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Guest Commentary

Boston and news coverage — what we bargained for?

5/8/2013

News coverage of breaking stories — such as the explosions at the Boston Marathon — are more miss than hit because of two fundamental flaws in such coverage. If you’re puzzled or confused by the breathless on-the-scene commentators, you should be.

For one thing, almost everything we know about such news coverage is that, at best, it is incomplete and often inaccurate. The first accounts of any fast-breaking or developing story have to be incomplete or inaccurate, because everyone — including the reporters — is essentially clueless as to the substance of what just happened or what’s going on now.

We know that something terrible has happened, but nothing beyond that.

For another thing, despite what you might be told at brainstorming sessions, there are such things as dumb questions — and, if not dumb, certainly futile. Want an example of a dumb or futile question — or one that certainly doesn’t merit an answer?  Try this: Of your children or your parents, which one would you choose to die first?

This flaw in news coverage is that because we can ask a question we think there must be an answer — one answer, and the simpler the better. So now we seek the simple answer as to why Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his brother, Dzhokhar, 19, did what they did.

In the quest for coverage and answers, we are beset with incomplete and inaccurate coverage and unfathomable questions because of what is called the need to “Feed the Monster” — that is, the need to keep airwaves and news columns filled every second of the day.  When solid information is lacking, rumors, gossip and hearsay will have to do to keep reporters occupied and viewers satisfied that they know what is going on.

It’s mass, and tacitly agreed upon, self-deception.

Thirty or 40 years ago, columnist Goodman Ace (1899-1982) wrote in The Saturday Review about how the press had to provide the public with a “daily dose of crisis” — some threatening news item to add adventure and fear to our humdrum lives. Nowadays, it is not a “daily dose” but a “nano-second dose” — accuracy be damned.

In the case of the Boston Marathon incident, we eventually learn that Dzhokhar, apparently was unarmed when we had been told he was engaged in a shootout with police and may have fired a round into his mouth in a suicide attempt.

While the news media audience is being “informed” about all this, the cops and government are in a no-win position.  If they don’t speak up because they don’t know what is going on, they are accused of a cover-up. If they make their best guesses in providing information that is later, and predictably, found to be wrong, they are accused of a conspiracy because they had “lied” to us.

Well, what we can we learn from all this?

A flippant answer is that we now have a working definition of just who a terrorist is: Anyone whose name the press has problems pronouncing or spelling.

A better answer is that the audience has to wise up. Almost a century ago, sociologist Robert Park said you would not get better newspapers until you made some gains in getting the audience to be more intelligent, knowledgeable and critical.

Perhaps Frank Bruni provided the best current answer in his New York Times commentary, The Lesson of Boston:

“The F.B.I. averted its gaze from the older Tsarnaev brother after it couldn’t find any conclusive alarms because that’s what the government is supposed to do, absent better information. We don’t want it to go too far in spying on us. That means it will fail to notice things.

“While we can and will figure out small ways to be safer, we have to come to terms with the reality that we’ll never be safe, not with unrestricted travel through cyberspace. Not with the Second Amendment. Not with the privacy we expect. Not with the liberty we demand.

“That’s the bargain we’ve made. It’s imperfect, but it’s the right one.”

Maybe the same has to be said about flawed news coverage in an open society. CV

Herb Strentz is a retired administrator and professor in the Drake School of Journalism and Mass Communication and writes occasional columns for Cityview.

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