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.