Lessons learned: Covering the marathon bombings

Note: Northeastern journalism student Taylor Dobbs covered the Boston Marathon bombings and the final standoff in Watertown from the scene of both incidents, publishing stories and photos in Medium. Here he offers some advice to young journalists: Show up; be a witness; tell us what you know; don’t guess at what you don’t know.

Taylor DobbsBy Taylor Dobbs

In a fast-moving, violent situation, fear and confusion naturally prevail. Facts and hard truths are at a premium, and the most difficult thing to do is separate these disparate pieces and figure out what is happening.

As a journalist, I knew this was my job on the ground when I arrived at the edge of the police perimeter on Monday, April 15, minutes after a pair of bombs echoed through the crowded streets of Boston and then again when I headed to MIT after shooting was reported on the campus.

Show up

Even the hundreds of people standing in the median of Commonwealth Avenue had very little idea of what had just happened. Some were runners who’d been a mile away when the blasts went off.

It soon became clear that as confused as I was, I knew as much as anyone else about what had unfolded near the finish line. After that, I focused on scraping together whatever I could from what I could see.

There was little point in checking Twitter, because the majority of people I follow were farther from the action than I. Many are great journalists, but even the best journalist can only do so much good work from miles away. I had the one asset that trumps experience, employer and intelligence: I was there.

Again, in the case of Watertown, when I found out there had been a shooting at MIT I grabbed my phone and my laptop (to keep my phone’s battery alive) and hustled across the Charles River to MIT, where I connected with Twitter acquaintances Seth Mnookin and Brian D’Amico.

As a column of police cars sped away from that scene, Seth offered us a lift in his car on to the next place. As it turned out, we were the first three journalists in Watertown, arriving minutes after the shooting stopped. There was no interview, no poring over my résumé and writing samples (I certainly wasn’t one of the top three journalists to cover the week’s events, and wouldn’t have been chosen on my merits); I got to be there because I threw on my shoes and walked out the door.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen dives deeper on this concept in his aptly titled piece, “I’m There, You’re Not, Let Me Tell You About It: A Brief Essay on the Origins of Authority in Journalism.”

You can’t know what you can’t see …

Before the questions of who, why and how emerged, there were simpler ones: Was anyone hurt? What caused the explosions? Are there going to be more? Was my loved one in there?

Without being able to see the scene or the horrible images coming from the marathon finish line, I used the information available to try to answer some of these. I kept count of the ambulances coming to the scene. When I counted the fifth one driving through the police barrier, it seemed clear that there were people hurt, but there was no way for me to be sure.

I would later find out there were three dead and more than 200 injured. But tweeting something like “5 ambulances going to the scene, people are definitely injured” would not only stir panic among the people who were tracking my tweets for updates, it would also be over-stretching my knowledge.

No one was asking me how many ambulances were there, they were asking if anyone was hurt. I couldn’t possibly answer them, so I gave what information I could. I got a message from Colin Schultz, a fellow journalist based in Canada who was following the action, that summarized this sentiment well: “Good luck. Keep calm. Stick to what you know.”

… and that’s OK

As I stood on Nichols Street in Watertown, pressed up against the police tape trying to figure out what was happening, questions started pouring in on my Twitter feed. People wanted to know if I could confirm reports they were hearing: Was a suspect dead? Were both suspects in custody? Was there a third suspect? Was this related to the MIT shooting? To the marathon bombing?

Naturally, people wanted answers. The job of a journalist is to get the facts and report them — to give hard and fast answers to questions of public interest. Certainly, all of those questions were good ones that were very much of public interest. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the answer to any of them. As we saw from the New York Post, CNN and others last week, giving answers before confirming them not only leads to wrong answers — it’s reckless and irresponsible journalism.

The worst thing a journalist can do is provide answers he doesn’t have. Not only does it make him look bad (see @JohnKingCNN’s incoming replies), but it diminishes the signal-to-noise ratio coming from the scene. People tend to trust journalists who are on the scene (besides authorities, who have the best and most accurate information) during a breaking news event. So journalists on the scene providing false information is especially harmful, however well-intentioned it is.

Look and listen

Standing in Watertown as police searched the neighborhood for suspects, it was easy to take the sensory inputs for granted. I wasn’t hearing gunshots, police were yelling, it was very dark, officers with body armor and assault rifles were walking hurriedly through the streets, more police cars were showing up.

All of these things seemed perfectly reasonable for the area around a gunfight in which suspects were still at large. While it was a surreal scene, it didn’t seem an unnatural police response. It was easy to forget, however, that people who weren’t on the scene didn’t know any of those things.

It seemed stupidly obvious, but I tweeted that I hadn’t heard any gunshots since I arrived and that police were still arriving. When they began to leave, I tweeted that, too. No detail is too small, because each one you provide is that much more information that followers who aren’t there wouldn’t otherwise have.

Taylor Dobbs is a senior journalism major at Northeastern University. Follow him on Twitter at @taylordobbs. Photo by Maggie Kinzel.

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One thought on “Lessons learned: Covering the marathon bombings

  1. Taylor Dobbs

    Reblogged this on Taylor Dobbs and commented:
    I wrote a piece for Media Nation, which is Northeastern Professor Dan Kennedy’s blog, about my experience covering the Boston Marathon bombings and the manhunt in Watertown later in the week. You can check that out below.

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