Globe makes move into TV with ‘5 Runners’

This story was previously published at WGBH News.

When Boston Globe arts reporter Geoff Edgers and multimedia producer Darren Durlach proposed making a documentary about five runners who were crossing the Boston Marathon finish line at the moment that the bombings took place, editor Brian McGrory’s reaction was: Why not?

“What do you need? Two weeks?” McGrory recalled asking them.

As it turned out, it took Edgers and Durlach eight months, thousands of miles on the road and, as McGrory put it, “God knows how many dollars” to make “5 Runners,” which premiered before a crowd of several hundred people at the JFK Library Thursday evening.

The 25-minute film, which McGrory called “the first full-fledged documentary that theBoston Globe has ever produced,” will debut on NESN on Monday. It’s an early sign that a strategy to move into television, which Globe owner John Henry announced earlier this year, is beginning to take shape — although Edgers and Durlach began working on the film before Henry bought the paper. (Henry is also the principal owner of the Red Sox, which controls a chunk of NESN.)

The film, which grew out of a story Edgers wrote last April 21, follows the runners’ quest to return to the starting line of the 2014 marathon. I won’t give away how many make it. But “5 Runners” is deeply felt and unusual in its focus on how athletes — ordinary men and women who were well off the pace of the elite runners — were affected by the terrorist attack.

In a panel discussion after the film moderated by Globe deputy managing editor for features Janice Page, Edgers talked about the difficulties he and Durlach faced in staying in touch with their subjects. One of the runners, Volker Fischer, simply stopped responding, so Edgers sent him a card that read: “Volker — call me.”

When Edgers finally was able to connect with Fischer and visit his home in Illinois, he saw the card, unopened, on the refrigerator. “‘I liked the stamp,’” Edgers recalled Fischer telling him, explaining: “It was a Johnny Cash stamp.” (Disclosure: Edgers and I worked together at The Boston Phoenix in the mid-1990s. His wife, journalist Carlene Hempel, and I are colleagues at Northeastern University.)

Durlach said that the runners were “hesitant” about putting themselves forward when so many others had died or were wounded. “People were killed. Why do you want to spend time on my story?” is the way Durlach characterized their reaction.

Also joining the panelists was one of the five runners, Mary Jenkins of Ohio (spoiler alert: she’ll be running this year’s marathon), who said she will “probably be a basket case” during the race.

“It’s going to be hard, I think, Marathon Day, but I think it’s going to be exciting, too,” she said.

Edgers and Durlach plan to be at this year’s marathon as well. Their goal, they said, is to keep covering the story, and to expand “5 Runners” into an hour-long film.

The Boston Globe’s remarkable two days

Tsarnaev image

A massive investigation into the Tsarnaev family that casts into doubt the notion that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was the dupe of his older brother, Tamerlan. A harrowing two-part story on a supposed case of “medical child abuse” that raises serious questions about one of our most respected hospitals. And a feel-good story posted to Twitter that immediately goes viral.

It was quite a two days for The Boston Globe, starting with the Sunday edition and wrapping up Monday evening, when staff reporter Billy Baker’s tweets about a poor teenager getting accepted into Yale were cited by the likes of BuzzFeed and Piers Morgan.

It was the Tsarnaev package that has received the most attention. Reported by Sally Jacobs, David Filipov and Patricia Wen (Filipov, a former Moscow bureau chief for the Globe, visited Dagestan, where he learned of Tamerlan’s inept efforts to join an Islamist insurgency), the story provides the most thorough overview yet of a dysfunctional family dynamic that ultimately led the Tsarnaev brothers into terrorism.

The story defies summary. For me, the most fascinating takeaway is that Dzhokhar, far from being manipulated by Tamerlan, was himself an angry young man and a big-time pot dealer who was at the very least a co-equal of Tamerlan’s. With Tamerlan reportedly hearing voices and seemingly unable to make coherent plans, Dzhokhar may well have been the key to pulling off the Boston Marathon bombings.

Indeed, it was Dzhokhar, according to the Globe report, who downloaded an article in an Al Qaeda publication titled “Make a bomb in the kitchen of your mom.” No doubt this is the sort of thing we can expect to hear at Dzhokhar’s trial, especially if prosecutors seek the death penalty.

(And a quick word about the Boston Herald, which tries to claim that what the Globe published was a politically correct puff piece about the Tsarnaevs — see this, this and this. Just stop, OK? You’re embarrassing yourselves and exploiting the victims of the Tsarnaev brothers’ act of terrorism. At least Herald columnist Margery Eagan hasn’t taken leave of her senses.)

One final point: Even though the Globe published a special eight-page section for its Tsarnaev story, the package was most fully realized online, where it received the large-type/big-art treatment that has become known as the “Snow Fall” effect, after a pioneering New York Times multimedia story. The message is that, increasingly, newspapers are treating their print editions as a secondary medium — even as they continue to bring in most of the advertising revenue.

Abuse — or a terrible mistake?

If it hadn’t been for the Tsarnaev package, I imagine the big news of the week would be Neil Swidey and Patricia Wen’s report (here and here) about Justina Pelletier, a 14-year-old from Connecticut who was taken to Children’s Hospital with what had been diagnosed as a metabolic disorder.

Doctors at the hospital concluded that Justina was actually the victim of “medical child abuse” at the hands of her parents. They placed the girl in a locked psychiatric unit for months while they tried to figure out what to do next. It is a harrowing and horrifying story, and it’s difficult to know who’s right and who’s wrong. But there are some strong suggestions that Children’s made a terrible mistake:

  • Justina’s older sister had been diagnosed with a milder form of metabolic disease, yet was living at home with no apparent issues.
  • Justina’s condition did not improve in the absence of her parents.
  • Dr. Mark Korson, a Tufts physician who had provided the initial diagnosis, was treated with contempt by Children’s and not allowed to participate in Justina’s treatment.

One inescapable conclusion: If the people at Children’s now harbor doubts about their actions, they dare not admit it because of the legal and professional ramifications. The case is as yet unresolved, and I look forward to learning more.

Billy Baker’s tweets of hope

Finally, there is Billy Baker’s remarkable series of tweets, which he began after learning that George Huynh had been accepted into Yale. Baker profiled George and his older brother, Johnny, two years ago. They were both attending Boston Latin School and were determined to rise up despite the suicide of their father and the mental illness of their mother. It began as simply as this:

It turns out that Baker had stayed in touch with the Huynh brothers after his story was published and had become something of a mentor to them. The tweets tell a full, deeply moving story, ending with George’s smiling face.

I’m not sure Twitter is the best tool for narrative journalism, but Baker made it work. And he put a smile on everyone’s face just before Christmas.

Correction: I misspelled Swidey’s name in the original post.

Breaking news, social media and verification

Josh Stearns of Free Press and Catherine Cloutier of Boston.com
Josh Stearns of Free Press and Catherine Cloutier of Boston.com

Last Saturday I had the privilege of moderating a panel on “Covering Chaos,” a look at how nontraditional journalism and social media responded to the Boston Marathon bombings and the aftermath.

Panelists were three people who covered the events as they were unfolding, Andrew Ba Tran of Boston.com and Northeastern University students Taylor Dobbs and Brian D’Amico; Boston.com producer Catherine Cloutier; and Josh Stearns of Free Press, an expert on social media and verification.

It was a terrific event. Everyone, including me, learned a lot about best practices in reporting from the scene, in aggregation and curation, and in verifying the accuracy of on-the-ground reports in real time.

Cambridge Community Television, which organized the event, has posted a Storify by Cambridge media activist Saul Tannenbaum on our panel and the three that preceded it, which dealt with alternative online media in Cambridge, legal issues and new forms of digital storytelling.

In addition, Stearns, the hardest-working man in media reform, has published his keynote address as well as a blog post on misinformation and verification following the marathon bombings.

Photo (cc) by Christian Herold and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Panel to discuss citizen media and the marathon

This Saturday, May 4, I’ll be moderating a panel at the main branch of the Cambridge Public Library on how nontraditional journalism and citizen media responded to the Boston Marathon bombings. Titled “Covering Chaos,” the panel will be held from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m. and will include:

  • Josh Stearns, journalism and public media campaign director for the media-reform organization Free Press and an expert on verification and trust with regard to citizen media.
  • Taylor Dobbs, a journalism student at Northeastern University whose coverage at the finish line and again in Watertown was featured on the website Medium. Dobbs wrote about what he learned in a recent guest post for Media Nation.
  • Catherine Cloutier, a producer for Boston.com, the Boston Globe’s free website, which was a crucial source of information in the aftermath of the bombings. Cloutier was among those posting to the site’s live blog.

The panel will close an event being sponsored by Cambridge Community Television and other organizations called “Filling the News Gap in Cambridge and Beyond: Citizen Journalism and Grassroots Media.” It begins at 9 a.m. and looks like it should be well worth your time. More information here.

Two more for your must-read list

Eric Moskowitz’s Boston Globe interview with the Tsarnaev brothers’ carjacking victim is just astonishing — detailed, full of suspense (even though we know the outcome) and tautly written. And the Globe’s Kevin Cullen continues to show why he has emerged as the voice of the city following the Boston Marathon bombings.

Casting some doubt on the official marathon accounts

Boston Marathon bombing memorial at the Boston Common Gazebo

For the police — and for the public — last Friday was a day of fear, rage and confusion. So it takes nothing away from the work done by law-enforcement officials to point out that things didn’t go down exactly the way they were described in real time.

Three big stories today underscore that confusion. The most significant is in the Washington Post, which reports that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was probably unarmed when police fired on the boat in Watertown where he was hiding. They quote an anonymous official as saying that an officer may have accidentally fired his gun, setting off a fusillade.

Such a “fog of war” situation, as the Post describes it, is totally understandable. And yet, if authorities lost a chance to bring in a high-value terrorism suspect alive for questioning, it would have been a serious loss.

In the Boston Globe, a team of reporters quotes law enforcement as saying that it is now believed Tsarnaev’s neck wound came from flying shrapnel rather than a self-inflicted bullet wound, which fits in with the emerging theory that he was unarmed.

And from the New York Times we learn that the boat was actually inside the search perimeter, contradicting earlier reports. Again, not to second-guess the police, but it makes you wonder what sort of search they conducted during all those hours on Friday.

Journalists should approach the official account with skepticism, not cynicism. We need to know exactly what happened last week — including, of course, whether the Boston Marathon bombings can be attributed to a breakdown in intelligence-sharing among the CIA, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and other agencies, which is the main focus of the Globe article.

Photo (cc) by AnubisAbyuss and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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.

Moment of silence at Northeastern

Moment of silence

People gather on Centennial Common at Northeastern University moments before the 2:50 p.m. moment of silence commemorating the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

The Russian government’s literally incredible behavior

News Dissector Danny Schechter retweeted this blog post by former British diplomat Craig Murray, who questions the notion that the Russian government warned the United States of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s radicalism in 2010.

I will confess that I know nothing about Murray. But what he writes is the simple truth about the official story: After raising a warning flag about Tsarnaev, Russia allowed him into the country in 2012 and let him stay for six months, then leave again. Murray’s gloss on those facts also seems worth thinking about:

In 2012 Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who is of such concern to Russian security, is able to fly to Russia and pass through the airport security checks of the world’s most thoroughly and brutally efficient security services without being picked up. He is then able to proceed to Dagestan — right at the heart of the world’s heaviest military occupation and the world’s most far reaching secret police surveillance — again without being intercepted, and he is able there to go through some form of terror training or further Islamist indoctrination. He then flies out again without any intervention by the Russian security services.

Murray adds: “That is the official story and I have no doubt it did not happen.”

The New York Times today reports on Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s time in Dagestan. This passage pretty much sums up the paper’s findings:

During his six months in Makhachkala [the Dagestan capital], according to relatives, neighbors and friends, he did not seem like a man on a mission, or training for one. Rather, they said, he was more like a recent graduate who could not quite decide what to do with himself. He slept late, hung around at home, visited family and helped his father renovate a storefront.

We are at the very beginning of what is likely to be a long investigation. But these reports are relevant at a moment when — as the Boston Globe reports — Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are despicably calling for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be treated as an “enemy combatant,” and when Republicans are already describing the Boston Marathon bombings as a breakdown in intelligence.

Not only do we not know that, but early indications are that such irresponsible speculation is not in accord with the facts.