Collaboration vs. Competition: Reflections of the Boston Marathon bombings

A quick prologue: I’ve discovered major breaking news events always reveal something about the way TV stations cover important stories. We find out more about what works for us, what doesn’t, what we should do, and what we shouldn’t do. Today, I have feelings similar to the ones I had after watching the unfolding tragedy in Newtown. It’s mostly sadness, but there is also a dose of reflection.

As a morning show producer, I’m asleep during the day. At 4:25 p.m. Monday, I just happened to wake up, turn to my phone, and see several breaking news texts. I rolled out of bed, turned on my TV, and switched through the networks’ live coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings.

I’m curious, and a know-it-all, so I wanted as much information as possible. As I changed channels, I stuck with CBS. Scott Pelley’s delivery engaged me more than Brian Williams (though I typically lean toward Williams). Once I realized CBS wasn’t getting updates as fast as I wanted, I hopped back to NBC, then my ABC station (which turned to a local broadcast), then to ESPN. I reached a point where I knew everything the stations knew (and what they hadn’t confirmed). It then dawned on me: competition doesn’t serve the audience well in times of chaotic breaking news.

Given the number of injuries, the lack of a suspect, and the potential danger still looming, this should have been a situation where the networks (and other news outlets) pool together efforts to ensure the public is correctly informed. I realize the FCC won’t allow stations to collude, but I know a bending of the rules should be allowed from time to time to serve the greater public. Clearly, some news outlets are better than others at getting the latest information from police, hospitals, public officials, etc. In the face of tragedy, the desire to “win” should be subservient to the need to get people informed.

I noticed the stations failed to acknowledge any developments on social media. After I turned off the TV around 5:30, I checked my TweetDeck, and saw people sharing Google’s Person Finder, to help people track loved ones. Perhaps the networks brought it up after I stop watching, but based on the hour of coverage I watched, they ignored social media.

Imagine how worthwhile and valuable TV’s coverage could be if all the networks shared important pieces of information like this to its viewers. This collaboration doesn’t have to last days. It might only need to last until the day ends (depending on when tragedy strikes), or a threat has subsided. By Tuesday morning, I think they collaboration window for Boston probably closed since an imminent danger seems to have subsided.

I’m sure my calls for “teamwork” will fall on deaf ears. I understand it might even be too difficult to contact every single news outlet to confirm what they’ve confirmed while scrambling during breaking news. But I will remain optimistic that something can be done that can improve TV’s response to tragedy that better serves the public.

Mike Brannen is a morning newscast producer for KSTP, the ABC affiliate in Minneapolis-St.Paul. Before that, he was a producer at KIRO7 in Seattle, where he led the 4:30 a.m. show to a #1 share in the U.S. He received an MA in Broadcast Management from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 2010 and received his Bachelor of Journalism degree the year before. He shares more about his life at mikebrannen.com and on Twitter: @MikeBrannen.

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