4 takeaways from journalists' coverage of the Boston explosions

Last week began with a spotlight on excellent journalism. Newsrooms quieted for the 3 p.m. ET Pulitzer Prize announcement, but minutes before word came, two bombs exploded at the Boston Marathon. At 2:59 p.m. the Boston Globe tweeted of two “powerful explosions” near the finish line.

Before the champagne could be circulated in Pulitzer-winning newsrooms, staffers plunged into coverage of a big story. As the week progressed, recognition of award-winning journalism faded, news media lapses mounted and a barrage of criticism followed.

With suspects accounted for in Boston and most of the missing located in West, Texas, now is the time to consider the media's performance, build on what worked, and take steps to improve future coverage.

Here are four lessons.

1. Report information you've verified

Accuracy is rule number one in credible journalism. Legacy organizations incorrectly reported a suspect’s arrest. Some speculated about his race and ended up being incorrect. These reports reflected a failure of basic journalism accuracy. General references to race or ethnicity that single out groups of people -- and that don't tell us much about the suspect -- stir anger and fear.

Candy Altman, vice president of news at Hearst Television Inc., offered three suggestions for improving the reporting of facts. Altman spent part of the week at Boston’s WCVB-TV, the Hearst station and ABC affiliate where she was news director for seven years before moving into a corporate role.

Show restraint: Accuracy comes from “a great exercise in self-restraint,” she told Poynter in a phone interview. “These days a mistake is heard around the world. There is no situation when being first is acceptable if the cost is accuracy.”

Ask good questions: Aggressive reporters benefit from having someone ask questions that help clarify and verify information, Altman said. Newsroom leaders serve that role. Bloggers and independent producers also need mechanisms to provide a dispassionate check before releasing reports.

Have a process in place: The key to restraint and verification, Altman said, is to have a process in place and norms established before news breaks.

2. Keep a broad perspective

The many twists of the Boston story absorbed resources and drained emotions, but other stories merited coverage, too.

Take, for instance, the explosions in West, Texas. How do media organizations fairly weigh what to cover and how to cover it in situations that are significantly different? Should the emphasis skew toward death toll, number injured, extent of property damage? What about the impact on broader audiences and public interest? Examining an explosion at a fertilizer plant is different from tracking suspected terrorists through a big city, but the community affected by the plant fire shouldn’t be forgotten now or in the weeks ahead.

Last week began with growing interest in why national media outlets hadn’t covered the trial of Kermit Gosnell, a Pennsylvania abortion doctor accused of delivering babies and murdering them. Columnists have asked: Is the lack of coverage because liberal media don’t want to show the horrors of abortion? Are media organizations not interested in deaths and injuries to babies and mothers, most of them black and poor?

Why do some stories blow up in news coverage while others are ignored?

It helps to stay centered and keep a broad perspective on what serves local, national and global communities. Calculate the cost of showering some stories with coverage while giving little attention to or ignoring others.

3. Take responsibility for the impact

I watched television and followed on my laptop from my Tampa home Friday as an officer closed in on a boat holding suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. At one point, my 8-year-old granddaughter stopped playing nearby, sat beside me and asked what was happening. I said police were looking for a man they thought had set a bomb. She rose, mumbled something about “scary” and started checking the locks on doors.

A lot of adults are checking locks too, even when there’s no clear threat. We’re nervous and insecure, and the constant media drumbeat of threats and the steady flash of police lights don’t help.

Altman said a key for on-air reporting is to speak clearly and calmly. Credibility built over time pays off in public confidence in the midst of crisis.

Other techniques that enhanced reports while lowering stress last week included letting local people tell stories about their communities. Maps and visual aids helped locate the story. All brought clarity, filling the voids of the scary unknown.

4. Celebrate excellent journalism

While it's easy to criticize the media for the mistakes they made last week, we can't forget the good work they did. Here are useful practices that led to strong journalism:

High standards in a difficult week: Thank you to those who stared into cameras and disagreed with unverified reports of others; made minute-by-minute calls to hold or release information; used transparency to explain what was not known; responded to errors quickly; used innovative approaches; and challenged themselves to do what was best for the public.

Local coverage: The Dallas Morning News has provided ongoing reports on developments in West. Boston radio host Callie Crossley and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette blogger Rob Owen were among those who commended local television stations on credible news coverage. Journalists who know their communities and build relationships with reliable sources produced first-rate reports.

Courage to act under fire: Boston coverage started on Tuesday for WCVB-TV News Director Andrew Vrees, when he and his family finished hiking in a remote area of Hawaii and turned on cell phones. He returned quickly and watched his staff stay in place Friday after officials ended a regional lockdown. Soon, reporter Kelley Tuthill shouted into her mike, “There’s gunfire, there’s gunfire,” and she and other reporters covered an arrest that followed a stressful search.

Society cheers its first responders: law enforcement, fire and medical workers who deserve appreciation. Society has a different attitude toward journalists who provide critical information, sometimes while facing danger. Here’s to those who dodged violence to stay close and tell clear, compelling news stories last week.

On Thursday from noon to 3 p.m. ET, Poynter.org will air Google+ Hangouts with industry leaders who will talk about journalists' coverage of Boston. You can visit this link Thursday morning to find out more.

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated Candy Altman's title and the number of years she was a news director.

  • Karen Dunlap

    Karen B. Dunlap is president of The Poynter Institute. She is also the co-author, with Foster Davis, of "The Effective Editor."


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