Boston and Texas
April 20, 2013 11:26 AM   Subscribe

Am I wrong, or does the Boston disaster seem to be a bigger media deal in the US than the Texas disaster. Is it the terrorism angle, or is it that Boston came first? Or maybe Boston is just easier to cover?
posted by larry_darrell to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think it's a mix of the first two suggestions. Terrorism is always going to be a bigger story than an accident. And Boston happened before, like you said, but it was also an active story every day after, as the search for clues and the suspects began, widened, and the men were killed/captured. Each of those developments was a bigger story than the Texas fire/explosion.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:29 AM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's the terrorism angle. Boston was pre-meditated human evil, Texas was an accident.

Also, not to put too fine a point on it, but the US news media is particularly fond of survivors. Boston has grievously injured survivors and West doesn't seem to have that.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:30 AM on April 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think Boston has an element of "Gee, if it happened there it could happen ANYWHERE," which really amps up the drama factor, and in theory makes it relevant to all Americans. Texas is more of a, "Gee, that's terrible but I guess that's what can happen when you live next to an industrial plant" element, which means it isn't relevant to as many people.
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:31 AM on April 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

the Boston deal has an air of mystery about it too...the Texas thing is awful, but, shit blows up. that is in no way meant to be glib, in another week it would be front page (for a week), but like others have said, the fact that boston was people doing bad things to people for mysterious reasons trumps an industrial accident.
posted by OHenryPacey at 11:34 AM on April 20, 2013

Boston had a lot of ongoing drama. There was the explosion, then there was a week of trying to track down (and learn as much as we could about) the people who were responsible. It involved an awful lot of people and various folks pitched in in larger and smaller ways. The Texas explosion was much more devastating in terms of loss of human life, but once the explosion itself was over, people shifted into healing mode (literally and figuratively) and the "Who was responsible" angle was more wrapped up in legislation and regulation and didn't make for as interesting news. People like stories that are about "What's going to happen?" a lot more than they like stories about "Let's talk about what already happened" and the news plays into this.
posted by jessamyn at 11:36 AM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

Absolutely the terrorism angle and the fact that the perps were still out there and could do it again. If the TX explosion wasn't an accident (I wondered about that when they mentioned it was being treated as a possible crime scene) it would be treated as a MUCH bigger deal by the national media.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 11:39 AM on April 20, 2013

The Texas thing was over moments after the explosion. There was little likelihood of it recurring (except at other unsafe plants). The Boston thing had the perpetrators running loose in Boston (and apparently going to dorm parties, though who knew), which meant there could be other attacks. And there was also the possibility that the Boston perpetrators were affiliated with an organization that would follow up.

Also, American authorities tend to panic about terrorism (thus aiding the terrorists' goals). American authorities tend to downplay corporate malfeasance (thus aiding the corporations' goals).
posted by musofire at 11:45 AM on April 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Journalistic follow-up on the horrific fire and explosion in West won't be exciting. Government agencies, regulations, etc. The Guardian has a good piece of records search.
posted by Carol Anne at 12:00 PM on April 20, 2013

People really love a good story.

A terrorist attack and the ensuing dramatic manhunt, as well as details that seemed to beg more questions than they answered, is exactly the kind of story that gets people riled up, demanding to know more.

A tragic accident that kills, maims, and does a lot of damage, but which is easily explained and over within moments, does not get under our collective skin quite as much.
posted by Sara C. at 12:00 PM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

An entire metropolitan area was told to stay inside while authorities searched for the bombers. Streets were empty. Public transport halted, several major universities, including Harvard, totally shut down. Unlike a terrible accident, here ongoing drama involving a million people was built into the process of solving what happened.
posted by third rail at 12:00 PM on April 20, 2013

Plus there was a huge amount of visual information from Boston. There were lots of people with cameras on the scene -- the initial explosions were in the midst of a spectated event. So there were more people able to post social media, more video for news outlets to show, more photos to see. There's only the one shaky camera view of the West explosion (that I've seen, at least, via the news) and aerial footage of the aftermath. All of which goes to your "easier to cover" category, in the sense of "easier to represent on the news."
posted by gingerbeer at 12:06 PM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

What a very interesting question. Various things made the Boston story especially appealing to producers and consumers of news stories:

1. moral and causal clarity: we tend to love stories where we can easily understand what happened and how. We like to be able to figure out who is Good and who is Evil. When such an awful thing happens, and we want to be able to explain it, and to have someone to blame for it. And we need for that someone to be different from us. Assuming that the Texas disaster wasn't a deliberate, criminal act, it was either a pure "accident" with no one to blame, or the result of some degree of negligence or poor planning on the part of ordinary, generally decent people, or most likely some complicated combination of bad luck and failure of diligence. This ambiguity makes us very uncomfortable: it's much harder to identify and expunge the evil. We can't identify it from a photo, chase it down, shoot it, arrest it, lock it away in jail.

2. the victims of the Boston bombing were unusually appealing -- marathon athletes, and their friends and families. These people fit our definition of hero, even without the bombing.

3. The Boston event unfolded very much like the very forms of entertainment we pay money to see. It was a suspenseful crime drama, with the added element of the public being involved in the investigation.
posted by Corvid at 12:31 PM on April 20, 2013 [6 favorites]

Boston is within the dominant corridor of power in the US, and many members of our elite have spent time there via Harvard and/or MIT. West, Texas doesn't rate, in comparison.
posted by downing street memo at 12:48 PM on April 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

That's the kind of disaster oneupmanship I find really distasteful. That sort of defeatist, obnoxious "nobody caaaaaaares about us simple folk out in the hinterland" stuff.

I mean, if there had been bombings at WestFest resulting in a manhunt across the region and every town from Austin to Dallas under lockdown, you sure as hell better believe that would be a national story on par with what's happening in Boston right now.
posted by Sara C. at 12:53 PM on April 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

The Boston story directly impacted millions of people, who could all look out their windows and see empty streets that stood in direct contrast to their day-to-day experience.

More importantly, though, the Boston story was open-ended, with the potential of something interesting happening next. It's still open-ended, too, as the interrogation and justice process is worked out.

In Texas, the plant blew up. Nothing new was going to happen after that. That story, from a wide, national angle, was more or less over right there and then.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:04 PM on April 20, 2013

I worked in news, and I don't think there is any malice behind what you've noticed. The Boston story is "bigger" in almost every way except the number of fatalities.

Most people in the country don't live next to a fertilizer plant, so they aren't making the personal connection.

Also, corporate-owned mass media has a habit lately of under-reporting on disasters caused by corporations. You know, like that oil spill in Arkansas you probably didn't hear about in the news recently? Exactly like that.

The Boston story is more attractive to the corporate-owned mass media because "the bad guys" are two kids and not "one of their own." Furthermore, there's A LOT of money to be made out of the fear the Boston story is generating, so that also satisfies the corporate agenda to make more more more money.

But really? The Boston story is simply "bigger" in that more people were directly affected. Visually, both stories are compelling, but one trajedy affects an entire city in a highly populated area, and the other happened on a smaller stage in a rural-ish area. That's the difference.

Frankly, I'm willing to bet the greedy assholes behind the criminal negligence that caused the fertilizer fire tragedy are on their knees thanking the heavens for the distraction the Boston story is creating right now.

Come to think of it, thanks for posting this question. All I know about the fertilizer fire is that a lot of people died, and entire neighborhood exploded, and that OSHA had not inspected the plant since 1985. I don't know who owned the plant, what type of punishment (if any) they are facing, or if this trajedy will lead to any reforms.

I'm off to google that. I really should know. Thanks for posting this.
posted by jbenben at 1:25 PM on April 20, 2013 [15 favorites]

Boston is within the dominant corridor of power in the US, and many members of our elite have spent time there via Harvard and/or MIT. West, Texas doesn't rate, in comparison.

That is ridiculous. The Harvard old boys club may be responsible for a lot of things, but it has nothing to do with the fact that a search for a live, fleeing criminal is inherently more gripping and complex than a search for a dead body killed in an accident, or that "I am locked inside my home as armored trucks roll past my windows and snipers lay on top of my shed" is more newsworthy than "I am staying at a Red Cross shelter due to a situation very similar to a big fire."

Interesting if you have been covering the troubles at the "Today" show: they made an effort to cover Texas more thoroughly by sending Matt Lauer there on Thursday. That's why he had a whopping one minute of airtime Friday morning while Savannah Guthrie had her first big "moment" as a morning anchor, handling six or seven hours of coverage solo. So it wasn't a matter of a lacking personnel in Texas, or not considering it important-- they sent their biggest star!
posted by acidic at 1:26 PM on April 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Let's compare the two events:
- An explosion at a fertilizer plant in a small town.
- A pair of terrorist bombs at the conclusion of an internationally renowned sporting event in one of the biggest cities in the U.S. that led to a city-wide manhunt, parts of which aired on live TV.

I don't understand how this is even a question, to be honest.
posted by 2oh1 at 1:27 PM on April 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

[stop arguing]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:27 PM on April 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

I do think Cool Papa Bell is wrong that the Texas story ended with the explosion, tho.

For one thing, the fire's still burning (far as I know), an entire residential neighborhood was flattened, the death toll is still rising, and of course, there is the investigation into how this happened yet to come.

Visually and factually, there is PLENTY left in the Texas trajedy to be of interest.

Also noteworthy: I think there's only so much bad news people can take in a short time frame.

I watched the coverage of Boston on the Internet, and very rare for me, on TV. I'm guilty of turning off the TV whenever a Texas update came on because, honestly, it was just too much bad news and I didn't have the bandwidth to process an additional sad event.
posted by jbenben at 1:34 PM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think it's the fact that the Boston explosion was intentional and caused by someone who wanted it to happen. For me, I generally avoid the news because I find it depressing and I don't need a round-up of who died everyday. But the Boston thing really put me on edge -- I relentlessly checked for updates until finally the alive suspect had been caught and I could feel safe again. It really made me anxious, even though being afraid of being killed my terrorists is highly irrational. Just the thought that someone was on the loose with bombs intent on wreaking havoc scared the crap out of me.

Really, the fact that a fertilizer plant (that is basically a giant bomb) could be operated so poorly and zoning laws could be so poor should really scare everyone (and shut up the people who hate regulation). But we will all say, "Well, I don't work in a fertilizer plant or live next to one, so this doesn't affect me." But we do all congregate in random crowds and I'm guessing many more Americans have visited Boston than have been to that town in Texas.

Also, the Boston thing was a sustained story unfolding day-by-day. For a week, it was essentially an unsolved mystery and man hunt. The fertilizer plant was basically one single event and the aftermath. The Boston thing had twists, turns and steps along the way that made it worthy of news updates. More details will unfold about the fertilizer plant's management, but there probably won't be a high-speed chase or a shootout.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:52 PM on April 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Boston was a drama that had more hooks for people to attach themselves to, and upon which they could insert themselves into a drama larger than their daily lives. To cite a few examples from MeFi commenters alone, we have runners; moms of 8-year-olds; people who know someone who knows someone who might live in the area; and of course, people who actually live there, or nearby.

West, TX, has fewer hooks for people to make the drama personal.
posted by nacho fries at 2:02 PM on April 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

When the Texas story is fully told, there will be seen the complete disregard for regulations, safety and a criminal neglect that caused this to happened.No sprinklers. No firewalls.
The Boston bombings, as noted, was on a huge scale--world famous event, with thousands, a manhunt etc etc.Texas by contrast limited in scope and caused not by jihadists (who might strike anywehre in our nation) but by benign nelgect that should but won't get a lot of people put in jail.
posted by Postroad at 2:05 PM on April 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Boston has way more lingering questions, whereas Texas doesn't. We still don't know the exact cause of the factory explosion, of course. I guess a lingering question might be, WILL THEY ALLOW ZONING *NOW*?
posted by BostonTerrier at 2:06 PM on April 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

It's like a card game. An act of malice trumps natural disaster every time.
posted by Xurando at 2:36 PM on April 20, 2013

I don't understand how this is even a question, to be honest.

Only because the two events occurred at the same time. The great leveler of the media machine gives everything the same weight, so people conclude these apples and oranges have something in common. For more about this phenomenon (marked by the expression "Now, This") check the writings of Neil Postman and his Amusing Ourselves To Death.
posted by Rash at 3:34 PM on April 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think this is a question even the more ethical people in the media struggle with. At one point yesterday, I heard Melissa Block on NPR say in an apologetic sounding voice that (I'm paraphrasing here) they are indeed aware of the other tragedies in the nation including the one in West, TX, and while their sympathies are with those there, they felt the need to "stay with this active story" in Boston.

I won't reiterate the excellent points that have already been made above, but once we agree that the Boston story is the more "popular" one (never mind the reasoning behind it), it is clear that no news organization is able to pursue anything else and risk being left behind while the other outlets are covering the popular story.
posted by thewildgreen at 3:39 PM on April 20, 2013

Without trying to play any tendentious angle, there was this interesting piece from Pakistan's DAWN:

Rafia Zakaria: The Tragedies of Other Places:

There is an inherent cruelty in every terror attack—an undeniable reverberation of evil in the destruction of an ordinary moment and the forced marriage of that moment to sudden violence. Boston is no different, no more or less tragic than the bombings that have razed the marketplaces of Karachi, the school in Khost, the mosque in Karbala.

And yet it seems so. Attacks in America are far more indelible in the world’s memory than attacks in any other country. There may be fewer victims and less blood, but American tragedies somehow seem to occur in a more poignant version of reality, in a way that evokes a more sympathetic response. Within minutes American victims are lifted from the nameless to the remembered; their individual tragedies and the ugly unfairness of their ends are presented in a way that cannot but cause the watching world to cry, to consider them intimates, and to stand in their bloody shoes. Death is always unexpected in America and death by a terrorist attack more so than in any other place.

It is this greater poignancy of attacks in America that begs the question of whether the world’s allocations of sympathy are determined not by the magnitude of a tragedy—the numbers dead and injured—but by the contrast between a society’s normal and the cruel aftermath of a terrorist event. It is in America that the difference between the two is the greatest; the American normal is one of a near-perfect security that is unimaginable in many places, especially in countries at war. The very popularity of the Boston Marathon could be considered an expression of just this. America is so secure and free from suffering that people have the luxury of indulging in deliberate suffering in the form of excruciating physical exertion; this suffering in turn produces well-earned exhilaration, a singular sense of physical achievement and mental fortitude....

When terror hits the site of such faith in human fortitude, the impact is large. The innocence of marathon runners and their expectations of a finish line, a well-earned victory, are markers of an America that still believes in an uncomplicated morality even while it is at war.

What I'm doing by posting this is pointing out that it isn't just domestically that we see it this way; that America as an idea, as a promoted ideal, still has emotional halo effect even on the other side of the world, where they think of us all the time even if we think of them only rarely.

This line, in particular, echoed elsewhere in the same essay:
American tragedies somehow seem to occur in a more poignant version of reality

brings to mind the critical thinking of Japanese author Haruki Murakami in a 2010 NYT essay, Reality A and Reality B.

Let’s call the world we actually have now Reality A and the world that we might have had if 9/11 had never happened Reality B. Then we can’t help but notice that the world of Reality B appears to be realer and more rational than the world of Reality A. To put itin different terms, we are living a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world. What can we possibly call this if not “chaos”?

Murakami seems to be saying that we are already living in an altered, heightened pseudo-reality where such things as terror events have a sharp, bright narrative arc due to the experience, in particular, of 9/11.
posted by dhartung at 7:25 PM on April 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'll throw in capitalism. Who/what do you blame for Texas? Industry, a company town, lax regulations, the relatively disempowered situation of workers. None of these are especially popular investigative targets in mainstream American media, so anything that seeks to find a culprit is going to be received with confusion, anger, maybe even suppression. If ever fully told, it is a story of the critique of capitalist industrial management and lack of proper oversight. Especially during a recession, our media and our audience are not so comfortable with the "industry will eat you alive and go on to get rich another day" storyline.

Whereas the Boston story does not threaten existing narratives, as far as we know at this tme.
posted by Miko at 8:58 PM on April 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

I think it can be explained almost entirely by the "ongoing manhunt" angle and the open-ended part.

When the perpetrators were at large, nobody knew who they were, where they were, whether they would be found, whether they would kill again, if they were found whether they'd be arrested or killed, whether we'd learn why and how they did what they did, etc. It provoked anxiety, which the West, Texas tragedy doesn't nearly as much (unless you live near a fertilizer plant, I guess).

With the Texas story, we more or less know what is going to happen. Search-and-rescue, followed by "recovery" aka finding all the people who died, followed by rebuilding of the community and various investigations into what horrendous misconduct caused the explosion. Those will all happen, more or less in that order.

There's no great hope of revenge or justice- "Go nail the bastards who did this to us!"- with an industrial fuckup like this. Even if the bastards are punished it will be via lengthy boring court cases. When terrorists are on the loose pursued by SWAT teams, helicopters, armored cars, it's another story.
posted by BungaDunga at 11:41 PM on April 20, 2013

The narratives were very different.

Boston has a rich narrative. It was captured on film by many people. It has clear heroes and villains, a despicable act at a landmark event that celebrates human endurance. It has three acts - the bombing and the manhunt are the first two acts. It provides a comforting narrative, even if it is self-evidently untrue: that noble America is unbowed by terrorists and will prevail. People repeat this first idea unthinkingly because it has a wider personal resonance even while they were scared, the city was shut down, and various characters pop up to suggest distinctly unAmerican forms of justice like removing Miranda rights, or proposing torture, or categorising the suspect as an enemy combatant. Boston will gain a third act: that of survival and defiance. We see this with people wrapping themselves in the flag and celebrating on the street when the suspect was captured. We will subsequently see it when the survivors recover and emerge back in public, and when the bomb sites themselves are rebuilt.

The Texas explosion could also lend itself to a three act narrative: the villains who let safety standards drop, the heroes who rushed to the fire, the trial of the guilty parties and the rebuilding of the town. But it is a much less rich narrative, and the beginning of the third act is a long way off. Far too long for a 24 news cycle that feeds of heightened emotion, not technical court cases with faceless villains and uncomfortable, political lessons to learn about governance. The incident itself was barely captured on film, and the message offers little catharsis: ultimately a failure of process by government and big business led to disaster. Does the average person want this story to be a mirror for the America they want to live in? No. Do they want to engage with it in the same way they did with Boston? No.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:36 AM on April 21, 2013

Independent of the bombing, the Boston marathon is a big deal. There are hundreds of thousands of spectators. It's one of the top five marathons in the world. The running community is enormous and the Boston marathon is something many runners aspire to. If you're a runner, you have thought about running Boston and there's a decent chance that you know someone who has.

Most races, especially marathons, have countless stories - people raising money for a cause, runners for whom this is their 20th race, first-timers, people who came from a zillion miles away and overcame incredible odds just to do this one thing. Not to mention your typical sports story coverage - winners, losers, upsets, underdogs, superstars.

I could go on but I think that's a big piece. I was in a different country when it happened and I heard who the winners were before the explosions. I heard about the explosions in West also but there was way more time dedicated to Boston. I had a hard time sleeping after hearing about the explosions at the marathon and doing anything after the manhunt started.
posted by kat518 at 11:05 AM on April 21, 2013

The marathon affected people all over the world. Even in the US I'm betting that the number of people who feel some connection to Boston vastly outnumbers that of people who feel a similar connection to West Texas.

I think that that is a big part in why the media coverage of the events in Boston has been so extensive: people want to see news about the things to which they relate.
posted by bendy at 11:29 AM on April 21, 2013

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