On Media Coverage of the Boston Marathon Bombings

The New York Post's Controversial Cover Story of the Boston Marathon Bombings.
The New York Post’s controversial cover story of the Boston Marathon Bombings.

By Sean Callaghan

Anger.  It has a mesmerizing effect.  My wife and I fought in the early years of our marriage.  We’re both stubborn people, and we were both committed to each other, which meant we were willing to fight because we knew we’d be together for the rest of our lives.  During these fights we were both amazed at what the anger did to us.  When anger took over, the only thing we could see were our partner’s flaws.  If we were fighting about chores, we would only remember the times we were left alone to clean up a mess.  If we fought about money, we would conveniently forget all the contributions the other had made towards our financial well-being.  We discovered anger is selective, and narrow-minded.  It only allows us to see what it needs to see to keep itself stoked and burning.  It was greedy that way.

The media waves have been seething with anger this past week.  Ever since those two tragic bombs went off at the Boston Marathon on April 15th, the World Wide Web has exploded in fury over the unfairness of the attacks, and the injustice of targeting innocent by-standers at a sporting event.  I too felt the rage.  For a brief moment, that rage was necessary.  It spoke our sympathy to those who were most deeply affected by the tragedy.  It bonded us into a temporary unity of outrage at violence and those who act on its behalf.  That rage had its moment, but now, it is time for it to pass, and let cooler heads prevail.  Because, if given time, that anger will begin to reshape the event coding everything and everyone with its narrow-minded, and selective inclinations.

We can already see the traces of this beginning to spread.  CBC News posted a news story two days ago concerning vigilante web-surfers engaged in their own private witch-hunts for those responsible for the bombings.  The New York Post published an unsubstantiated front-page article pointing the finger at two “bag men” it believed to be responsible for the bombings.  Both men were innocent.  Meanwhile, more recently all media outlets are obsessed with the chase for the Tsarnaev boys, the two brothers that have risen to the top of the FBI’s suspect list in the bombings.   We are given what seems to be irrefutable evidence of their guilt: video tape of the two men walking through a crowd with what look like bags that match the description of the bags used in the explosions.  An uncle has come out chastising them.  Their parents call for them to turn themselves in to authorities.  We now learn one of them has been shot dead in a shootout with police.  All for the better, because they must be guilty.  They are terrorists.  The newspapers tell us so.

And so the hunt for answers begins.  Why did they do it?  Where did they come from? The thing is there is no certainty in this story or any story that tries to narrate what happened so soon after the fact.  There will likely never be an easy answer to these questions.  Why does this seem to be so difficult for the media to understand?  We are all still reeling from disorientation.  Our emotions are all still raw.  A mountain of information has yet to be processed.  So we are in no position to pass judgment on what happened or why.  Meanwhile, there is a process whereby the guilt or innocence of the two suspects will be measured, and as flawed and plodding as this system may be, it is the system we have.

Unfortunately, the media is all but certain of the guilt of the Tsarnaev brothers, and are ready and willing to narrate their stories to justify this guilt. They have passed judgment, and now prey on our anger to build the story.  As any story fueled by the selective and narrow-minded biases of our darker inclinations must be, it is a compelling one.  Of course, the suspects are immigrants!  Of course they are muslim!  And yes, this must have something to do with their own self-radicalization.  In case we had doubts, we have the Associated Press providing us with support pieces about the history of unrest in Chechnya, the “unstable” state from which these immigrants came to us. This news source is savvy enough not to point the finger directly.  Rather they fuel the story by insinuation.  “…if it turns out that the suspects in the Boston bombings are linked to [Chechen] insurgencies…” they write, but provide no alternative to their “if.”  The Globe and Mail, meanwhile, fills its coverage with speculation on terrorist links to the boys and their bombings, on the radical background of the suspects, on the unrest in Russia.  All these stories are plagued by the same if-statements and innuendo that could only come from a media mechanism bent on narrating an event that as yet has no possible narrative.

In all likelihood, the reports are accurate.  The Tsarnaev brothers are very likely the perpetrators of the bombings.  This, however, is not the point.  The point is, news reporters are in no position to judge guilt or provide a narration of that guilt.  They are meant only to report on what can be known.  More importantly, their reportage must be balanced by a healthy account of what is not known.  Unfortunately, in this day and age to admit ignorance for a newspaper means risking a dip in readership.  Especially with a story like this, readers are searching for answers.  They are starving after a story because anger loves a story.  It gives comfort to those seeking to justify their fury.  Even when no justification is available.

The harder emotion to live with is uncertainty, but right now what we need – what we always need in the face of these kinds of tragedy if we are to keep ourselves from tearing each other apart – is the humility to accept there may be no clear answers, no strict heroes and villains.  What we need now is something the news media cannot give us, but must: the courage not to report in the absence of a story.  We need this precisely because we are all becoming reporters in our age of portable video devices and easy access to social media.  We are watching how our more legitimate news sources report the news, and we are learning from them.

My wife and I don’t fight as much anymore.  After discovering how deeply anger could warp our perceptions of one another, we decided there were other ways to manage our mutual frustrations.  We reserved judgment.  We let the other person talk.  We tried to keep an open mind towards our own faults, our own ability to misjudge.  We can do this, because what we are trying to hold together is so much more important than our need to be right or righteous.  We hold onto the relationship itself in all its frailty and joy, and so we let humility guide us for fear of being torn apart by the wolves of our darker natures.

Sean Callaghan holds a doctoral degree in East Asian Studies from the University of Toronto.  He is a published playwright, and is currently working on rewrites for a new play while putting the finishing touches on a novel.  He lives in Vancouver with his wife.

5 thoughts on “On Media Coverage of the Boston Marathon Bombings

  1. Sean,

    Thanks for this challenging and important article. And I think you are right to hit upon the problem of anger as being central here.

    I think collectively this week we were so angry that the Marathon, which is a peaceful and beautiful celebration of the city of Boston and of the joy of running, would be targeted. It was so cowardly to bomb innocent civilians in that way that we wanted to see those brought to justice as quickly as possible.

    And so this fuels our desire to know who did it, our desire to rush to judgement, our desire to find a coherent narrative. As you put it, anger loves a story. So the police told us about the Tsarnaev brothers and we, quite naturally, wanted to know everything about them.

    Ultimately, whether they actually committed these crimes will have to be proven in a court of law.

    And this is why I think it is so crucial that we have a functioning and (as far as possible) dispassionate justice system with a full range of rights for both defendants and accusers. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev will have his day in court, with a defense attorney by his said to see that his judicial rights are respected. If he did indeed plant that bomb, that’s fare more respect than he paid to his victims. Ultimately, the justice system will weigh the evidence against him and, if its convincing, convict him.

    For the rest of us, still wrapped in our fury and our outrage, I’m not sure we have the sobriety of mind to afford Tsarnaev such legal proceedings. And yet, because American (and Canadian) society decided to say no to mob justice long ago, because we saw that vigilante justice would only led to barbarism, we created sophisticated legal systems that can adjudicate crime based on evidence rather than emotion.

    I do not mean to suggest that our legal systems are perfect- lord knows there is enough evidence to suggest institutional and human error have led to travesties in our time. But our legal systems do obtain to certain fundamental principles- of evidential assessment, of the right to representation, etc.- that are critical to avoid the leap to judgement in blind anger that you are warning us against.

    As for the media, one certainly does wish they would have included discussions of evidence in their stories. They too wanted to find answers and so they gave us, as you said, stories replete with innuendo and conjecture. Obviously, vigilante investigations done by media outlets accusing people without evidence is totally unproductive and wrong.

    And yet we must remember that the media, by and large, were just trying to find out what happened here. They had little information about the evidence the police had collected against these men. All they had in front of them was a city shut down and made into a police state, and the name of two young boys who stood accused. They were just trying to piece together a picture of what happened as best they could.

    Even one of the most astute and celebrated journalists in the country, the New Yorker’s David Remnick, has written a piece trying to reconstruct the mentality of the brothers based on their twitter postings:

    http://www.newyorker.com/talk/2013/04/29/130429ta_talk_remnick

    He too is trying to make sense of these heinous crimes and how the boys may have been connected to them.

    I think the desire to provide a narrative to this story is necessary and right, because we need to know what drove these two young men- who seemed to have had pretty decent lives in America, were going to university, received scholarships, etc.- to do this.

    But as we construct that narrative, we need to remember that their guilt has not yet been proven in a court of law. Questions of evidence needs to be included in the discussion, as well as the questions concerning radicalization and motive that have dominated the airwaves so far.

    But we must find answers to those questions- so we can prevent tragedies like this from occurring. As we often say at this blog, no dead bodies. A productive politics of the 21st century cannot be one that resorts to violence to produce political fear.

    Now we need to convince as many young men and women of that fact as possible, so that the very idea of planting a bomb in the middle of a city to further some kind of ideological goal will seem immoral to them.

  2. Mark,

    Eloquently said. I agree that our media were just trying to make sense out of senselessness and this is precisely the function that a narrative plays, but I take issue with the fact that there seems to be only one narrative being considered in all the articles being put out by the media. Even the New York Times has jumped on the “they are terrorists” narrative bandwagon with the following article by Scott Shane:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/21/us/boston-suspects-confused-identities-and-conflicting-loyalties.html?hp

    If we break this article apart we can see how it works to fit all the pieces into an already given framework. It begins with the story of Dzokhar Tsarnaev pursuing information about his ethnic roots in university. Fine. We all do this. Shane then goes on to admit to the multiple narratives lines this story might take when he writes, “It remains to be seen whether personal grievance or some type of ideology drove the Tsarnaevs to pack black powder into pressure cookers to kill and maim people they had never met, as investigators say they did.”

    Shane then mentions their devotion to Islam, but admits “neither appears to have publicly embraced the ideology of violent jihad.” He goes on to state the design of the bomb they made is one available online via an Al Qaeda website, but it is also widely available elsewhere on the internet. Up to this point, I felt like I was reading the kind of quality reporting one tends to expect from such a respected source. Shane was not imposing a narrative on the intentions, but providing possible explanations while holding open the door on what we cannot yet know. Granted, I could take issue with the fact that the “terrorist narration” has already begun in this article by virtue of the fact that he even mentions their attachments to Islam and the loose connection to Al Qaeda. But we can give him some leeway on this. As you say, we are all just trying to wrap our heads around what happened.

    It’s at this point, however, that the article starts to go south. After taking so much care to show us how tenuous these possible narratives are, Shane goes on to treat them as the only story available. Right after he has just stated the men did not express any connection to jihadi ideologies he forces the narrative down the jihadi storyline. He writes,

    “Still, as investigators try to understand the brothers’ thinking, search for ties to militant groups and draw lessons for preventing attacks, they will be thinking of a handful of notable cases in which longtime American residents who had no history of violence turned to jihadi terrorism.”

    He then spends the rest of the article building off this one loose connection forcing him to build the rest of the article on suppositional claims:

    “Mr. Fishman cautioned that it was too early to draw any firm conclusions about the Tsarnaev brothers, but said there were intriguing echoes of other cases in which young men caught between life in America and loyalty to fellow Muslims”

    “On the face of it, they were doing reasonably well. But the same might have been said, at least at certain stages in their lives, of those behind other recent attacks.”

    “If the grim Chechen history that Mr. Williams, the University of Massachusetts professor, shared with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, turns out to be part of their motivation, one might have expected their anger to have been directed at Russians.”

    Meanwhile, Shane spends the last half of the article talking about other “terrorists” whose ties to muslim radicalism have been proven. This is the trend I am seeing in all newspapers, the argument that goes: “of course we can’t say right now that they are terrorists, but here is my speculation on why they did what they did if they were terrorists.” It is all pure speculation, but it is a kind of speculation that is purely inflammatory.

    This is not reporting. This kind of speculative tripe goes against everything that a news reporter should stand for. And its not like we don’t know Shane is capable of a decent article, because he spends the first half of the article holding that beautiful and delicate balance between what we know and don’t know.

    I don’t, however, blame Shane or any of the other professional reporters out there caught up in this discursive trap. The problem is similar to the problem encountered with the financial crisis. The issue I think isn’t that news reporters know better. It’s that they have lost the ability to imagine a world outside of the manichean like logic built around the discourse on the War on Terrorism – much like our economists had no ability to think beyond capitalism when the stock markets crashed. There is simply no space to think a different storyline. Which is precisely why a new storyline is needed.

    Since 2001, newspapers have all been trained to think and write according to Us vs. Them rhetoric, so of course this is how this storyline is going to be narrated. My point is that news reporting has an opportunity here to break with the bad habit, and begin narrating the impossible story – the one that does not follow the dominant ideology that plagues the American global imaginary. This is a complex story. And it is has everyone’s attention. A newspaper like the New York Times, and all other media sources have a real opportunity with this story to effect a real change in how people think about violence and how it touches us all.

    Instead they are giving us paltry arguments about jihad, immigrants, and Chechen discord. It should speak volumes to us that we already know how this story is going to go. It has been written in advance, and all it will do is fuel more discord between the moral majority and every muslim and immigrant living in the US. Is it any surprise that Republican Senator Charles Grassley has used this story to demand immigration reform? And he’s going to get it precisely because of the kind of shoddy reporting mentioned above that is spreading like a plague across the US media landscape.

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