Networks Cautious in Boston Bombing Coverage After Recent Mistakes

Brian Williams NBC Nightly News Boston Marathon Screengrab - H 2013

Brian Williams NBC Nightly News Boston Marathon Screengrab - H 2013

The day after two bombs turned America’s oldest marathon into what eyewitnesses describe as a “war zone,” the media has shifted focus to the investigation into the blasts that killed three and injured nearly 200 – many with horrific injuries that required leg amputations.

But mistakes that plagued coverage of recent tragedies including the mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater last summer and the Jan. 2011 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords seemed top of mind among anchors and producers covering the Boston Marathon bombings on Monday and Tuesday.

STORY: Boston Marathon Bombing: Networks Report Three Dead, 144-Plus Injured

“The key is to be precise about what we know and what we don’t know,” said Rachel Maddow, who scrambled to get to Boston on Monday afternoon even as New York airports temporarily grounded all flights. “You don’t want be forcibly ignorant when something is obvious and having your viewers be very far ahead of you in terms of what seems clear.”

Many news organizations resisted attributing the blasts along two points near the finish line to bombs until Boston authorities released a statement of confirmation. And reports about a Saudi national who was injured in the blast being a person of interest in the investigation was met with strenuous pushback from law enforcement representatives who stressed that the man was being questioned as a witness not a suspect.

But President Obama’s resistance on Monday to call the bombings terrorism – which has become a hot-button word for the administration in the wake of Benghazi – fueled a blogosphere backlash. 

STORY: Boston Marathon Bombing: Obama Says 'We Will Find Out Who Did This and Hold Them Responsible'

“I definitely saw online yesterday this sort of self indulgent and stupid criticism about whether or not the word terror was used in the appropriate context and how it was conjugated,” notes Maddow. “The idea that terror is something magic that makes us do something more than we would do if we didn’t call it terror is bullshit. It’s demagoguery that’s left over form the 2004 era where people wanted to take political advantage of the issue of terrorism by portraying people as soft on terror.”

On his Fox News program Monday night Bill O'Reilly criticized the president for calling the attacks a "tragedy." "It was not," said O'Reilly. "It was a vile act of violence designed to kill innocent people including children."

One of the victims was 8-year-old Martin Richard, whose father was running the race.

By the time the president embraced the work terror in a late morning briefing on Tuesday - "Any time bombs are used to target innocent civilians it is an act of terror," he said - some were calling it damage control.

Indeed, many news organizations had already conceded that the attack was an act of terrorism. NBC Nightly News and CBS This Morning both used “Terror in Boston” as on-air graphics; Nightly on Monday night and CTM Tuesday morning during an interview with Rudy Giuliani, who was mayor of New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.