The Boston cops had just come through a deadly night in which they had engaged in a gunfight with the two suspects in Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings. One suspect, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, was dead, and his younger brother, Dzhokar Tsarnaev, was still on the loose. The city was locked down, and police were going door-to-door searching for the second suspect. It was a fluid and tense situation.
There are three reasons this subject—not giving away police tactical positions—was fascinating to me when I read the Twitter message: First, I don’t remember the last time I heard that request; Second, Boston is on lockdown—the term used is “shelter-in-place”—and I’m holed up in my Boston home just like every other reporter I know; And third, at 9:11am, Wesley Morris, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist tweeted, “(The scene has shifted to Norfolk Street, which is two blocks from my house.)”
To me, that police request gives an already difficult situation special significance. To put it simply: Shit’s real and getting realer.
I emailed Sandy Padwe, who was a professor of mine at Columbia Journalism School, to get his opinion on the police request. “I think the request is reasonable given the circumstances,” he wrote in response. “It has to be treated like a war zone. Would reporters in a combat situation give away information that could compromise a position and result in deaths? You are down to the core of the hypothetical ethics class discussion. Only this is not ethics class.”
Padwe makes a good point. Remember when Geraldo Rivera, reporting for Fox News in 2003, revealed the position of US troops traveling in Iraq? He got the boot. (For what it’s worth, he was as contrite as he can be, apologizing and adding, “Nobody was hurt by what I said. No mission was compromised.”)
Most of the journalists reporting online seem to have hopped on the tactical-silence bandwagon. Even the New York Post, which has reported inaccurately in the aftermath of the bombings, tweeted, “Authorities force a one-block perimeter around Watertown home http://nyp.st/Z4Pjhg #Boston [deleted tweet with address at police request].”
The Boston Globe is on board, too, tweeting Friday morning: “UPDATE: SWAT team, armored car surrounding both car and house near [deleted previous tweet with address at request of police].”
Science writer Seth Mnookin, who lives in the Boston area, asked his Twitter followers to please stop sending updates from the Boston police scanners.
At about 10:29am, I heard on WBZ, the CBS-owned Boston affiliate, “The reason you’re not seeing live pictures anymore from [Watertown] is just because it’s such a tactical operation we’re not going to give you the pictures right now.”
The Radio Television Digital News Association has pretty clear guidelines for covering a law enforcement action: “Be extremely cautious to not compromise the secrecy of officials planning and execution.”
Finally, Morris was kind enough to respond to the barrage of messages I sent to him. “Writing about police request for not giving away police position. Have an opinion?”
He replied, “Shouldn’t do it. If I did, I shouldn’t have, although the televised Norfolk alert was how I knew things were close to me.”
Fair enough. After his earlier Norfolk-Street tweet he wrote, “(That ‘in my backyard’ was just an FYI. I’m keeping my ass on this sofa.)” My ass is in an IKEA Poäng chair, and I’d like to go outside, feel some sun on my face, and go back to normal. Whatever the alleged bombers were trying to accomplish, in addition to being scared I’m now bored and angry. As of 12:36pm, there have been no additional arrests.