How do you cover a story that isn’t?

The world's media are all over Watertown, but the story is gone

Update, April 21, 2013: Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was discovered on Friday night, hiding inside a boat in the backyard of a house in Watertown, not far from where he and his brother had faced off with police earlier that morning. When I wrote that “Tsarnaev is almost certainly not still in Watertown. If news in the case breaks, it will break somewhere else,” I was wrong. But I still maintain that the reporters who waited around in Watertown all day Friday could have been making better use of their time.

WATERTOWN, MA - Late last night, sirens, explosions, and gunfire filled the air in quiet Watertown, MA, as the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing faced off with police. A few local news networks and reporters were on the scene, delivering footage of and dispatches from a truly newsworthy setting. Now, 12 hours later, the rest of the world’s media has arrived to report on … nothing.

There has been no real news in the search for Dzokhar Tsarnaev, who eluded the police last night. Nevertheless, over a dozen cameramen have set up at the corner of Mt. Auburn Street and Kimball Road, at the edge of the perimeter established by authorities. They have been standing there for hours, in a line, doing their stand-ups with an empty, closed-off section of Mt. Auburn Street as backdrop—filming nothing important, saying nothing important. They’re getting some great shots of SWAT teams and armored police cars, but that’s about it. You can only get so much B-roll before you ask yourself what you’re doing here.

The problem is that there is no crisis here anymore. Tsarnaev is almost certainly not still in Watertown. If news in the case breaks, it will break somewhere else. Nevertheless, the networks are keeping vigil as if they expect Tsarnaev to suddenly rise up from the sewers, flinging pressure-cooker bombs every which way. This will not happen.

This is a tough situation to report in, no doubt. Streets are closed across the city, and police are cautioning citizens to stay in their houses. There isn’t much freedom of movement. But these reporters clustered here don’t really have much freedom of movement to begin with—they’re going where their editors are telling them to go. And so I won’t criticize the reporters and cameramen who are milling about with nothing much to do. But I will say that the outlets that are actually out there developing their own stories, breaking their own leads, and doing real reporting—tracking down people who knew the Tsarnaev brothers, for instance—deserve a lot of acclaim. Let us know in comments of other outlets who are breaking from the pack.

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