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Media Literacy Review
Center for Advanced Technology in Education - College of Education - University of Oregon - Eugene

Gettting the Story First . . . Maybe Right

Bill Walsh, Contributing Writer
E-Mail: WillWalsh@aol

I did not, of course, witness the actual bomb blast at the Olympic Park last Friday night, but I WAS up watching TV at that time and DID manage to catch the live TV coverage of that awful event. And for those of us who watch the media work, it was fascinating.

I was channel-surfing at 1:30 AM. Jerry Springer (who was doing a show on prostitutes) had just gone to a commercial, so I was flicking the remote, trying to see what else was on. That's how I came upon CNN's coverage of the explosion barely 10 minutes after the actual event.

Atlanta right now probably contains the greatest concentration of live TV technology and more reporters than any city in the world, national and international coverage for the Olympics. I look forward to quick and accurate coverage. That hope ended by 1:30 AM, when a CNN producer on the scene reports that "millions of people are running up the street." Hyperbole and exaggeration. It is not to be the last of it.

Within the first 15 minutes, CNN has obtained a video clip of a German TV crew interviewing some Olympic swimmer at the precise moment the explosion shook the earth and broke glass in the background. I watch as the Olympic swimmer runs for cover and as the reporter and cameraman run outside, towards the explosion. The reporter is asking the cameraman the most important question a reporter can ask while covering a developing story - "Are we on?"

CNN (obviously proud of having obtained the clip) shows it three times within the first half hour.

I switch over to NBC. Because they had been covering the Olympics, they have camera crews on the ground and at the site, and they show live pictures of the victims writhing on the ground, tending their own cuts and scrapes or being treated by paramedics. I am angry about the ethics and appropriateness of this. But it's live coverage.

Within the first half hour, NBC reports the rumor that a trash can had exploded. Or maybe it was a transformer. No one is willing to SAY that it was a bomb, but the talk often turns to security issues.

One reporter, tongue-tied (or still in shock) is trying to say that security was taking no chances. Halfway through the sentence, he decides to say that they were taking every precaution. What he winds up saying is that "they are taking absolutely no precautions."

For the first hour or so, both CNN and NBC are showing any images they can get and reporting any scrap of information they can lay their hands on. The Associated Press reports, we are told, 150 - 200 injuries. One reporter says that there is "blood running down the street." It turns out both of those pieces of information are somewhat overstated.

Trying to be the first with a breaking story leads other reporters to make stupid statements or ask stupid questions. One of them reports breathlessly that "the alleged trash can was next to the tower." Alleged trash can? Another grabs an eyewitness for an interview. Question: "What did the explosion sound like?" Answer: "It was a loud bang."

Shortly after 2 AM, a NBC cameraman staggers onto the makeshift set from where NBC is trying to cover the story. He gives his firsthand account of the police telling him and his partner to move away from a suspicious package on the ground. He looks clearly shaken. His partner was injured, and in an unusual (but touching and responsible) display of sensitivity, he says he doesn't want to give the name of his partner - in case his buddy's family is watching the coverage.

By 2:20, Tom Brokaw is on the air. One hour is not bad time for NBC to have found Brokaw, awakened him, gotten him dressed and prepped, transported to the site and on the air. The two other networks are still running their usual late-night fare; they still haven't even responded to the story.

Brokaw tries to caution the audience that what they're seeing is "unedited footage," as we're shown injured people on the ground and folks being carried to ambulances. He reports that there are four dead - so says someone who works for the coroner's office. It later turns out that THIS piece of information is also incorrect.

CNN has an interview with the band's sound engineer, who says that he found the suspicious-looking package, looked inside, reported it to police, and then watched them look inside. There's another interview with a band member. CNN shows the footage from the German camera crew a few more times.

I switch between stations, not only tying to see who is saying what (trying to get the story), but paying attention to HOW each is covering the tragedy.

Two hours after the explosion, CBS and ABC are on the air, but they're basically reporting old information. CBS says that there's some footage from a German camera crew "that we're trying to obtain." By this time, I've already seen it six times on CNN.

By 3:15, Robert Gee - a tourist who actually captured the explosion on videotape - is sitting there at the CNN anchor desk and they're running HIS dramatic video footage again and again. I wonder if he has an agreement with CNN already; CNN describes the footage as "exclusive" and Gee's name is prominently displayed every time they run the tape.

At 3:45 AM, CNN reports that they heard from a policeman (who heard it on his police radio) that there are two more "explosive devices" in the park. It becomes clear later that this is inaccurate.

By about 4:00 AM, most of the coverage has calmed down. CNN and NBC have sent reporters to the various hospitals to report on the conditions of the victims and try to interview the doctors treating them. They're starting to decrease the numbers of deaths and injuries, and the interviews with eyewitnesses are taking on a sameness that's less newsworthy than before.

It WAS interesting to watch, certainly. From the initial reports of "millions of people" running through the blood-soaked streets to more accurate reporting of exactly what happened. From an intial hesitancy to call the explosion a bomb through the accumulation of tiny pieces of testimony and evidence that it indeed was one.

NBC had better pictures of their own, but (after all), they had camera crews all over the Olympics anyway. CNN obtained better footage from outside sources. Both networks did their share of reporting rumors and exaggeration before the story finally began to get clear.

None of this is meant to be critical. Although I've never been THAT close to a deadly explosion, I can understand shock. And the burning desire (need?) to be there FIRST with the best information available. I think that individual reporters are to be forgiven their errors (which were probably made in the midst of panic, pressure and genuine fear).

It was - in the space of a few hours - a telling example of the best and the worst in live coverage of a tragic event. And it remains a valuable lesson to all of us who are reaching towards a greater understanding of the news media and how they work - both good and bad.

It's just the way it is. At least for now . . .

Bill Walsh is the A/V Media Specialist at Billerica High School, Billerica, MA.