On April 15, 2013, two bombs exploded during the Boston Marathon, resulting in the death of three people and injuring approximately 264 other spectators. The explosions occurred 13 seconds apart, and in close proximity to the finish line of the race. The investigation was conducted by the FBI, and three days later they released pictures as well as video taken by surveillance cameras of the two suspects, two brothers from Chechnya. Soon after the release of the images on the video, the brothers were identified and a massive search began. They allegedly shot a police officer at MIT, carjacked an SUV, and exchanged fire in a police battle occurring in Watertown, Massachusetts. During the gunfire, one police officer was shot but survived and the older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, was hit by police gunfire and died after being run over by his brother, Dzhokhar, as he was fleeing in the stolen vehicle.
An intensive manhunt followed on April 19, involving hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officials who searched a 20-block part of Watertown; during the search, residents of the town as well as surrounding areas were asked to stay inside their houses. The entire public transit system as well as most businesses and public institutions were closed, resulting in an abandoned section of urban territory that was historically unprecedented. That evening, a resident of the town found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, injured and nearly unconscious, hiding in a boat located in his yard. The suspect was arrested and hospitalized soon afterwards.
The Boston Marathon Bombing was characterized by tremendous media coverage, and its merits were debated in regards to whether or not it helped or hindered various aspects of the case. For example, one study conducted after the attacks measured the symptoms of acute stress that were reported by people who either attended the event, had loved ones there, or had simply watched the event through repeated media exposure (Hansen-Bundy, 2013.) The results showed that the people who had been “glued” to the media coverage were more stressed-out than the other groups, and the conclusion was that the intensive and repeated exposure caused the stress of the event to remain active and alive in their mental processes. It was felt that constant media exposure to graphic images created more ruminating or habitual worrying, even subconsciously (Hansen-Bundy, 2013.)
By contrast, the media role in helping dissemination of information during the emergency response part of the crisis appeared to be a positive one. Social media as well as traditional media were utilized by the city of Boston; for example, the city effectively coordinated communication across all different social media outlets, verifying factual information and dispelling rumors (Top Five Social Media and Communications Learn from Boston Marathon Bombings, 2013.) The sharing of information as well as rumors are usually exaggerated by social media, such as in the Boston case, when messages that there were “five unexploded bombs found”, “suspect in custody,” and other rumors were contradicted by officials from the Boston police and fire departments. In this way, both social and traditional media were hopeful to clarify facts.
The investigation of the incident as well as the manhunt was largely considered to be a mainstream media disaster for many outlets. For example, on the day of the bombing, CNN told its viewers that a suspect in the Marathon attack had been identified and taken into federal custody, which was not correct. The Associated Press and Boston Globe also publicized this misinformation before they were challenged by NBC, and had to rescind their stories (Moynihan, 2013.) Three days later, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times claimed that other bombs had been discovered along the route of the marathon. There was also a great deal of misinformation as well as shocking stories about the alleged suspect of the bombing, such as when the New York Post reported that a Saudi man who had been injured in the bomb blast was actually a suspect. Other examples of media irresponsibility involved journalists hounding the victim and his neighbors, claiming that he was a “person of interest,” inflating the death count of the tragedy, and possibly the worst outrage: the New York Post publishing a picture of two men who were allegedly suspects, including incorrect names, who turned out to be completely uninvolved in anything pertaining to the attack (Strasser, 2013.)
In general, the media plays a tremendous role as a force multiplier for terrorists; in the case of the Boston Marathon Bombings, there can be no doubt that the intensive coverage and its duration dramatically increased the effectiveness of such terrorist activities. The case was broadcast nonstop through every media outlet, print, broadcast and electronic, and people watched it in real time with increasing shock and horror. The suspects had their names plastered all over the media for days, then weeks, so that if people are looking to optimize their ability to frighten the public and gain notoriety, this formula could not have been more successful.
The debate between the public’s right to know and operational security is a complex one, especially in regards to a case like the Boston Marathon Bombings. On one hand, it would be important to keep information secret that might compromise the investigation. However, in this case, the widespread media coverage may ultimately have played an important role in solving the case, because once the pictures and videos were broadcast, the suspects were identified relatively quickly. In addition, the whereabouts of the suspects were followed and tracked closely because average citizens were able to inform law enforcement officials about where they were, such as the person in whose backyard and boat the surviving suspect was found. In my opinion, the public’s right to know does not take precedence over the importance of operational security, and in the Boston case, although the flow of information was excessive in the beginning, ultimately the information released by the police helped to bring resolution to the case in their arrest of the suspect. Law enforcement utilized the public for their own purposes in identifying and catching Tsarnaev.
- Hansen-Bundy, B. (2013, December 9). Study: Watching Wall-To-Wall Coverage of Boston Marathon Bombings Was More Stressful Than Being There. Retrieved from Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com/mojo/2013/12/study-media-coverage-boston-marathon-sandy-hook-newtown-trauma
- Moynihan, M. (2013, April 18). Boston Marathon Bombings Media Errors Pile up, As Does the Outrage. Retrieved from The Daily Beast: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/04/18/boston-marathon-bombing-media-errors-pile-up-as-does-the-outrage.html
- Strasser, A. (2013, April 17). How the Media Keeps Screwing up Coverage of the Boston Marathon Bombings. Retrieved from Think Progress: http://thinkprogress.org/media/2013/04/17/1883101/boston-marathon-arrest/
- Top Five Social Media and Communications Learned from Boston Marathon Bombings. (2013). Retrieved from Rave Mobile Safety: http://www.ravemobilesafety.com/bostonmarathon/