Uncommon Ground: Why Did The Media Treat Marathon Bomb Victims Differently Than They Do Victims Of Urban Violence?

By Guest Contributor Chris Faraone

CNN correspondents report live from Boston during the search for suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings. Photo by Chris Faraone.

It’s been nearly a full day since the marathon was bombed. A few dozen reporters from various news outlets mill around the Park Plaza Castle–a grandiose stone reception hall on the edge of Boston’s theater district that’s connected to a Smith & Wollensky steakhouse. Inside, race organizers and emergency workers have styled an impromptu relief center; runners and their families are dashing in and out, retrieving items they lost track of after two explosions ripped through Copley Square, just blocks from here. Others are collecting their medals, while a few people are discussing housing for the night with volunteers.

Outside, a cameraman from a local television station is waiting, patiently, for someone to come out wearing a race jacket or some other cue to signify the tragic dynamic. From what I can tell, the plan is for him to shoot video while his colleague–a female broadcaster dressed in business casual for street reporting–ambushes the subject at a vulnerable exiting moment. It’s wholly inappropriate, but this duo is determined. Their chance for a dramatic interview presents itself. A petite woman wielding a shiny marathon medallion exits the castle sobbing, with family members in tow. Her husband, an incredulous gaze over his face, intervenes: “Please–not now!?!”

As should be the ethical reaction, the cameraman lowers his lens. The reporter follows his lead and desperately apologizes, even going so far as to gently place her left hand on the crying woman’s forearm. After the family retreats, the broadcast hack and her co-worker assess the situation. They both shake their heads, as if ashamed of themselves. Whether they mean it or not, they step back another 20 feet from the entrance and calibrate a more humane coverage plan. It took a scolding, but they appear to finally understand how ridiculous it was to sneak-attack someone who just endured the surprise of a lifetime.

Versions of that specific scene outside of the castle have played out all over Boston since the marathon tragedy unfolded. Reporters approach weary runners, either politely or idiotically request interviews, and get rejected, only to beg for forgiveness. That’s clearly how it should be; while our jobs as news hunters and disseminators is to first gather info–often amidst pandemonium–it’s also important to swallow our pride sometimes, and to acknowledge the feelings of whoever has our pens, pads, and microphones jammed in their face. But the more of these civil exchanges that I witness, the more I cringe at the double-standard in practice.

Photo by Chris Faraone.

Imagine, for a moment, that instead of a bombing on Marathon Monday, the media swarm was over a multiple homicide in one of Boston’s neighborhoods of color. The reporting process would have likely gone down differently. Whether gun violence or terrorism deserve more or less attention than the other is a debate all in itself; relatedly, there’s been some healthy chatter in the past few days–particularly by international outlets like the BBC–about the amount of Boston bombing coverage relative to larger tragedies that regularly shatter nations elsewhere. What’s also important, however, is the way in which reporters treat subjects in these moments of despair.

Unlike in Back Bay, where marathoners and their families have been hanging out since Monday, reporters tend to take a harsher tone in black, Latino, and Cape Verdean neighborhoods. One instance that comes to mind was immediately following the horrific earthquake in Haiti two years ago. Journalists flooded Caribbean enclaves in and around Blue Hill Avenue, scraping whatever heartfelt quotes they could out of people in anguish. Yet little sympathy was shown. Rather, as all too often happens in disparate communities everywhere, journalists pushed past acceptable limits, and in the face of reluctance, backed off swiftly and unapologetically.

It doesn’t take a Harvard sociologist to see what’s happening here. Generally speaking, most folks who have the time and resources to train, travel, and compete in a marathon are at least middle class, if not upwardly mobile or quite fortunate. In other words: unlike so many families that are devastated by routine urban violence, the people in track jackets around Back Bay this week are in many ways peers of the college-educated reporters interviewing them. In my observation, while a great many journalists are well-spirited deep-down, they’re also condescending asses for whom stories trump sensitivity in the event that subjects exist on a lower socio-economic rung.

It’s not just the nature of these interactions that shifts between Back Bay and Roxbury. With the exception of the men with dark complexions who the Rupert Murdoch Axis of Evil wrongly branded as terrorists, I haven’t seen runners accused of withholding information. Nor are the bombing victims and their families being endlessly harangued on comment threads. I’d notice; last year I collaborated with a group of local mothers–all of whom have lost a child to senseless violence–on a multi-media project called “Anonymous Boston” to illustrate this huge disparity in coverage. The curator of that effort, local media activist Joanna Marinova, parses the phenomenon succinctly.

“Boston has a lingering history of racial segregation and cultural isolation,” explains Joanna. “Too often life in our inner cities is portrayed by mainstream media as disposable–a dime-a-dozen. Our kids die faceless and nameless, buried at the bottom corner of Page Six.” Jamarhl Crawford, editor of blackstonian.com and another crusader against bigotry around here, explains further: “This is a mark of desensitization as well as the devaluation of black and brown life, where no one notices the daily drip from the faucet for years, but they pay immediate attention to the pipe bursting, even though in the long run the drip produced more leakage and caused more long-term damage, which is harder to fix.”

Finally, there are innumerable stellar works about the history of race relations in Boston. Indeed, eye-openers like Common Ground, the Pulitzer Prize-winning integration saga by J. Anthony Lukas, should be mandatory reading for anyone reporting here. Of course, that’s not realistic in a situation like we’ve just been through, in which the journo scrum skips town as quickly as it congregated. So as I watch both the local and visiting media run around the Hub like children chasing chickens–and as I watch our first African-American president address my city on the live feed–the least I can do is thank reporters for addressing victims of this nightmare with the dignity that they deserve. It’s a fine example of how journos should always approach such sad and harrowing circumstances.

A Boston Phoenix staff writer from 2008 until its closing in March 2013, Chris Faraone’s work has appeared in Antenna, the Boston Herald, Boston Magazine, Boston’s Weekly Dig, Elemental, Fast Company, the Source and Spin. His book on the Occupy movement, 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, earned accolades from The Economist and the Utne Reader. His sequel, I Killed Breitbart, is due out in mid-2013. You can follow him on Twitter @FARA1.

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