24/7 News Even When There’s No News

A sensational story, little solid information, and instant analysis are a bad combination

journalism-TV-news

Since the news broke this morning that the likely perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing are two brothers from Chechnya, speculation has been rampant about their ties to militant groups there. That zero evidence supports that proposition seems irrelevant. We’re on Twitter Standard Time and we expect answers instantaneously.

Alan Cullison and Devlin Barrett wrote an excellent profile on the brothers Tsarnayev, which was posted at the Wall Street Journal before 11 am. It pointed out that the family arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts years ago in order to “seek refuge from the war in Chechnya, where an Islamist rebellion had been crushed by the Kremlin under President Vladimir Putin.” The oldest brother, Tamerlan, was killed in a shootout with Watertown police, aged 26. His 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar, is still as of this writing on the loose. Their father, Anzor, is described as “a talented car mechanic” but one who never mastered English and has failed to achieve his aspirations of owning his own garage.

The details of their arrival and lifestyle are understandably sketchy; they were, until a few hours ago, of very little public interest. A friend quoted in the piece has the whole family coming to America “around 2002.” The authorities say one came “with his parents in 2002 and the other on his own in 2004.” Regardless, that means the brothers spent their formative years in the Boston area.

Joshua Foust, a Central Asia analyst who’s a member of the Atlantic Council’s Young Atlanticist Working Group, argues in the Christian Science Monitor that the rush to get ahead of the facts has already led to numerous false accusations, with everyone from an innocent Saudi national to local high school students generating rampant speculation. He contrasts the frenzy of both social and mass media with the quiet professionalism of the authorities, noting that “the Boston police and the FBI deserve tremendous praise for being restrained in their public statements, cautious about what they say in press conferences, and quick in identifying and locating the two alleged bombers.”

Presuming that the Tsarnayevs are in fact the perpetrators—and certainly their actions since last night give every indication that they are—it’s simply not useful to jump to unfounded conclusions based on their national origin. As Foust observes, “When analysts write that two people who immigrated to the United States as children suggest that there is a connection to Chechnya’s conflict with Russia, they are being irresponsible.” He adds, “Caution and skepticism, then, is the name of the game now. Boston police and the FBI will undoubtedly release more information over time. It is important to let them do their jobs, and not rush to a judgment that may well be false.”

Having been blogging for over a decade, I understand better than most the desire to get information and analysis up quickly. But there’s no real value in sitting glued to the television or to Twitter absorbing idle speculation. Four days—the span since the bombing spoiled Patriots Day—seem like an eternity in the age of Twitter. We’re accustomed to instant answers. But, in the absence of useful information, it’s all just noise and potentially dangerous at that.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. anjin-san says:

    I caught a special report on CBS, liked the lack of histrionics and the old school vibe. They told the story, said that was all for now, and signed off.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @anjin-san: Yeah, I turned on my DVR-delay “Morning Joe” and it was all blather about the breaking news from an hour-plus ago since it began recording at 6. I wonder what they’d have talked about otherwise, since they have the same time allotted every day.

  3. matt bernius says:

    Without sounding too McLuhanesque, a lot of this gets down to the mediums being the message. 24 Hr News TV, Web Sites, and Twitter, in particular, all are mediums which value speed and novelty. The web and, in particular Twitter, also place value on the rapid, uncontrolled spread of information, commenting on information, and making everything public.

    The net result is an acceleration of reporting (and having multiple layers of analysis happening on top of each other). Part of the problem is that news organization practices haven’t come to terms with all these changes — yet.

  4. Mikey says:

    I hope the younger brother is captured alive, if for no other reason than we’ll have a much better chance of finding out why they did this. It is indeed mystifying to think that these two brothers, who had lived here so long, and one of whom had actually become an American citizen, would somehow become motivated to plant bombs at the Boston Marathon.

    It’s often said that “we can speculate,” but that should be changed to “we will, inevitably, speculate.” It’s only natural when seeking answers to something as big and inexplicable as this. But it seems we’ve lost the necessary caution, the understanding that such speculation, if not done with the proper restraint, can cause real damage to peoples’ lives and livelihoods. One need only look at the unfortunate Richard Jewell to understand this.

  5. @James Joyner:

    In Morning Joe’s case, it would’ve been another three hours of the constant drumbeat of gun control talk they’ve been doing lately

  6. James Joyner says:

    @Doug Mataconis: There is that. It’s unwatchable. I don’t know what they think they’re doing or why someone hasn’t stepped in to save them from it.

  7. KariQ says:

    Excellent post, James. The speculation I’ve been hearing is beyond annoying. Frankly, the fact that they were identified so quickly (always presuming they are in fact the guilty parties) is pretty impressive. I can wait to find out why they did it, or if there was any coherent motive at all.

  8. anjin-san says:

    Watching Fox now. Fear! Islamists! Terrorists!

    I get the sense they are really feeling their mojo for the first time since the election night debacle.

  9. PD Shaw says:

    “that means the brothers spent their formative years in the Boston area.”

    The oldest came to the Boston area at 17; I wouldn’t consider his formative years to be in the U.S. But should it be our cultural assumptions? I imagine in Central Asia and the Caucuses, children at 17 are expected to take on adult responsibilities more so than here.

  10. Gromitt Gunn says:

    @PD Shaw: I agree. Even arriving at, say, 14 would be too late to say “formative years.” The younger brother, yes, should in theory be Americanized.

  11. Ron Beasley says:

    I can’t even get any local news or weather except on the WEB.

  12. PD Shaw says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: I agree, and the accounts that I’ve read have the younger brother coming to the U.S. a year earlier than the older brother. It implies that perhaps the older brother first completed his education or training before he came over.

  13. John Burgess says:

    I’ve actually been impressed by the coverage from WCVB, an ABC affiliate out of Boston. They’ve been running wall-to-wall. Sometimes there’s nothing new to add and they’re just filling time, but they’re not leaping to conclusions or going beyond what authorities are telling them.

    Perhaps information is more important to people being directly affected than those who prefer to hear themselves talk?

  14. anjin-san says:

    The oldest came to the Boston area at 17; I wouldn’t consider his formative years to be in the U.S.

    This should not be underestimated. Years ago I had a girlfriend who’s father was a diplomat, she grew up overseas and did not spend significant time in the US until she was 17. She told me she had some pretty serious adjustment and alienation issues when she came here. This is in spite of having legitimate blue blood, and being blonde and very attractive.

    Changing schools is pretty hard on a teenager. Changing countries? That could really confuse someone.

  15. Andre Kenji says:

    From what I could watch, Savannah Guthrie and Diane Sawyer were doing a pretty good job. Brian Williams also seems to have done a good job, with the exception of the little sermon in the end. Being on the air all this time is pretty difficult. There was fair less false information than one could expect.

  16. Caj says:

    Breaking news is great when it actually is breaking news! But to use the term breaking news for something that happened hours ago is ridiculous. CNN are fond of their breaking news caption.
    To keep going over and over the same ground when there is no new news to report drives me nuts. When a big story like this horrific bombing happened it’s obvious everyone covers it as they should but after the intial report all other news gets put on the back burner. News channels just repeat and repeat and repeat because there’s nothing new to report! The world of other news shouldn’t stop just because of one event. Report what else is going on in the country and around the world. Any news on the current big event can be brought to the publics attention if and when it happens. But 24/7 of showing the same photos and same questions asked over and over is insane.

  17. grumpy realist says:

    As said, the day after the marathon bombings I must have heard the story repeated 3 times during the five minutes I was in my sports’ club’s locker room.

    Not necessary.