I know that between all the different “breaking news” reports that were flying across the air in the following minutes, hours, and days after several bombs exploded surrounding the finish of the Boston Marathon, I was getting confused by what appeared to be major discrepancies between the different stories on the different networks. Whether this was due to the fact that the news reporters were trying to get the latest news and present it the soonest so that viewers would watch their network for the updates, or if it was due to the reality that the authorities leading the investigation were not releasing information or were releasing only some, there was some incongruous information being given to news viewers.
The frustrating thing about it was the effect it had on the word of mouth reporting that inevitably follows listening to a broadcast. When I heard something on CNN and then chose to relate that to someone else only to be told that I had incorrect information, and that multiple times, I was frustrated.
Without attempting to recount the multiple different specific points of information that were incorrectly reported, I would like to point out that bad reporting contributes to paranoia and terror intended by an attack like the Boston bombings. Good crisis communication takes into account the fact that threat is perceptual. Multiple bombs beg the question whether there are more.
Everyone has lit a firework only to have it fizzle. Will it go off? Won’t it? The fact is two bombs going off creates the same effect as releasing three pigs into the halls of a school and numbering them 1, 2. and 4. The administration will spend all day looking for number 3, a pig that does not exist, and ironically that will be the one they are most frustrated and worried about. By providing disinformation, the media managed to suggest that there is a third pig out there.
Crisis communicators absolutely need to provide clear and true information with certitude only when they are certain of its truth. Probability presented as fact contributes to paranoia and fear. This is a fundamental fact in crisis management, and it seems to be one that nearly all the major news networks ignored in the wake of the Boston Massacre because they wanted to throw some more snowballs at the troops, hoop and holler, and get people to look their way.
For more images of the aftermath of the bombing, check out link three below.
1. AP: Bombing suspect charged