How TV Switched From Celebration To Terror

Boston's TV stations were on the story full time soon after of the detonations of two devices during yesterday's Boston Marathon. They went wall-to-wall with within minutes of the explosions and, after overnight breaks, started up again early this morning. Drawing on video from the affiliates and others, notably, the networks quickly got on board covering their explosions for the rest of the country and contributing supplemental reports, including President Obama's appearance Monday afternoon.

For much of the nation, the Boston Marathon bombings yesterday were another harsh reminder of the rampage killings and terrorist attacks that are plaguing the nation.

For Bostonians, the two near simultaneous explosions that killed three and maimed scores more were especially traumatic, turning a joyous annual holiday into scenes of carnage and panic in a matter of seconds.

The Big Four affiliates, with the support of their networks, responded accordingly.

They went wall-to-wall within minutes of the explosions and, after overnight breaks, started up again early this morning.

As the only station that airs the marathon itself, CBS-owned WBZ was in the best position. It had 100 or so news staffers working on marathon coverage at one point or another. Anchor Jonathan Elias and photographer Bryan Foley were at the scene when the bombs went off. Foley captured some of the first footage while helping to remove barriers so first responders could reach the wounded.

The marathon is a “signature event” for the city,” said WBZ News Director John Verrilli. “You’re ending the day on what you think is a real up note and an hour later the whole world changes.”


Reporters from Hearst’s ABC affiliate WCVB rallied instantly, reporting news as they got it using whatever they had, including the station’s website and Twitter.

Fox-owned WFXT photographer Matt Tomlin, who was about 100 feet from the blast, went on-air with his eyewitness account of the explosions. Anchor Maria Stephanos was just walking away from the finish line, where she and her two children had been positioned to watch her husband finish the race, when the bombs went off. She took a picture before gathering her family, and getting them to safety. She called in a story on her way back to the station.

WFXT’s efforts quickly expanded, with Mark Ockerbloom and Maria Stephanos leading the coverage until 11:30 p.m. The station chopper was above the scene until officials limited airspace. Reporters from the group’s WTXF Philadelphia and WNYW New York went to Boston to help cover the event.

Drawing on video from the affiliates and others, notably, the networks quickly got on board covering the explosions for the rest of the country and contributing supplemental reports, including President Obama’s appearance in Washington Monday afternoon.

ABC went on-air around 3:15 p.m. ET and stayed on for three hours, taking a short break until World News began at 7:30 p.m., according to a spokeswoman. World News did a second live broadcast for its West Coast newscast. Terry Moran anchored Nightline live from Boston. Good Morning America produced two live shows this morning, one for each coast.

CBS extended its evening newscast to 8 p.m. and then returned to its regularly scheduled primetime programming, starting with How I Met Your Mother. NBC and ABC ended their extended evening newscast at 7:30.

In New York, the NBC and ABC O&Os mounted another half hour of local news at 7:30 dedicated to the bombing before giving way to primetime at 8. The New York Fox O&O, WNYW, opted to simulcast coverage from its sister station in Boston, WFXT.

The New York stations sent reporters to Boston and had them on the street in time for their late newscasts.

ABC was able to ease the transition to entertainment since its 8 p.m. offering — Dancing with the Stars — airs live. Host Tom Bergeron expressed his sympathy at the start of the show:”Our thoughts are with everyone in Boston tonight.”

While CBS and ABC stuck with regular programming at 10 p.m., NBC was back with an hour of news anchored by Brian Williams. They had little new to add to the story beyond some first-hand accounts.

One came from Alycia Lane, a KNBC Los Angeles anchor who happened to be in Boston to support a friend who was in the race. She was in a restaurant when the bombs went off and did not snap into reporter mode. She stayed on the sideline. Her story might have been that of thousands of other visitors caught up in the terror.

Industry observers praised TV stations’ work covering the explosions, most notably for erring on the side of caution by not broadcasting information without vetting it first or emphasizing information’s status as unconfirmed.

The networks were not completely without fault on that score, however.

In the immediate aftermath, CBS reported that authorities had recovered a third unexploded bomb and discussed several times how it would help authorities track down the perpetrators. But the report later proved wrong.

“There were no unexploded devices found,” Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said this morning.

University of Missouri Journalism Professor Barbara Cochran noted that the networks relied particularly heavily on the affiliates for coverage, which demonstrates the strides stations have made in covering crises.

Noting that this month marks the anniversaries of several other tragic manmade events — Columbine, the Oklahoma City bombing and Virginia Tech shootings — Cochran said TV stations have obviously learned from past mistakes, which ranged from them showing the movements of swat teams moving into the Columbine school where the shootings took place to hypothesizing on who was behind the Oklahoma City blast.

“What you saw was experienced journalists and well run news departments with deep familiarity with their communities doing the very best job possible under terrible circumstances,” she said.

RTDNA Executive Director Mike Cavender echoed Cochran’s sentiments, saying he, too, while being “glued to the TV” noticed broadcasters “seemed particularly cautious and rightly so.”

“I felt particularly good about not only the depth of this coverage, but the balance of caution versus hard information that the viewer was receiving,” Cavender said.

While stations have disaster plans, they only go so far, he cautioned.

“Having done this for 25 years I will tell you that while those are good and you need to have those in place, it’s nothing like when the situation really happens. “

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Christina Perez says:

April 16, 2013 at 9:01 am