While news media descended on Boston and in particular the suburb of Watertown the residents of West Texas, a small town located just north of Waco, TX, were tasked with sifting through the remains of their town after it had been virtually leveled in a blast at a fertilizer plant on Wednesday. Friday, NBC News reported that 60 residents remain unaccounted for, in addition to the 12 who had been killed. The clip above, filmed by a man who witnessed the blast inside a vehicle with a child (possibly his daughter), graphically shows the devastating power of the blast.
At the risk of appearing insensitive, let’s compare the West Texas tragedy with the Boston Marathon bombings. According to The Washington Post, the bombings ultimately killed four (including an MIT police officer who was reportedly killed by one of the suspects) and injured 176. At worst, the blast in West Texas may have killed 72 in addition to the 200 that NBC News reported had been injured. Yet, the news media––in particular the broadcast TV and cable TV news media––engaged in nonstop broadcasting of developments in the Boston Marathon bombings, while the events in West Texas were relegated to second or third tier status.
Why the disproportionate level of reporting? Could it be the drama of the seemingly made-for-TV manhunt? Could it be that no one would be interested in learning about a terrible blast at a fertilizer plant? Given the weight of the coverage, the answer seems clear: Broadcast and cable networks were seemingly convinced that we’d rather see endless minutes of reporting on what was getting to be a lengthy manhunt, more than we would be interested in seeing how residents of a small Texas town were dealing with a terrible tragedy of their own.
Maybe it’s because the Boston story took place in, well, Boston––a populous city on the eastern seaboard that became the site of a bombing that seemed to take place before our very eyes; that killed three individuals whose lives we came to know; that appeared to involve heroes masquerading as passersby. Maybe it’s because the blast in Texas took place in––Texas. And not only in Texas, but in a small town in the west of Texas; at a dusty, dirty fertilizer plant; that killed people who we didn’t see or come to know; that didn’t appear to involve readily identifiable, passionate “heroes.”
There are, of course, good reasons that the incident in Boston should have received significant media coverage––the incident’s terrorist implications seemed to dictate it. At the same time, however, we should wonder why a small town in Texas that suffered its own terrible tragedy was nearly forgotten by the media in all the news coming out of Boston. We should ask: What are the ethics of reporting a high-profile tragedy, and making it a primary focus of all news coverage? How does coverage (or lack thereof) imply that one story is more important than another? While there are no easy answers to these questions, we should at least pause and take a moment to reflect on them.
Many thanks to Teka Bundy for sharing the video with me.
Sources: washingtonpost.com, nbcnews.com, youtube.com