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Boston Marathon Tragedy Brings Out The Best, And Worst, In Journalism

Covering a breaking news story may be the toughest media job there is. But as Jay Rosen points out, it’s also an opportunity for highly trained, seasoned journos to do what they should do best – report the facts and capture the experience of those present. Sadly, many fail the test.

The Boston Marathon bombing was one such example. I’m sure there were examples of fine reporting yesterday;  I just didn’t see them. I did see the 10-minute press conference with Mass General’s trauma surgeon Peter Fagenholz. It was nearly unwatchable, and not just because of the tragic circumstances.

The media scrum outside the hospital was like an aggressive White House press gaggle, with reporters shouting questions seemingly without any forethought. To his credit, Dr. Fagenholz handled it like a champ, but even his calm refusal to stray from the facts didn’t alter the mood, which one media observer called “bloodlust.” To me, it was more like amateur hour.

The questions ranged from redundant and silly to downright embarrassing. One reporter asked Fagenholz if the eight patients classified as critical cases “would be okay,” forcing the good doctor to explain the meaning of the word “critical.” He also had to respond drily that, no, he was not trained by the Israeli army, in answer to a shouted media question that was faintly tinged with hysteria.

Dr. Fagenholz was respectful throughout the press onslaught but had a trace of scorn in his voice when, after being asked for the fourth time if all victims had been identified and responding that he did not know, he said he had interrupted his surgeries to “come out and talk to you” and would have to get back to work. (Dr. F. is my new hero.)

Earlier, I caught a local New York reporter taping a standup near Copley. While cautioning that “no one wants to compare the bombing with 9/11,” he reminded us darkly that “in fact, one of the American Airlines flights that crashed into the towers started in Boston.” Huh?

nypost

As with the tragedy in Newtown, many published facts were simply not true, and some were dangerously misleading. Boston authorities never asked cell phone carriers to shut down service, as was widely reported.

Most egregiously, The New York Post headline blaring, “12 Dead, At Least 50 Injured” wasn’t retracted even hours after it ran. Finally, the headline was changed, but the inaccurate death toll was still in the story late Monday night.

It’s bad enough that, just hours after the tragedy, conspiracy crackpots were trying to claim it was a “false flag” attack, or government plot. But “real” journalists should be able to cover even the most challenging breaking news story with greater professionalism. Is it getting worse, or am I just getting old?

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