What does the Boston bomb attack reveal about the American media?

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Andy Tay Kah Ping's picture

What does the Boston bomb attack reveal about the American media?

The Boston bombing resulted in four fatalities and afflicted many more with injuries varying from minor cuts to permanent disabilities. The immediate response to the attack was not an outpour of sympathy but strings of conspiracy theories, suggesting the culpability of potential culprits like religious extremists, North Korea and even the American government.1 While the media have always been avenues for making irresponsible conjectures, the astonishing speed at which these conjectures emerge reflects a worrying lack of control and selectivity in the American media. The Boston bombing also demonstrated the enthusiasm of the media in providing assistance such as appealing for eye witnesses to investigators.2 Unfortunately, much of this ‘evidence’ presented by the media was biased against the Arabs, perpetuating discrimination against this ethnic group.3,4 In addition, although the American media has been exceptionally productive in providing updates on the bomb attack, their achievements came at the price of compromised accuracies.5 Collectively, these observations reflect the incongruence between the values displayed by the America media and the founding beliefs of America. America prides itself on being a world-class nation which embraces diversity and where people are treated equally regardless of their races, religions and nationalities.6 It is therefore significant to understand how the media has derailed America from its fundamental beliefs and what can be done to align the values between America and its media.

The Helpful Media

The print and online media play important roles in providing critical news to nurture informed readers. The social media was especially useful for news agencies and their readers to share the latest developments of the bombing incident. This allowed Americans and international readers to keep abreast of the bombing news. Media professionals and increasingly citizen journalists have demonstrated their capabilities to evoke public responses by reporting on events such as terrorism7 and the Boston bomb attack was not an opportunity they miss covering. Their use of sensational languages congregated a strong army of audience who felt and spoke for the victims, and prompted donation drives for the victims.8 The media also played crucial role in motivating Boston. It published articles about Boston city’s resilience from Harvard professors which urge Americans to stay united to overcome this disaster.9 Investigations were also able to proceed swiftly as the media provided platforms for investigators to reach out to eye witnesses for clues. Undeniably, the American media played constructive role in sharing information and motivating the Boston city.

The Inaccurate Media

Unfortunately, the media overly zealous attitude in news updates compromised the accuracies of their reports. For instance, news emerged that arrest was made although the culprits were still on their run. When one news agency released this piece of news, it spun off a series of mimicry as its competitors did not want to lose out on viewership. Consequently, investigators had to urge the media to verify their information before releasing them to avoid misleading the public and hindering investigation efforts.5 Fox News Channel hit an alarming 1.7 million total-day average views after the bomb attack and together with CNN, were highlighted as the most destructive news agencies which have been blinded by their race to achieve the highest viewership. These same two corporations have notorious reputation for erroneous coverage as they were complicit in misreporting the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obama healthcare laws too.10 Therefore while speedy updates have the benefit of nurturing informed audience, the American media’s distorted reports have substantially devalued the information their audience received.

The Discriminating Media

The American media have also unjustly perpetuated the image of Arabs and Muslims as terrorists in their coverage of the Boston bombing. For instance, Fox News hosted an interview with Frank Gaffney, an anti-Islamist advocate, after the attack.11 Research has confidently shown that since the 911 attacks, a huge population of America Arabs has suffered from backslashes such as violent hate crimes and isolation in public areas and workplaces.12 The media has also been proven responsible in propagating negative images of innocent Arabs as dangerous extremists that the public should avoid or punish. The public images constructed by the media were so powerful that they persisted years after the 911 attack. In fact, the undoing by the media has created public stigma for Arab Americans who experienced provocative rhetoric after the Boston bombing13 and community stigma as many Arab Americans expressed fears of potential backslashes and hoped that the suspects belong to other ethnic group14. By portraying grossly inaccurate images of different ethnic groups, the media is thus guilty of creating and propagating social injustice and stigma that could also discourage the innocent Arab Americans to seek help for discrimination against them.13

The Biased Media

An analysis on news reports by the American media also reveals a disturbing trend termed ‘the hierarchy of deaths’ where the value of lives differ based on nationalities.15,16 Disasters with larger death tolls such as the earthquake in Sichuan China, bombings in Iraq and massacre in Syria which collectively killed more than 400 people were given less coverage than the Boston attack although these four incidents happened around the same time. Arguably, disasters such as earthquakes and bomb attacks are not too uncommon in the aforementioned developing nations and as these foreign incidents do not have as much impact on the lives of ordinary Americans, the media has valid incentive to report less on them. While the importance of viewership to the news industry cannot be ignored, so does the fundamental role of the media to provide teachable lessons to society. Therefore, by focusing primarily on the Boston bombing, the American media have not only desensitised Americans to external tragedies and caused compassion fatigue in the nation17, but have also missed out an invaluable opportunity to educate the American society on the true value of humanity and the importance of care for all mankind.

The Culpable Media

Lastly, the media’s portrayal of the Tsarnaev brothers as ‘sophisticated’ terrorists18 might perversely encourage similar attacks by like-minded individuals who relish the label of ‘sophistication’. In his book titled ‘Daily News, External Stories’, Lule argues that the media makes use of common myths such as heroes and victims to tell news stories.19 Words like ‘strategic’ and ‘intelligent’ which characterise ‘heroes’ were heavily used by the media to describe the planning of the bomb attacks. Lule argues that the use of ‘hero’ myths could help the audience make sense of traumatic events such as the Boston bombing.19 However, the inappropriate use of this depiction is dangerous as it might spin off similar attacks and unfairly channel the audience’s focus away from the sufferings of the victims.20 The media hence needs to better balance the costs and benefits of misusing myths in its news stories to avoid any unintended consequences.

The Costs of an Irresponsible Media

An irresponsible media might threaten the homeland security of America by encouraging the growth of homegrown radicals.21 This could deepen the sense of insecurity among Americans, prompting the government to toughen its security policies such as the Patriot Act22 and encouraging citizens to purchase arms for self-protection23,24. Through misreporting and fuelling uncertainty, the American media could also adversely affect the American economy which has just overcome its nadir.25 The attractiveness of America as a diverse and safe nation would also be questioned, discouraging the inflow and retention of talents due to worries over security and discrimination.26 The effects of the American media’s irresponsible coverage on international audience should not be neglected as well. As the American media has huge cultural influence on other countries as a consequence of the common practice of news purchasing due to rising costs of hiring foreign correspondents27, it is worrisome that their mistakes of being inaccurate and biased could propagate globally28. Therefore, greater internal and external media regulation would be beneficial. Governmental regulation is challenging, particularly in America where the media wields powerful tools to influence voters. Therefore to encourage media self-censorship, grassroots efforts to remind the media of their audience’s preferences for truths and fairness would be much useful.

In conclusion, although the American media have been a helpful partner in sharing news updates and motivating the citizens affected by the Boston bombing, they should be continually reminded of their core responsibility to uphold reliability and objectivity in their reports and should occasionally revisit the main purpose of their existence. The mistakes made by the American media might arguably mirror the values of the American society: the love for quick updates regardless of accuracy, fetish for violence-related news and gross neglect for lives other than that of fellow Americans as the media’s goal is to logically appeal to the tastes of their audience. In order to improve the societal value of the American media, the American society needs to work together and relive the founding values of diversity, freedom and security that their forefathers have fought hard to establish.



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3.     Reuters. (2011, March 29). Huffington Post. Retrieved April 26, 2013, from Religion: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/29/muslim-discrimination-cas_n_842...

4.     Cainkar LA. (2009). Homeland insecurity: the Arab American and Muslim American experience after 9/11. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

5.     The Economic Times. (2013, April 18). The Economic Times. Retrieved April 20, 2013, from News: http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2013-04-18/news/38647140_1_...

6.     Foner E. (1998). To call it freedom. In E. Foner, The story of American freedom (pp. 29-46). New York: W.W. Norton & Company Ltd.

7.     Wilkinson I. (1999). News media discourse and the state of public opinion on risk. Risk Management, 1(4): 21-31.

8.     Fekadu M. (2013, April 24). Huffington Post. Retrieved April 27, 2013, from Entertainment: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/24/sweet-caroline-sales-rise-bosto...

9.     Harvard Kennedy School (2013, April 24). Harvard Kennedy School. Retrieved April 29, 2013, from Articles: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/news-events/news/articles/hks-faculty-and-fel...

10.  Flint J. (2013, April 18). Los Angeles Times. Retrieved April 25, 2013, from Entertainment: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/cotown/la-et-ct-boston-new...

11.  Sandmeyer E & Shepard R. (2013, April 22). Media matters For America. Retrieved April 28, 2013, from Research: http://mediamatters.org/research/2013/04/22/in-the-wake-of-boston-marath...

12.  Cainkar L. (2002). No longer invisible: Arab and Muslim exclusion after 911. Journal of Palestine Studies, 31(4): 22-29.