As Boston bombing story unfolds, a stellar showing from local TV

WBZ, WHDH deliver balanced, nuanced, comprehensive reporting amid a crisis

BOSTON, MA — Last night was possibly the biggest, most confusing news night in Boston history. Around 5:15pm, the FBI released two photographs of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings. Five and a half hours later, two men allegedly robbed a 7-11 in Cambridge, MA. Around the same time an MIT police officer was shot and killed in his cruiser. Dozens and dozens of police and law enforcement vehicles raced to the scene, securing the MIT Stata Center and effectively locking down the campus.

About an hour later, the scene dramatically shifted west, as police scanners reported that the suspects had allegedly stolen a car and driven it to the nearby suburb of Watertown. Police cars converged on Watertown amid reports of gunshots and explosions. Eventually, authorities confirmed that the two men being hunted were the same two men whose photographs had been released by the FBI earlier Thursday. One of those men, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, is dead. The other, his younger brother, Dzhokhar A. Tsarnaev, is still on the loose, and Boston and all surrounding communities have been locked down as what seems like every police officer in 100 miles searches for him.

Local Boston TV news has reported the whole thing, and done an absolutely heroic and tremendous job of it, proving that, even though local TV news is often maligned, it can serve a huge need in times of crisis—and can rise to the occasion when other, national outlets do not. I was on the scene for the MIT portion of this insane series of events last night, and observed first-hand the local TV news trucks roll up and start shooting footage, before any national outlets could get there.

As the scene shifted to Watertown, I withdrew to a local bar, and watched as local TV outlets headed west and continued to report the story. WBZ-TV Boston in particular did a fantastic job, delivering sober, non-hysterical reports throughout the night, reports that took full advantage of the anchors’ and reporters’ familiarity with the area. Reporters Lauren Leamanczyk and David Wade tag-teamed the reporting—talking to local witnesses, getting shots of the police action—while the anchors tied it all together with broader commentary and occasional warnings for local residents to stay in their homes. (I wrote a bit more about this for Slate; Ryan Chittum has offered praise for much of the media’s performance elsewhere at CJR.) Later, after the bar closed, an online livestream from WHDH continued the excellent work. The station stayed with the story live all night, delivering compelling footage and careful reporting.

Where were national outlets during all of this? CNN had Jake Tapper reporting from Copley Square, miles away from Watertown. I don’t know what the other networks, but I’m certain that, whatever it was, it wasn’t as balanced, nuanced, and comprehensive as the reporting on WBZ, WHDH, and other local outlets. Their work is a model for everything local news can be, and it deserves every laurel that we have to give.

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Justin Peters is editor-at-large of the Columbia Journalism Review. Tags: