Why watching Boston’s real life “Law & Order” doesn’t feel quite right

Police ordered everyone in the entire city of Boston to lock themselves inside wherever they were. Tanks rolled down city streets. Subways shut down. Gunshots ricocheted in residential areas.

So far, a 19-year-old kid has eluded this massive manhunt for hours after his older brother was gunned down by officers he attacked, including one he killed, in Friday’s wee hours.

“Up since 3:50 a.m. and can’t get enough of this story,” wrote one of my Facebook friends who is a journalist. “Woke up the troops around 4:15, and a long day ahead. Hard to explain to non-journos, but I can’t imagine doing anything else at a time when so many rely on us to share information.”

I’ve been in news for 15 years and am well acquainted with the instinct that drives us toward the center of action.

But I’m not sure that was the only factor at play on Friday. I’m not even sure it was the primary one.

“Boston currently looks like an episode of 24,” wrote another non-journalist friend.

Another one compared it to “Law & Order”.

Sure enough, something about the way we watched the pursuit of (do we even have his name yet?) felt like entertainment. We were feverish about it. One friend told me an acquaintance’s father woke her at 4:45 to tell her to turn on her television. Another used the word “fetish”. A third was more forgiving:

“I think some of it is that it feels like a real-life action movie playing out. People imagine George Clooney chasing down some kid on a crowded city street before the showdown on an empty subway train.

“But I also like to think some of it is hope that they’ll catch the person responsible soon, and they’re waiting to see. People want to see some resolution to a horrible attack.

“I think more of it’s the action movie part though, sadly.”

I have rewritten the closing to this column a few times now because, to be honest, I am not sure where I stand on it yet.

Part of me wants to rake the news media and the consumers who drive our decision-making over the coals for our lack of circumspection.

We’ve created and filled a demand for constant information, including “developing” information. We’ve created a demand for news that is entertaining. And we’ve created a demand to share and discuss it all to the point that we’re spreading rumors and making ridiculous statements like this one, from a person I went to high school with:

“Ever wonder why bad (expletive) like Boston only happens up north? You never hear of this (expletive) happening in the south. Us gun-toting rednecks won’t put up with that crap. Maybe y’all anti gun toting Yankees should wise up and arm yourselfs (sic). Just sayin.”

Thank you, self-proclaimed redneck, for that.

But when the dust has settled, and it will, I think I will come to the conclusion that this collective seeking and sharing of a story is ultimately part of what it means to be a human being.

Last Sunday, the day before the bombs exploded at the finish line, I woke up to a long-anticipated text message from a close family friend. Upon seeing it, I yelled immediately for my daughter.

“Lily!!! Catherine’s water broke!!!”

A flurry of texting, calling, news sharing, family crowdsourcing, and personal “developing” storytelling followed. And, several hours later, my daughter had a cousin.

Watching and sharing is not just what we do in times of tragedy or breaking news.

The difference is – and this is key – we didn’t post anything on the Internet until the parents were ready for that.

A lot of people watching the news unfold in Boston said things like “Our prayers are with Boston,” and I believe those posts were earnest. I just wonder if Boston wanted us hovering like we did. Glued to our screens like they weren’t real people.

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11 thoughts on “Why watching Boston’s real life “Law & Order” doesn’t feel quite right

  1. I think you have to hand it to the non-guntoting Bostonians who stayed locked in wherever they were to let the trained police types bring the hunt to the best conclusion they could. Those gun-toting rednecks would only have caused problems and perhaps caused more unnecessary deaths. I don’t believe a gun-toting redneck could have prevented the bombs from going off at the marathon. Also, your Facebook friend has forgotten the bombing in Atlanta at the Olympics, bombing of places of worship in Birminghan and Murfreesboro, the murder of a president in Dallas and a civil rights leader in Memphis, and on and on.

  2. I hit mute when Brian Williams started saying things like, “I know you’re not an investigator, and neither am I, but…” It’s still on, though, so I can glance up to see if there’s action.

  3. I’ve never cared much for ongoing news, as I’d rather hear about it a few hours later with a lot of that circumspection behind what’s written. Updates once or twice a day, for most breaking news, is usually enough. I learned in 1995 with the bombing in Oklahoma that people will make ignorant comments early on, and for me at least, those comments stick. So 18 years later, I think, “Damn, Randy sure did blame Muslims for that bombing quickly, even when the only evidence was a gaping hole in a federal building.”

    I reflect that same attitude on myself, and so if I speculate something that turns out to be stupid, I’ll remember it and feel stupid about it for years. Hence, no speculation, which turns me away from the breaking news and the lovely 24-hour news “cycle.” (Is it a cycle if it’s perpetual? Maybe it’s really a 60-second news cycle!)

    But let’s apply this same reasoning to my current occupation of repairing motorcycles. They come in, broken, and we sniff at them and poke at them and say aloud our hypotheses of what’s wrong with them. And we test the hypotheses (and throw them out) and eventually realize, for example, that the bike stopped running because it ran out of gas. And we feel pretty stupid that we didn’t check for that first (at least it was a customer bike and not our own!). Some motorcycles are more straightforward and all our guesses are correct.

    Much like working in news, perhaps? If your job is to stay on top of something until it’s resolved, that means trying to fill in details that aren’t yet known, in the hopes that it leads you somewhere new. Add in the competitive element (everyone else in news is looking for the same things), and I can understand not just the urge to follow a breaking story like the marathon bombing, but also the frequent reporting of inaccurate information.

    As for the news story comment trolls, I think a lot of that speculation is human nature. Some people feel a need to make stories to support their underlying opinions or beliefs, so that they can make sense of what evidence is currently available.** Scientists do it all the time, although they’re supposed to throw away those stories as soon as testing or evidence prove them false. Conspiracy theorists throw away the new evidence that defies their stories, sure that only they “know” the truth of the situation.

    **And sometimes that evidence is a tangent, such as that bombings and shootings “never happen [where they live]” and how they’d have solved it all with [whatever tools they think they use better than all the police in Boston].

  4. Knight…I totally agree. I started reading a few posts on abcnews.com, and after the first 10 vitriolic diatribes, I shut down my computer and turned off the TV. The things people say are appalling.

  5. I really like this post. You’re able to articulate why watching this horrible scene unfold gives me the “ick” feeling. Thank you for having the honesty and the finesse to explain this so well.

  6. It’s never easy. We see too often how in the movies and on TV, it just takes minutes for the good guys to find the getaway car by tapping into security camera views as if they were all linked somehow, then changing the traffic lights to slow the bad guys down.

    We never see the real thing, even on reality shows. There are always hours and hours of procedural crap and blind alley leads to deal with that lead up to those last few 43 edited minutes of intense activity. It takes time do do the grunt work that produces the edited footage.

    What we have now is a blow by blow coverage of the grunt work covered over by congenial people constantly talking about how they think the situation will unfold based on how some entirely different situation unfolded or discussing what they think they know pieced from tidbts that may or may not be factual.

    You’re uncomfortable probably because you want and expect qulitative news coverage, not quantitative and because it is sound and fury, signifying nothing..

  7. A lot of this bothers me – and I’ve not turned on the TV. I have been hearing about lots of unprofessional and irresponsible activity by “journalists” — and surprisingly, the best reporting I’ve seen is from hacktivist group Anonymous (@YourAnonNews). Cable news better shape up — because they’ve lost a lot of credibility this week.

  8. Well said. I am not watching the coverage, but I do want this person to be captured, both for the safety of those around him and to hear why he felt it necessary to do what he and his brother did (although I know the answer would never satisfy or even by understood by most).

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