tomorrow will mark one year since two pressure-cooker bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed; more than 200 were injured. Investigators say the bombings were carried out with two brothers, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The older brother, Tamerlan, died after a gun battle with police. Twenty-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev faces a federal murder trial with the possibility of the death penalty.
Now, a lot of the details are clear now that the dust has settled. But on the day the bombings happened and in the days that followed, there was a lot of confusion. Here is then-Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis facing a series of questions from reporters.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED PRESS CONFERENCE)
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: I heard...two people are dead.
COMMISSIONER ED DAVIS: There are fatalities. I won't get into the details on that right now.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Did I speak correctly? - two people dead.
DAVIS: It's - I said I wouldn't get into the details on that. There are people that have expired as a result of this incident.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Were the devices in a trash can or a mailbox at the scene?
DAVIS: We don't know.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Commissioner, what about reports that there are police guarding victims at Mass General?
DAVIS: There are police that have been dispatched to all of the hospitals. That's part of our investigative protocol, to secure the area and also to make sure that we get every witness statement that we can possibly get. All that stuff is happening right now.
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: But guarding rooms at Mass General?
DAVIS: I'm sorry?
UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: But guarding rooms, specific rooms at Mass General?
DAVIS: There's a heavy police presence at all the hospitals, some of the hotels and other venues throughout the city. You shouldn't read anything into that.
HOBSON: Well, joining us now to talk about the media coverage of the bombings and what lessons we should learn for future crises are two people who covered the bombings as they happened: Deborah Becker, senior correspondent and host at WBUR in Boston. Deb, welcome.
DEBORAH BECKER, BYLINE: Thank you.
HOBSON: And Boston Globe reporter and editor Scott Helman. And he's co-author of "Long Mile Home." Scott, welcome.
SCOTT HELMAN: It's great to be here.
HOBSON: Well, and let's start with things that went wrong, because there are some things that went wrong in the coverage of the marathon bombings as they were happening. Reporters got things wrong, and I'm thinking specifically of CNN at one point reporting that somebody had been arrested, when in fact that hadn't happened. CNN was not the only outlet to report that. Let's take a listen here to Tom Melville on our home station, WBUR, talking that day.
TOM MELVILLE: There were conflicting reports. We had information, one of our reporters had information from law enforcement sources that an arrest had been made or that someone was in custody. Other organizations, CNN, the Associated Press, had gotten those reports. We're told those reports are incorrect. I spoke to the U.S. Attorney's Office, to the spokesperson for Boston's U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, Christina Sterling, a few minutes ago. She made very clear, she said no one in custody, no one arrested. She says she doesn't know how these reports got started.
HOBSON: Scott, how do you know what to trust on a day like that?
HELMAN: I think it's very difficult. I mean, I will add, in full disclosure, though, I think the Globe was one of the news outlets that, you know, had information about that alleged arrest, as well. And I know we put it out there briefly. So, I mean, I think everybody in general performed very well in those chaotic days and hours after the bombing. But there were a lot of things that people got wrong.
And, you know, it's so difficult because in that situation people turn to - they turn to these trusted news sources because they, you know, were so panicked, that feeling of anxiety, because we didn't know at that point. Was there one bomber, two bombers, were there 10? We had no idea that the extent of it. And I think that - having to be that sort of voice of reason, but also get that information out to people very quickly, is so difficult.
BECKER: We should say that tape, that happened on the Wednesday after the bombing. So that was when there was all kinds of speculation about being an arrested. There was two days we didn't know anything. We hadn't heard the name Tsarnaev at that point. We didn't know who was responsible. We didn't know if there were going to be other attacks. So there was a tremendous amount of anxiety.
And I was actually at the Weston Hotel that day, and so the officials there were supposed to hold a press conference, but kept pushing it back. And they said we're having a press conference at one. Nope, it's going to be at two. Nope, it's going to be at 2:30, nope. And they just kept pushing it back. And there were planes surrounding the federal court house. There were boats coming in. Everybody thought that there was an arrest and someone was going to be brought in to the federal courthouse and be charged with the bombings.
So it was just wild speculation. I think the big lesson from that is, you know, watch how fear can sort of fuel all of these things, and anxiety. And there was a little snippet of a report here, and a little snippet of a report there, and you can't necessarily put those threads together and make a narrative.
HOBSON: Well, the editorial processes kind of go away when you're dealing with a crisis situation. You don't have the same level of checks and balances that you do when you're reporting a story on a normal day, and I wonder whether something like this tells us there should be more of a plan for crisis reporting than there is at newsrooms all across the country.
HELMAN: And I think there's more awareness about this than there is in years past, in part because some of the disastrous election nights that we have had. I think, you know, you've seen this tremendous rush. Everybody wants to be the first one to say, you know, he won Florida, or he didn't Florida, or whatever. And so I do think there's a little more consciousness about this.
But still, you know, I don't know, in some sense, if it's totally fixable, because there's always going to be that desire to be first and to be that one that everyone turns to. And then we kind of lionize those news outlets and those reporters who do get it right afterward, and we say Deb Becker was the first one to report that. You know, so I don't know if it is totally something that can be repaired, you know, completely.
BECKER: Right. But I do have to say, I just did a story about preparedness and how folks are preparing for this year's marathon, and I'm surprised at these preparedness plans for crises. And we really don't have them, quite honestly, and I think it's a good idea to sort of tell journalists, look, you know, this is a checklist of what might be beneficial, and these are the lessons that we did learn from the marathon bombings, what we should do and how we should verify and, you know, who we should trust.
HOBSON: We're speaking with Deborah Becker, senior correspondent and host at WBUR; and Scott Helman of the Boston Globe, he's coauthor of "Long Mile Home," that's a book about the Boston Marathon bombings. And as you listen, let us know what you thought of the coverage, newspapers, radio, online, on TV. You can go to hereandnow.org, or you can send us a tweet @hereandnow. This is HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW, and we're talking about how the media covered the Boston Marathon bombings with Deborah Becker, senior correspondent and host at WBUR in Boston; and the Boston Globe's Scott Helman. He's co-author of "Long Mile Home."
And one of the big concerns that came up that week, a year ago, was that the wrong people were being suspected. There was this kid at Brown University who had been missing, and some people thought he was responsible. The New York Post printed this cover of bag men, and they had two people who were not involved, but then everyone was looking for them. And let's listen here to CNN's John King, speaking on the Wednesday after the bombings, two days after, talking about what he thought was going on.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
JOHN KING: I was told that they have a breakthrough in identification of a suspect, and I'm told - I want to be very careful about this because people get very sensitive when you say these things. I was told by one of these sources who is a law enforcement official that this was a dark-skinned male. The official used some other words. I'm not going to repeat them until we get more information...
HOBSON: Deb, as you were on the air live, did you ever face a moment when you had some information like that, maybe, about who this could be that was involved, and you decided to talk about it or not to talk about it?
BECKER: We had so much information, volumes of information. And as you know, Jeremy, the producers behind the glass, not in front of the microphone, are really crucial in a situation like this. And I think when we were looking on Twitter and looking on the AP, and you had a bunch of sources in front of you, and people were running in and bringing in pieces of paper to you as you were doing live coverage, you had to be really careful. You were the final checkpoint of what was going to go through.
And a lot of times I would hold something up to a producer and wave it and say what is this, you know, where did we get this from. And people would talk in your ear and say, you know, this is from - and you had to make a quick decision. And there were many times like that, when information came in.
You know, my rule is try to get it verified at least three times before you even mention it because you don't to increase the anxiety in a situation like that.
HOBSON: Scott Helman, there was also the question, even among officials about whether it would be a problem when they finally did come out and say this is who we're looking for because if that person then knows that they're being hunted by the police, they may flee, or they may do something bad.
HELMAN: Sure, and that was a big part of the behind-the-scenes debate that happened between the FBI and the police, the Boston police, in terms of do we want to put these photos out there or not. Interestingly, I mean, one of the things that I think really forced their hand was all this speculation by some in the media, some online on places like Reddit, part of the reason that they felt they had to go out there was to put a stop to all this and say don't pay attention to anything else, these are the two guys we want, these are the two guys we need to find, nobody else.
HOBSON: Did anyone ever ask you not to report something?
BECKER: No. I may not have been part of the conversation but not during my coverage, no.
HOBSON: Now your coverage, which was done locally in Boston on WBUR, eventually was picked up and aired on public radio stations across the country. And I wonder when you found out that that was happening, that your coverage was being heard in New York and Los Angeles and all over live, as it was happening, did it change in any way the way that you reported what was going on - when it went from being something that was only being heard by people were directly affected or were right in the immediate area, to something that was being heard by people all across the country?
HELMAN: Big gulp, that's for sure. No, I think in all seriousness, for the most part I think what was guiding our coverage, at that point, was what's going on. We have a responsibility to tell people and obviously, we have a responsibility first to tell people here, who were directly affected. It was get the message out, tell people what's happening, and try not to instill fear in people - as best you can.
HOBSON: Well, let's take a listen here to you and Bob Oakes, the MORNING EDITION host here at WBUR, doing some live coverage.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
BECKER: Authorities say at this point, they do not know who is responsible or what, exactly, happened. Boston police are looking for information regarding the explosions today at the Boston Marathon finish line. And Bob, as you said, it's, you know, four hours later, and that's a very limited amount of information.
BOB OAKES: It is a very limited amount of information but, you know, if you think back to 12 years ago - 9/11/2001 - we were in this room, essentially, reporting on the same kind of event; and the chaos in Boston today, following the explosions this afternoon, is a huge reminder of what happened in the city that day.
HOBSON: Deb Becker, tell me about your thoughts as you listen back to that.
BECKER: I hadn't heard that in a year, right. I think you can hear sort of all of the uncertainty going on. And we really didn't know, and I do think that our overarching message, really, was to try to tell people information, the most official information that we could, from officials there, from reporters at the scene and everything else.
But I think what was incredibly different about doing the marathon bombing, yes we had done 9/11, and we've done a lot of live coverage, whether it's elections or storms or fires or all kinds of disasters, but this one, this was personal. We knew people there. We knew runners. We knew the officials. We've been covering them for years. And our families may have been at the finish line.
My daughter was going to the finish line that day, as far as I knew, and in all the midst of this, I didn't know where she was because, of course, cellphones were down and things. She was fine, but I think that added to the anxiety of covering this because this was, you know, marathon day is a celebration, and it was a very different story to cover.
HOBSON: Scott Helman?
HELMAN: Yeah, I'm struck to hear you talk about your stuff from that day, Deb, because it occurs to me that, you know, in the last 10 or 15 years, in some ways newspapers and other kind of print media have had to catch up, I think, with these outlets that have done live coverage for years.
You know, now people expect us to put up stuff on Twitter and on bostonglobe.com and everywhere else. I think that's a training that I think we've had to kind of undergo, and lots of other print outlets, too, because in some ways it's the same filter or lack thereof that we're facing that you guys have faced for years.
HOBSON: But what about that comparison to 9/11? I was in New York City when I heard that. I heard you on the air in New York City when Bob made that comparison to 9/11, and I wonder, a year later, does that feel like a stretch? Does it feel like on that day, that's what it felt like?
BECKER: I think it absolutely felt like that that day because there was just so much uncertainty, as we heard in that clip. We didn't have much official information. We didn't know. At the time there was also some sort of a fire at the JFK library, and we didn't know where these people were. We didn't know if there was going to be another attack. So it absolutely felt like 9/11.
HOBSON: I want to finally ask both of you about your sense of responsibility as journalists. And that was a holiday, by the way. It was Marathon Monday, it was Patriots Day, and most people weren't working in this city. But at what point do you have that feeling of I'm a journalist, I am a very important part of dealing with a crisis like this and getting information out there, Scott?
BECKER: I think it's - this is clearly one of those all-hands-on-deck situations. 9/11, of course, was another one. And they come few and far between, where...
HOBSON: Katrina was another one.
BECKER: Katrina, right, certainly if you're in a certain kind of news organization. You know, everyone's operating on multiple levels but I think certainly volunteering to do whatever is necessary to help.
HOBSON: Deb Becker?
BECKER: Well, I think that day I was working. I was covering the marathon, and we had a skeleton crew in the newsroom because it was a holiday, and that was very difficult. And once we realized that something was wrong, we just started calling people, saying, you know, get here and help us.
And then of course throughout the week, every day was another long day of covering things and figuring out what to do and the president coming and then the shelter in place order and all of that. So I think it is a situation where everybody says, you know, we do have a role here to inform people.
And I think that in this particular case, a good lesson was you don't have to be first, you really don't, and watch the urge to try to be first because what's more important is that you try to keep people informed and aware as best you can without that sort of get-it-first mentality.
HOBSON: Deborah Becker, senior correspondent and host at WBUR in Bpston; and Scott Helman of the Boston Globe, he's co-author of "Long Mile Home." Thanks to both of you.
BECKER: Thank you.
HELMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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