As the nation reeled from the shock of last Monday’s Boston Marathon bombing, and even now as it begins to heal, American media sources have not only failed in their mission to keep the public informed, but also in their duty to simultaneously uphold the standard of decency and sensitivity required by such a tragedy.
Perhaps as a result of increased pressure to be the first to break a story, augmented by the digital nature of contemporary journalism, many media sources were quick to publish irrelevant and ultimately untruthful speculations about the event.
For example, an unrelated fire in Boston’s JFK library was reported as a third bomb on the same day as the Marathon. This was merely one of the many pieces of unverified and mistaken information to which the media subjected its followers. Eager to announce the progress of the story two days after the bombing, CNN wrongly announced an arrest and then was forced to retract their claim. The Associated Press and The Boston Globe made the same mistake. The New York Post exaggerated the event’s death toll. Most frighteningly, social media sites such as Reddit, 4Chan, and Twitter formed vigilante armies that hunted down innocents as suspects.
But beyond false facts, media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing was also abused in order to push specific political agendas.
Chris Matthews of MSNBC began to publicly speculate that radical members of the Tea Party movement, motivated by anti-Tax Day sentiments, were behind the bombings. On the other side of the American political spectrum, conservative show host Sean Hannity felt compelled to use the bombing as an example of why unrestricted access to guns does little to stem violence. To immediately turn to the ineffectiveness of gun control, one of the most contentious political issues of our time, is to insensitively and unnecessarily politicize the Boston tragedy.
House Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) also managed to manipulate the bombing to justify his views on immigration policy. When it became news that the bombing suspects were immigrants, King preached caution about immigration reform in light of the bombing—he even went so far as to advise the public to be wary of the U.S.’s visa-waiver program for students, since the government cannot ensure appropriate background checks for each candidate from “who knows where.”
Clearly, media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing has shown how the nation’s commercial media sources have lost sight of their supposed commitment to truthful information. Moreover, the event’s politicization has emphasized that certainly, it is not the place of journalists to immediately interpret facts in order to propagate a particular political strategy. At the very least, we ask journalists to take seriously their role in constructively and truthfully shaping our national discourse.