Boston tragedy sparks review of TV coverage

In light of the recent Boston Marathon tragedy, a lot of attention has been focused on the effect of how media — specifically, television news and scripted shows — conveys breaking news to the public.

Despite past breaking news mistakes (CNN’s and Fox News’ coverage on the 2012 Supreme Court health care decision, anyone?), reporters still seem focused primarily on getting the stories out immediately. And in a fascinating, compulsory manner, television reporters still seem to play down the importance of accuracy and reliable facts.

Television coverage regarding Boston, the marathon, the explosions and the suspects was often put out in such a hurry to crank out an eye-opening angle that the stories were incorrect and inefficient.

According to the Entertainment Weekly article “How TV covered the Boston manhunt,” by Melissa Maerz, news was broken and quickly retracted during the entire day of the bombings.

The article pointed to just a few instances in which TV falsely portrayed the events. At one point, for example, it was reported that the primary suspects, Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, had robbed a store, but then later it was reported that it was actually not the Tsarnaevs and that the event was completely unrelated.

“The longer the networks reported on the Boston manhunt on Friday afternoon, the less we knew about what was actually going on,” she said.

Another interesting point that was brought up is that because of the inaccuracy of the local news and TV reports, onlookers often looked to social media sites for information.

“You got the feeling that watching TV was no better than following ordinary people on Twitter or Reddit,” Maerz said.

In her article, Maerz said that the situation has “raised some troubling questions about the power of TV news in general.” Does Maerz have a point? In this rush to be the first to publish, has television news coverage become a harmful and inefficient source for receiving information about tragedies?

The problem of broadcasting tragedies on TV does not stop at depictions via news coverage. Rather, television shows have increasingly decided to cover topics of tragedy that Americans still might feel uncomfortable with.

In the April 11 episode of Glee, gunshots are heard during glee practice. After much craziness, it is discovered that Becky Jackson, who has Down Syndrome, was terrified by her pending graduation and was the culprit behind the gunshots.

Consequently, Sue Sylvester, who is usually every episode’s villain, takes the blame for Becky. Though this episode does dramatize the fear and tragedy of an event like a school shooting, it inevitably imposes an unrealistic and happier conclusion, which is inconsistent with authentic, disastrous effects.

Just as news media can be guilty of sensationalizing news, scripted television seems to be guilty at times of sugarcoating it. There should be a middle ground.

Though there is no easy way to resolve the challenge of reporting correct information on breaking TV news and properly portraying tragic events in fictional television, it remains necessary to ensure objective, factual coverage.

Whether the solution lies in journalists finding a better balance between accuracy and the speed of a story’s delivery or in TV producers better thinking through depictions in fictional TV, it is clear that something needs to be done.

IT’s not just the context itself, either — it’s how much. In an article in the Oakland Press, Megan Semeraz quotes a clinical analyst and lead trauma expert, Jasmin White, saying that one of the most important ways to deal with nonstop news coverage of tragic events is to limit time spent with media.

“Those who watch the most coverage have the most substantial stress reactions,” White said. “One of the important things is limit the amount of coverage, don’t watch before bed time …  and talk to each other.”

And in an article from the Boston Herald, former ABC News President David Westin noted that TV coverage has the potential to exacerbate problems.

“The television coverage itself can become an instrument of terror if you’re not careful,” he said.

Going back to the current situation in Boston, Westin pointed out that television reporting has become more than just covering facts.

“What happened in Boston is a tragically ideal example of how we get our information these days,” Westin said.

It is necessary to acknowledge TV’s relationship with its audience. Whether it is covering breaking news or using a television show to discuss current events, television is a medium that has the power to shape the collective perception of an event. Because of this, television has the responsibility to present the facts in the most objective way possible so that viewers can form their own opinions.


Mollie Berg is a freshman majoring in communication. Her column “Mollie Tunes In” runs Mondays.