CNN is typically declared the ratings winner when disaster strikes. Breaking news has long been the cable station’s bread and butter. Even with its recent string of embarrassing mistakes (see: Boston bombing arrest and Supreme Court health care ruling), CNN still raked in viewers during mid-April’s Boston saga.
But when it comes to the winner in another category — who’s doing the best journalism — the trend line is clear: The local press wins the plaudits. And for good reason.
While CNN was retracting reports of arrests, the New York Post was grasping for suspects to put on its cover and Reddit was filled with rogue sleuths speculating without facts, the Boston Globe was doing what local news outlets do during harrowing events –putting their best feet forward.
That starts with putting actual boots on the ground, an advantage that local news media always have over national outlets parachuting in. While the Boston Globe temporarily dropped its paywall and provided indispensable breaking news coverage, Boston.com became a clearinghouse for public safety information and news, with people trying to locate friends and family who were at or near the marathon.
The Globe — a paper that has been suffered like many others in recent years — received no shortage of recognition for its post-bombing reporting. Look no further than the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner: President Obama, generally no fan of the fourth estate, praised the Globe for its coverage in the wake of the bombing. Fellow journalists also expressed their gratitude: The Chicago Tribune famously sent donuts to the Globe after a hard week’s work.
The cable-news-gets-panned, local-news-gets-praised narrative applies to another major tragedy on U.S. soil: Hurricane Katrina. With their building unusable and their homes potentially in harm’s way, Times-Picayune reporters provided heroic coverage while, again, the cable stations gave a mixed-bag performance: providing plenty of visuals but reporting faulty information about violence at the Superdome.
It’s natural to rally around the underdog — and if there ever are underdogs these days they are local newspapers — in times of crisis. But this is more than a story of wanting the local press to succeed — it’s a testament to the power old-fashioned reporting. Knowing neighborhoods, having sources at the ready, feeling a responsibility to triple-check rumors before reporting them to your readers remain valued qualities in local journalism.
It’s fair to say that the local press is the big winner when tragedy strikes. Not that you’ll ever get anyone who works there to admit that.