How The Media Failed During The Boston Marathon Bombing Coverage

In a digital age where more people are turning to their ‘smart’ devices for quick news, it raises the question of whether the age-old convention of getting the story first is most important, or waiting until you have all of the facts.

Major news outlets scrambled to gather stories in the hours and days following the horrific Boston Marathon bombing in an attempt to keep their viewers interest.  It became increasingly important for these stations to produce the first stories, beating out their rivals for the passing vindication of a few minutes lead on a story.  But when does accuracy take the back seat?

Nearly all of the major stations failed to provide actual news by stating blatantly wrong information and spending more on-air time justifying why they were wrong, and who they got their wrong information from than reporting actual news.  The conflicting information was everywhere; online, in the newspapers, on Twitter.  You couldn’t get away from it.

It was the AP who first wrongly reported that a law enforcement official declared that a suspect had been identified, only to follow up moments later by stating that the suspect was in custody.  At that time, no suspect had been identified.

CNN quickly followed with John King and Fran Townsend simultaneously reporting conflicting information regarding whether a suspect has either been arrested or had been identified.  After nearly an hour of reporting hearsay, both reporters find out from Tom Fuentes that their sources were in fact wrong and that no suspect had been either arrested or even identified.

We were wrong,” King later stated in an interview with Washington D.C.’s WTOP, “It’s embarrassing.”

And NBC wasn’t immune to the lack of preparation either.  In a fleeting moment of indecency, a reporter is broadcast on live TV saying, “we don’t know sh-t,” in reference to whether a suspect has been named or arrested, after Brian Williams cut to the New England cable news show.

After the false facts and inaccuracies started hitting the major stations, it spread exponentially as smaller publications started reporting what they heard on the AP, CNN, and NBC.  It was a cringe-worthy viral dissemination of inaccuracy.

Even with these substantial blunders, it was the New York Post that continued to flounder in their coverage.

In the hours after the attacks, the publication declared 12 casualties from the attacks while in fact there were three.  The publication also raised eyebrows when they printed the picture of two young men on the cover, circled in red, with a headline reading, “Bag Men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.”

Neither of the men in the photo were involved in the bombing.  Opinion blogger, Erik Wemple, of The Washington Post even wrote an open letter to the young men who were pictured by the New York Post, asking that they sue the publication for damages.

This circus of coverage should act as a warning for the future when reporters need to hold their sources accountable, yet tread lightly when their information has yet to be corroborated.  It’s alarming that so many respected and seasoned journalists weren’t able to do their job.  Let’s hope that this is a problem that doesn’t repeat itself.

About Sean Flynn

Sean Flynn is a recent graduate from City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. His work has appeared in The Buffalo News, Condé Nast Traveler, The New York Times 'Fort Greene Local', The Daily Meal, and
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