Retrospective: Media Coverage of The Boston Bombings, Six Years Later

How accurate was the media surrounding the Boston bombings?

Photo credit: Flickr CC Vjeran Pavic

By Julia Konow

Massachusetts native Emily Dickson was standing in the Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World with a group of classmates on April 15, 2013. She was 14 years old and on a freshmen year band trip through her high school. Suddenly, Emily and her classmates’ phones start to buzz with Twitter notifications. The news was that there had been a bombing in Boston. Upon receiving the news, Emily and her classmates felt instant panic and trepidation.

“We were all scared and so confused,” Dickson said. Dickson is now a 21-year-old junior studying communications at Worcester State University. “We didn’t know what was going on, if it was a terrorist or why the explosion happened.”

This terrified reaction after receiving the news of a bombing during the Boston Marathon was mutual across the nation. The constant and overwhelming amounts of media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings from various news outlets kept the country engaged on the progression of information surrounding the event while also inducing trauma to many people due to the graphic scenes.

With such a monumental event, the media, including major news outlets like The Washington Post, CNN, and The New York Times, took center stage in informing the public. But, looking back six years later at this chaotic time of mass coverage, not all of the media outlets produced accurate articles.

On April 15, 2013 at almost 3:00 p.m, two explosions went off near the finish line of the annual Boston Marathon, killing three people and critically wounding over 260 others. Two brothers from Kyrgyzstan, one of whom died in a police shootout after the bombing took place, were charged for the crimes. But the shocking event, coupled with the manhunt and suburban shootout, left the city shaken.

The event that rocked Boston led to an outpouring of support for victims, where over $80 million was raised for survivors. The tragedy brought the city closer together to support victims, and now marathons around the world have stricter security measures with bag checks and a larger police presence in the wake of the bombing. The media coverage kept the nation updated on the event as support poured into the city.

Many Worcester State University students think highly of the media coverage for the Boston Marathon Bombings.

“The coverage of the bombing was good,” said Denzel Amoah, a 21-year-old Worcester State student majoring in urban studies. “‘Boston Strong’ is a part of the culture and I think to be a Bostonian you have to know what the Boston Marathon bombing was and the significance of it in our society.”

Other members of Worcester State distinctly remember how the media coverage surrounding the event significantly impacted the country.

“I remember the days and weeks after it happened with all the constant media coverage,” said Liz Croteau, a 21-year-old nursing student at WSU. “It was really scary. I was not in the area at the time and even then everyone was talking about it. It was like a tornado coming.”

Not only was American culture deeply affected after this attack, but journalism had also undergone substantial changes around this time in the obsession to out-produce other news outlets considering that many Americans wanted to be updated on the information surrounding the bombing. With the continuous manhunt in the days after and the years of healing that followed, the progression of the news shifted from the basic facts of the bombing to what came next. The people of Worcester State remember different aspects of the early coverage, ranging from the manhunt to the disturbing imagery that was displayed.

“I remember that the media coverage lasted for a while and showed pictures of horrific scenes,” said McKena Hendriks, a 19-year-old psychology student at Worcester State. “The media showed the public what happened and how people who were there were affected.”

Studies from weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings have revealed that the extensive media coverage of traumatic images were associated with acute stress for those who followed the news. Data revealed that repeated media content of trauma-related aspects of the Boston Marathon bombings prolonged acute stress, which spread trauma that negatively affected communities. Similarly, research has revealed that the Boston Marathon bombings was the most reported story on network television stations like ABC, NBC, and CBS in 2013, but this coverage often included graphic content that led to psychological distress for many viewers.

“It happened when I was in eighth grade, and I remember it being well-covered,” said Arden Reinhardt, a 19-year-old sophomore at Worcester State studying communications. “My mom turned off my music because she got a call from someone about the bombings. We watched the news for a few hours. It was on every single news station.”

On April 15, 2013, the day of the bombings, The New York Times published an article that explained the basic facts of the event. It covered how many bombs there were and the deaths that ensued. The coverage in the first few days conveyed initial and factual information to the public prior to new information and avenues of reporting.

“Two powerful bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Monday afternoon, killing three people, including an 8-year-old child, and injuring more than 100, as one of this city’s most cherished rites of spring was transformed from a scene of cheers and sweaty triumph to one of screams and carnage,” said The New York Times as an introduction to their first article about the tragedy.

This early coverage also included quotes from witnesses, President Obama, and first responders while acknowledging that there was some uncertainty, like who had planted the bombs. The New York Times article presented the information that was known at the time, like where the event took place when it happened, what they knew so far, what occurred following the bombings, and some of the injuries. Based on the frequency of the coverage, this event controlled news media for weeks following the bombings with news outlets racing to release the new information first.

“The media coverage was kind of hectic but at the same time people needed to know what was going on,” said Dickson. “Journalists did a good job of informing the public about it. The event deserved the non-stop media coverage to let the country know what was happening.”

Just five days later, The New York Times began to publish articles detailing the manhunt that ensued for the two suspects. This was something prominent that Worcester State University members recall from the media coverage.

“I do remember the footage of the two brothers walking with the bag and leaving the bag there,” said Brianna Charest, a 19-year-old sophomore at Worcester State studying elementary education and math. “And I remember the footage of the brother hiding in the boat. It had the appropriate amount of coverage for an extremely off-putting event, an act of terrorism.”   

In less than two weeks from the event, news outlets began to describe the healing that Boston, and the country, were undergoing. Instead of basic facts, the coverage grew to be reflective and interpretive, especially regarding the status of the victims and nation in response to the tragedy. The New York Times incorporated quotes from trauma surgeons and other medical professionals in articles weeks after the event as well.

Years later, in 2015, the progression of the trial for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the men who caused the explosions, was a focal point of major news outlets like The New York Times. The topic of the death penalty for this man highlights how the coverage has shifted focus from event to the consequences and aftermath that are still apparent years later.

In 2016, news outlets came out with new information even though it had been about three years since the tragic bombing. CNN reported new information that had emerged from unsealed court records, which said that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had told federal investigators about how he and his brother attempted to synchronize the bomb detonations. Despite the years between this new informational reveal and the bombing in Boston, media outlets still continued to update Americans on the new information and facts surrounding the event.

In 2018, the media was still covering the Boston Marathon bombings. Instead of reporting initial information like news outlets originally had, newspapers like The Washington Post have published articles reflecting upon the impact of the event, what people remember, and the healing that citizens endured. Its effect on journalism and the way that it has consumed media coverage as a frequent topic has shaped journalistic culture.

Despite taking place years ago, the significance of the Boston Marathon bombings tragedy has played a significant role in journalism even today as an example of media’s ongoing reaction to a monumental event.

However, there are mixed reactions amongst members of Worcester State University and the nation as a whole as to whether or not journalism did an all-around adequate and factual job in its coverage. The inaccurate reports, ranging from false arrests to death toll exaggerations, in the media frenzy were from prominent outlets including CNN, The New York Post, The Boston Globe, and The AP.

This competition for the spotlight resulted in inaccuracy that allowed readers to call into question the main goal of journalism—whether it is to inform the public or to gain monetary profits. In the pursuit of publishing information quickly after the bombing, not all media outlets produced accurate coverage.

“Like what has happened during other important news events, the desire to get an exclusive story can hurt some news editors’ ability to focus on the most fundamental rules of journalism-accuracy and source credibility,” said Dr. Daniel Hunt, an assistant professor of communication at Worcester State, in regards to the media coverage surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings. “This is especially problematic during a major event when people rely on the news media to keep them informed or to reduce their uncertainty about a tragic event,” he said.

Hunt had conducted a research project with a colleague and some WSU students a few years ago to analyze the media coverage of highly circulated newspapers in the days following the Boston Marathon bombings. While Hunt’s findings exposed many accurate stories, they also revealed that other news outlets were not as factual.

Outlets like CNN, The New York Post, The Boston Globe, and The AP had all published inaccurate information, ranging from false arrests, death toll exaggerations, identifying the wrong bombers, and more due to the competition of publishing stories quickly and garnering the most attention for financial gain overshadowing information verification.

“The correspondent John King reported that a suspect had been arrested,” stated The New York Times in regards to CNN’s mishap. “It was a big scoop that turned out to be false.”

While CNN reported on an inaccurate arrest, The New York Post had a picture of two innocent men on their front page who were inaccurately labeled as the bombers. The premature report of an arrest that did not take place led the FBI to issue a statement that warned the media of their unintended yet negative consequences. On top of the possible hindrance that constant media coverage can have on investigations, many deemed the incident as one that caused an unnecessary type of confused terror to inundate the nation due to an influx of unvalidated suspicions and inaccurate reporting.

“The expedited news cycle and the public interest in the developing story led to errors in reporting,” said Hunt, before adding that some news stations took a sensationalistic approach while others showed restraint coupled with validated sources.

Despite these factual errors, a 2013 Pew Research Study found that about 70 percent of Americans thought that the press did an excellent or good job on their coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings. Similarly, and despite the errors from major news outlets in reporting information about the Boston Marathon bombings, many members of Worcester State University recall thorough and constant media coverage.

In retrospect, six years after the tragic event, Americans can track the mass media coverage, which spanned for years and continues to this day, of a single event. This highlights the significant impact that the Boston Marathon bombings had on journalism. The frequency and forever-evolving stories that ranged from basic facts to a reflection of healing years later informed the public about the tragedy. But, in the chaotic time of Americans desperate to learn about a harrowing event, the media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings was not all accurate in the pursuit of publishing information the fastest.

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