Terror and the template of disaster journalism

By Jack Shafer
April 16, 2013

Natural disasters, airline crashes — and yes, terrorist bombs — undercut the normalcy of everyday life by bringing death’s whammy to an unexpected place at an unforeseen time. In the hours and days following such catastrophes, journalists work to restore normalcy to the panicked population by explaining how and why the bad thing happened and how to prevent it from happening again. Reporters have been normalizing the abnormal for so long that they’ve created well-worn catastrophe templates to convey their stories. Yesterday, while covering the Boston Marathon bombing, journalists leaned hard again on those templates.

First came the sputtering dispatches over radio and television about the calamity. Next up were the on-the-scene broadcast reports, frequently marred by confusion and contradiction, as the press held out hope for survivors but prepared audiences for the worst. Video of the catastrophe was converted by the cable news networks into a perpetual loop, giving the talking heads a wallpaper background to talk over  (and giving new viewers just tuning in something graphic to watch).

Then came the eyewitness accounts, telling of a big bang and the second big bang, testimony that transported more emotion than data. Not that that’s a bad thing: Since the first storytellers competed around the fire, emotion has coexisted with data in the service of narrative. Nobody wants a story composed exclusively of numbers or of feelings. Then came additional video and photos, early body count estimates, speculation and the refinement of facts mined and edited through the early evening and into the night.

The ur-template for yesterday and today’s reporting on the bombing belongs to newsrooms located in the latitudes where hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes and floods abound. As long as there have been natural disasters and the occasional train wreck or dam bursting to cover, newsroom assignment desks have excelled at breaking mass human tragedy into its component parts and applying the principles of the division of labor to the work. The dead and injured are treated as a medical story — reporters are sent to hospitals to tabulate the number of casualties; cases of mistaken identity are solved, often to much horror; editors send journalists to city hall and the cop shops to report the government response; profile writers are assigned to write pieces about the victims, the survivors and their families; reporters find the technical experts who can explain the science or mechanics behind the disaster; and because every tragedy has an antecedent, somebody gets to excavate the old clips and distill a history lesson from them.

Only slight modifications to the traditional disaster templates have been necessary to cover modern horrors where the primary perpetrators are human killers, not low-pressure weather systems or fractured hydraulic systems: the World Trade Center attacks (Parts 1 and 2); the Tokyo sarin gas attack; the Moscow theater siege; the Oklahoma City bombing; the Unabomber detonations; the anthrax attacks; the Mumbai massacre; the 1996 Olympics bombing; mass shootings; and the attacks in London, Bali and Madrid. Blood-red pavement no longer denotes an accident scene or a disaster area — it’s now a crime scene that must be quarantined and studied for clues. And instead of phoning meteorologists or geologists for explanation, the press calls on new sources to fill the “expert” modules in their stories: Munitions specialists explain how pressure-cooker bombs are constructed; scientists demonstrate how spores are aerosolized; criminologists describe how surveillance recordings are distilled for evidence; and forensic experts delineate how they uncover a bomb maker’s signature.

Pressing this template over a terrorist act helps journalists report the news quickly, but it also produces a sameness of coverage. Writing in the Washington Post after the man-made disaster of the Aurora,Colorado, theater shootings, Monica Hesse charted the routinization of coverage: Newscasters desperate to be first end up correcting their own early goofs on air, the perpetrator’s Facebook page is uncovered and it chills us, the president makes a statement and so does the loyal opposition, we promise to “hold our children closer tonight”; heroes emerge; and journalists cover the funerals. It’s a cake that almost bakes itself.

Thanks to social media, the cake is starting to come in new flavors. Twitter, Instagram, Vine and Flickr all acquitted themselves as news-collection mediums yesterday, with both professional and amateur journalists creating and sharing unfiltered news in real time. Foursquare’s co-founder, Dennis Crowley, live-Tweeted from the bombing, while Boston-based journalist Seth Mnookin fed a real-time transcript of police scanner news into his Twitter account. Folks with Flickr accounts became instant Zapruders by posting their photos of the Boston carnage online. Social media gathered so much rich material that even the big media boys and girls at PBS, ABC News, People (what celebrities are Tweeting!) and other outlets aggregated their content. And finally, the Washington Post‘s Erik Wemple christened Twitter journalism’s electronic ombudsman for its role in refuting faulty reports and for reminding people not to believe everything they heard or read.

The disaster template isn’t discarded after the cause of the disaster is discovered or people start forgetting about the tragedy. As you read this, the keepers of the template are already modifying it to capture the ongoing terror narrative. Where next will the bomber — or those inspired by him — strike? Isn’t the London Marathon scheduled for this Sunday?

******

Send correspondence to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. Consider following my Twitter feed. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns.

PHOTO: Runners continue to run towards the finish line of the Boston Marathon as an explosion erupts near the finish line of the race in this photo exclusively licensed to Reuters by photographer Dan Lampariello after he took the photo in Boston, Massachusetts, April 15, 2013.  REUTERS/Dan Lampariello

2 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Did you actually read the Twitter coverage? It was Social Media at its worst, a confusing mess of conjecture, confirmed facts and bizarre stupid commentary. There’s nothing worse when trying to sort through a confusing situation than seeing a discussion pop up about whether the Globe should drop its paywall for the afternoon; or to see egghead NYU professors ponder whether we’re contributing to a climate of fear. It’s like watching a bunch of children clamor for attention and it only adds to this silly scoop culture we’ve cultivated.
The boilerplate disaster journalism we’ve developed IS repetitive and often boring, but I don’t see social media doing anything to improve it.

Posted by NewsHound58 | Report as abusive

Not sure what you would do differently. I know I would like less repetition and more talking to think-tank experts who study and know a lot about current terrorism tactics, such as single-cell operators, etc., but other than providing more depth and intelligent reporting on more tangents, I’m loathe to criticize as I’m not sure how else they should cover it. The main problem may be how to fill hours and hours of ongoing, endless coverage. News channels are a new phenom, and that could be a big part of the template-ness of the reporting, that filling all those hours and trying to keep it fresh.

Posted by Lawyerjourno | Report as abusive