Did the Media Botch the Boston Bombing?

The 24/7 news cycle means nonstop coverage and some inaccurate reporting along the way.

Surveillance footage of brothers Dzhokhar, left, and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the alleged Boston Marathon bombers.
By + More

The manhunt for the surviving suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings continues Friday with many media outlets providing nonstop coverage and live updates on the situation. People around the country have been able to watch the drama unfold in real time, which some say does nothing to aid authorities in their search.After identifying two suspects believed to be responsible for Monday's bombings at the marathon, authorities killed Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, overnight in a confrontation. Residents of Boston woke up Friday to a storm of media coverage recapping the night's events and following the police hunt for the remaining suspect, Tsarnaev's brother, 19-year-old Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev.The city and surrounding suburbs were effectively shut down, with officials urging residents to remain inside with their doors locked. People were encouraged to stay off the roads and mass transit service was suspended.Authorities asked the media to stop reporting on police movements in order to prevent the suspect from obtaining information about the in-progress manhunt; the Federal Aviation Administration prevented news helicopters from stopping over the area where the suspect was potentially hiding. Feeds on two websites playing police scanner audio stopped working midday, as much of the chatter overheard there was reported all morning on Twitter.[ See a collection of editorial cartoons on the Boston Marathon bombings.]During the unfolding investigation, the media was criticized for jumping to conclusions and making inaccurate reports in an effort to be the first with information. The 24-hour news cycle means steep competition amongst cable networks, all eager to be the first with the scoop. The confusion surrounding the unfolding search for suspects in the bombing led to unfounded reports of a Saudi national being a "person of interest" in the case, as well as incorrect reports of more explosive devices planted elsewhere in Boston.CNN was also slammed for prematurely reporting an arrest had been made; following the incident the FBI issued this statement:

Contrary to widespread reporting, no arrest has been made in connection with the Boston Marathon attack. Over the past day and a half, there have been a number of press reports based on information from unofficial sources that has been inaccurate. Since these stories often have unintended consequences, we ask the media, particularly at this early stage of the investigation, to exercise caution and attempt to verify information through appropriate official channels before reporting.[ Blog Buzz: Boston Bombing Manhunt Locks Down City]Rather than calming the public by keeping them abreast of breaking developments, Annie-Rose Strasser at Think Progress said the nonstop coverage can actually have the opposite effect:

There are plenty of good things that can come out of real-time news reports in the wake of a tragedy, even if some of those reports prove wrong. But when the incident involves terror felt at a national level, inaccurate reports can terrorize the community even further. The predisposition of news organizations to place blame at the feet of Muslims, Arabs, or any given "dark skinned individual" can lead to false reports, unnecessary suspicions, and the accusation of a group of people, writ large, with no specifics to identify the real suspect.But U.S. News's Susan Milligan said the obsessive media coverage does actually reassure the public:

It can be helpful, even oddly comforting, for the public to see an event unfold in real time. But it can also hinder a strategy or investigation, while putting on authorities the added pressure of meeting what may be unrealistic expectation by an American public used to seeing crimes and international conflicts resolved neatly and justly in the space of an hour-long TV show or two-hour movie …  But what is remarkable about the compulsive attention the media and the public are paying to the crisis is that this time, at least, outside involvement appears to be helping.