The horrible terror attack in Boston has produced a lot of problematic coverage on TV, as these horrible tragedies often do. It’s almost too easy to pick on the 24-hour news pundits for the way they cover such things. Much as we might wish they did, they don’t have the option to simply say “we have no information” and leave it at that. In a strange way, the logical thing would be for them to move on to other stories and come back to the Boston attacks when more information comes in. But that would seem insensitive. So they have to stay on Boston nonstop, even though they have no news about what happened or who did it.
All they can do is interview people who were there, or speculate on what happened. And while they do plenty of both, speculation may be the less ghoulish of the two options. Right now I’m watching CNN, and an interview with someone who knows nothing about what happened (“I read the same report you did,” he said) is followed by eyewitness interviews. The baseless speculation is entirely worthless, but less painful than the on-the-spot witness reports, or lines like the one I just heard: “Coming up, more on the victims, what they’re going through, and their chance for survival.” Or the follow-up: “Victims who are fighting for their lives, they are literally fighting to survive.” Better they should sit there arguing about whether this is foreign or domestic terrorism: they have no idea, we have no idea, but at least they’re not adding to anyone’s pain.
Still, the problems here are built into TV news coverage. The best of the TV news people was generally thought to be CBS’s Scott Pelley, who provided, as Variety’s Brian Lowry called it, “sober, restrained, extraordinarily smooth coverage” and tried to stay away from sensationalism and speculation. But even he was filling air time; everybody was. When the New York Post published its apparently wrong story that mis-identified someone who had been questioned as a suspect in custody (an example, if you’re cynical, of the advantages of getting things wrong: the Post was guaranteed an “exclusive” and lots of traffic, because nothing’s more exclusive than something that’s not true), Fox News seems to have hit it a little harder than most, because of the Fox/Post connection, but it was also mentioned on other, non-affiliated networks. The key thing here is simply to fill up lots of time with no information, and any new information—even if it’s wrong—will be pounced on.
More on the Boston Marathon bombings:
Especially since the very act of speculating is almost irresistible for a TV pundit: pundits are often judged by how often their predictions turn out to be right or wrong, so if they happen to guess right, they’ll get the credit. That guessing-game aspect is harmless enough when it comes to some aspects of news and politics, but it’s dangerous when there is a real mystery out there in the process of being solved, and when wrong information and baseless speculation has the power to panic people.
I don’t know what can be done about this. Probably nothing, unless we’re willing to accept the networks cutting away to other stories when they have nothing to say — and that would come off, to many of us, as even more irresponsible than speculation. Otherwise, the best advice is probably not to watch too much of this coverage at once, or to watch when a truly new headline pops up on the website. The fact is they have to say something, even when there is nothing to be said, and that’s the problem with all the coverage, from the responsible to the irresponsible.