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Lessons Learned From The Media's Coverage Of Boston Bombing


Let's return now to our main story, and that's the end of the intensive manhunt for one of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings. U.S. news outlets have been racing to meet the demands of full-time coverage and in the process, have sometimes reported details that turned out to be wrong or incomplete to try to be the first with breaking news.

NPR's media correspondent, David Folkenflik, has been watching and reading the coverage and joins us now. David, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: From the time of the bombings on Monday, it seemed that a lot of the coverage contained speculation about possible perpetrators and motives that in many cases, turned out to be just plain wrong.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, I mean look, you know, we want a media that's instantaneous, and we get a media that's incredibly messy. So you're seeing a lot of coverage evolve and merge in real time, and you're seeing it on the air. And this is a lesson we've learned far too many times, in some pretty serious ways - in the shootings at Newtown, and the coverage of the Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare, in our case in the shooting of Rep. Gabby Giffords in Arizona.

You know, so many reports are going to be wrong, and so many times even reports from official sources are going to be wrong. But this was a pretty special case. There was - on Monday, on the day of the bombing itself at the marathon, there was an instance on MSNBC that was pretty representative involving Chris Matthews. I think we have that tape here.


FOLKENFLIK: Right, it could be anything, or it could be none of those things. That's a pretty large universe of options there. There was a lot of speculation about that. I mean, there - you saw some people attempting to signal to listeners and readers and viewers that this was speculation. But, you know, that was pretty problematic as in a broad sweep, you're indicting a lot of people of a philosophy that had, it may turn out, nothing to do with this.

You know, there was a second category, too. You saw on CNN, John King reported - and this was really troubling - that there was - authorities were focusing on, quote, "a dark-skinned man." And I think we have a cut of that as well.


FOLKENFLIK: Well, that covers a lot of people on this earth and a lot of people in Greater Boston, and it really is of no use whatsoever to citizens, to law-enforcement officials. You know, it could be somebody who's Dominican or a Sikh - or of any kind of descent that you could imagine. And it was not helpful and also, it does not really appear to have been true.

I'm not saying that sources didn't tell him that. I'm saying that you can exercise some editorial discretion and authority at that time, and CNN failed to do that there - I think to their great regret, at this time.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the New York Post, too. They put the pictures of a couple people on their very prominent front page who turned out to be totally innocent.

FOLKENFLIK: Right, you had the picture of these guys, and the headline on it was "Bag Men." And of course, we had the scenes on Monday, you had all these shots of law-enforcement authorities going through backpacks left along the route of the tail end of the marathon, trying to make sure that there weren't additional explosive devices in them.

The idea of these guys being bag men meant that maybe these guys were the bombers themselves. And in fact, what it turned out was they weren't - had nothing to do with it. The New York Post said, well, we never called them suspects. But in fact, when you have one of the nation's 10 largest newspapers pointing the finger at them because a photograph was passed between two federal law-enforcement officials, in reality you're indicating a great degree of guilt. I think that was a pretty shameful episode, and an indefensible one.

SIMON: David, at the same time, it seems to me in all the welter of journalism, there was some very good stuff done, too, this week.

FOLKENFLIK: Yeah, you know, just as in those first moments during the bombing, you saw first-responders race to take care of people who had been injured and maimed; so, too, you saw people, particularly among the local media, doing an extraordinary job to sort of fact and fiction.

You know, the media can serve both as a check on authority and also as a channel of information, a funnel of useful data for people at a time of incredible crisis. I think in Boston, local media often - you know, and television, particularly derided - came through in an important way in this very troubling week.

SIMON: NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik, thanks so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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