The Boston Marathon bombing story became inescapable, a real-life TV drama unfolding hourly with nonstop coverage on radio, cable television, social media and, in a sign of its power, even on network TV, which pre-empted hours of afternoon programming. Every hour, the story line became more dramatic: a shootout caught on video, a city shut down, a possible terrorist connection to Chechnya, a seemingly failed police search and a dramatic arrest.
The fast-moving nature of the story and the live coverage led to some on-air reporting mistakes even as they virtually excluded coverage of any other event, including Wednesday’s fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, which killed and injured more people than the Boston explosions did.
The Boston bombings killed three people, and maimed and injured nearly 200. The brothers suspected of being at the center of the crimes also are suspected of killing a campus police officer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and wounding perhaps another dozen officers in the shootout overnight.
In Texas, rescuers have pulled 12 bodies from the wreckage of the fertilizer plant; as many as 60 people are missing and 200 injured.
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“It sounds terrible to say, but terrorism trumps an accident,” said media and culture expert Robert Thompson of Syracuse University.
The suspects, immigrant brothers Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, who was pronounced dead after the police shootout Friday morning in Watertown, Mass., and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, 19, who was found, apparently wounded, hiding in a boat, haven’t been linked to any international terrorist organization. But the videos and photos of them released by police – one carrying a backpack, the other a bag, by the bomb sites – their firefight with police and their background as Muslims from the war-torn region of Chechnya in Russia brought up the specter of international terrorism.
“West was a story of surprise,” Thompson said. “This is a story of suspense.”
That suspense gripped the country as new characters and new plot twists emerged. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was the suspect who couldn’t be found – until a homeowner spotted him after police had given up the search. Boston was paralyzed until early evening, on lockdown as some families were ordered out of homes in Watertown while police conducted a door-to-door search.
“It is over-saturated with highly dramatic, cinematic elements,” Thompson said.
Richard Benedetto, an American University journalism professor and former USA Today White House correspondent, said the Texas explosion got a little bit of attention but that the news media returned their focus to the Boston story because “the terrorism angle is more sensational.”
“It’s an unfolding story,” he said. “You don’t get those very often.”
In an era of instant gratification, the media respond with quick reporting, though sometimes it’s too quick.
CNN, the Associated Press, FoxNews.com and The Boston Globe had to retract stories earlier in the week that said a suspect in the bombings had been arrested. That led to the odd spectacle of CNN saying only that Suspect No. 2 was holed up in an unspecified “structure” when every other news source was showing pictures of the 24-foot boat behind 67 Franklin St. in Watertown, taken from Google Earth and Bing satellite images.
“When print dominated coverage, we had the luxury of time to get it right,” Benedetto said.
Social media also had their share of errors, with contributors to the Reddit website incorrectly identifying one of the bombers as a missing Brown University student.
Other errors went uncorrected. Most news accounts continued to say throughout the day Friday that the Tsarnaev brothers had robbed a Cambridge 7-Eleven on Thursday night, a report that the convenience store’s corporate headquarters in Dallas and the Cambridge police denied.
Edward Jay Friedlander, a professor emeritus at the University of South Florida’s School of Mass Communications in Tampa, defended the media, calling the errors understandable. “There have been media mistakes in coverage, of course, but anytime there is wall-to-wall live coverage – by broadcast, blogging and live television – mistakes are made.”
He said news directors and editors had made the right call to emphasize the Boston bombings, to the expense of virtually everything else.
“Although more people – many more people – died in the Texas explosion, and many, many people are missing in Texas, the lockdown of an American city is unprecedented in my memory,” Friedlander said. “Given a story-to-story comparison with the terrible explosion in Texas, I believe that the Boston story is somewhat more newsworthy by traditional news definitions.”