Dead air. It’s the bane of a broadcaster’s existence.
Dead air is that pause that is too long, that allows listeners or viewers to change stations, that costs a station advertising and ratings points. Engineers, producers, news directors, reporters who allow dead air on their station or network are looking at termination.
And so in the wake of a major disaster, like the bombings at the Boston Marathon last week, when the networks cut away from regularly scheduled programming to report the news in real time, there can be no dead air; it has to be filled up with information – even if it just speculation and even if that speculation is stereotypical.
In this age of Twitter, texting, Instagram, Facetime and expanding public access to digital media, traditional reporters find themselves competing with people who are not trained to stop and think about the (mis)information they are spreading. Sometimes, the reporters contribute to it, too.
Various media outlets provided a diverse group of suspect profiles in the attack from Muslims to disaffected white right-wingers to two young men perhaps tainted by the strife of their native Chechnya where, it turned out, they never actually lived.
At first, officials shied away from calling the bombings terrorist attacks because terror and terrorism automatically trigger an image of “radical Muslim extremists” from the Middle East, an image born of the indelible imprint that the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks embedded in the American psyche.
Then President Obama declared that any seemingly random attack that targeted innocent civilians and created havoc, death and injury was, indeed, an act of terrorism.
At that point, we didn’t know who did it, but it didn’t stop the news media from speculating and many of the rest of us from playing super-sleuth, taking photos, comparing them against police descriptions of possible suspects and, in the case of the New York Post, identifying the wrong people as suspects.
CNN’s John King erroneously reported that authorities had arrested a suspect who would be brought in to federal court for arraignment. The only description provided, King said, was that the suspect was “a dark-skinned male.”
Instructors in even the most basic, introductory news reporting classes in journalism school tell their students that such vague descriptions open the door to racial profiling. I had a field day last week talking to my students at Morgan State University about confirming information before passing it on. Many sources in these kinds of cases ask for anonymity because they are talking to reporters without clearance from their superiors, but it is important, I told my students, to always ask how the sources know this information.
“[King] and several others who disseminated bad information throughout the day, broke clear rules by repeating information from a single source that lacked a second confirmation. They eventually came up with other sources, but only eventually,” PBS Washington Week in Review anchor Gwen Ifill wrote about the incident, without naming King specifically.
“My friend’s error was compounded when he added useless detail. Having dark skin is not a useful descriptor in a multiracial society. It only stirs fear and free-floating suspicion unless yoked to something more specific — like hair color or clothing or other more telling detail.”
But wait! There’s more.
On Friday, TMZ reported that dead bombing suspect Tamerlan Tsarnaev was “deep into hip hop,” had an email associated with realhiphop.com and NPR said that on Wednesday night Tsarnaev had tweeted a Jay-Z lyric, “Ain’t no love in the heart of the city. Stay safe out there.”
There was no clear connection of any of that to the bombing, but the suggestion was that someone who is deep into hip hop should be considered dangerous, particularly because, TMZ said, hip hop lyrics were associated with violence and misogyny.
It went viral and sent hip hop fans into a tizzy, feeling that the media used this tragedy to not only paint the perpetrators of the attack as evil, but to take a broader swipe at young African Americans.
Tampa Bay Times media critic Eric Deggans wrote that “King’s reporting blunder revealed two important facts about the modern reporting environment. First, there is enough diversity in America that providing a criminal suspect’s presumed skin color is really no help at all in finding the culprit.
“And it is not enough, in such heated circumstances, for journalists to accurately report what law enforcement thinks at the time. They have to be careful not to pass along law enforcement’s mistakes as cold facts.”
At some point it is less about the facts than it is showing readers, viewers and listeners how hard you are working trying to get the information and making them believe that if anyone gets it first, it’s going to be you.
Even ESPN and Sports Illustrated, obviously better known for sports, were reporting the story.
“Media outlets are starting to cross paths like basketball players and rappers, going into the others’ fields or professions and doing a terrible job at it,” Morgan student Daisane Branch wrote in an opinion writing class.
“It’s bad enough that we have millions of people on social media attempting to be reporters and conspirators, but now we have ‘professionals’ doing the same thing.”
It would be more comforting to the American people if we were more focused on getting it right instead of getting it first. In the future, until we know what we’re talking about, perhaps we ought to just go back to regularly scheduled programming until there is something substantive to say.
Because as much as we know about Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s background, we still don’t know their motivation; we still don’t know if they were involved in a conspiracy, were mentally ill or somewhere in the middle.
In other words, we’ve got nothing. And that’s a ton of dead air.