Tuned In

After the Boston Attack, the Media Shows Power to Shock and Comfort

The Boston nightmare brought a rush of information (and misinformation), speculation, and even politicized argument. But there was also decency amid the horror.

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According to reports of the bombings at the Boston Marathon, two devices went off in quick succession Monday afternoon near the finish line. According to reports that evening, other devices were found at sites around the city.* But other devices of impact were all around the finish line: cameras, professional and amateur, all trained on the end of the big race.

*Update Tues. a.m.: at a news conference this morning, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said that, contrary to those early reports, no unexploded devices were found.

At this writing, we don’t know who was behind the attack, or why, but whoever it was surely knew that this was an event thick not just with victims but witnesses, one that would be captured and transmitted dramatically and worldwide. This was the finish line of a massive media event in a major city, and an attack designed to be seen. And the aftermath of the Boston nightmare was an example of how images and information (and misinformation) spread and get sorted through in a world of insta-documentation.

The question of whether to publish graphic images, for instance, was no longer simply one for newspapers and TV networks. Dozens of amateurs made those calls; thousands of virtual editors spread their reportage. Minutes after the attack, a dramatic loop of an explosion was circulated on the social video site Vine. If you didn’t see images of the injured on TV or at news sites, they were circulated on Twitter and Reddit (sometimes, but not always, linked with a warning).

Each major cable and broadcast news network went to live coverage, where the chaos–and the confusion of reports–played out in real time. Conflicting reports came out about a reported fire at Boston’s John F. Kennedy library: it was definitely related, it was definitely unrelated. At one point, the New York Post reported a death toll of 12 shortly after the bombing; the official toll, several hours later, was three dead. There were reports of a “suspect” being guarded at a hospital, even as police repeatedly denied it.

Some anchors kept cool and careful in the welter of events. Scott Pelley, who headed CBS’s coverage, was careful to distinguish what the network did and didn’t know about the casualty count; and rather than simply let video of the explosion play on like wallpaper, Pelley used the loop to point out where the explosions went off and how the blast seemed to travel. And Fox’s Shepard Smith, a veteran of live breaking coverage, passed skepticism on a report in the New York Post–Fox’s sister publication–that police had a “person of interest”: “This is not unusual… I’m confident there will be a number of persons of interest.”

But as the day went on without answers, TV filled time with speculation and even politics. Analysts took guesses as to the culprit and their motives based on the calendar (did the Patriot’s Day timing mean right-wing terrorists?) or the methods (did multiple bombs mean al Qaeda?). The world being what it is, several opinion-havers lashed the news to their personal hobbyhorses, from usual jackasses like Alex Jones to journalists who should know better like Nicholas Kristof.

And when there wasn’t a race to guess the culprit or assign blame, there was a race to define the act. Early on, CNN (like TIME, a division of Time Warner) declared the bombings “terrorism,” though there was not yet a suspect or motive. (The FBI’s definition of terrorism involves motive: an act “to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof in furtherance of political or social objectives.” Is a school shooting terrorism?) The network was ahead of the White House; President Obama did not use the term in an address early in the evening, and, in sync with the Twitter chatter, cable news began chirping over the significance of his language.

At one point, CNN’s Erin Burnett seemed to invite former Bush aide Ari Fleischer to criticize Obama, asking what he thought of the President’s not saying “terror.” Though Fleischer served as a GOP commentator for CNN through the 2012 election (when Obama’s language around the Benghazi attack was a similar flashpoint), he didn’t take the partisan bait: “Two hours after an attack, it’s appropriate for the President to be one of the most cautious people speaking,” he said. It was a relief, on a day of images that shocked us speechless, to see someone on cable news pass on the chance to shock us with speech.

And amid all of Monday’s shock, social media showed it could be comforting, even profound. It was of all people, a comedian, Patton Oswalt, who posted a defiant tribute to the goodness of humanity on Facebook:

I don’t know what’s going to be revealed to be behind all of this mayhem. One human insect or a poisonous mass of broken sociopaths.

But here’s what I DO know. If it’s one person or a HUNDRED people, that number is not even a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of the population on this planet. You watch the videos of the carnage and there are people running TOWARDS the destruction to help out. …

So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.”

We may not have known the number of attackers or victims on Monday. But Oswalt’s math, at least, seemed about right.