Covering the Marathon Bombing: Our Newsroom vs. ‘The Newsroom’

–HBO

On April 15, 2013, a pair of bombs detonated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon—a horrific act that would change our city forever.

On Sunday night, 573 days after the bombings, the season premiere of the HBO drama “The Newsroom’’ took on the events of that day—or, more specifically, how the news media covered the attacks and their aftermath, from the explosions on Boylston Street to the discovery of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the suspected bomber, hiding out in a boat in Watertown.

As it happens, a number of journalists at both Boston.com and its sister publication, the Boston Globe, covered those very events. Is “The Newsroom’’ just like our newsroom? Their real-life experiences provide the answer:

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First on the scene: Steve Silva

Boston.com sports reporter Steve Silva was at the finish line with a video camera when the first bomb went off. Immediately he switched gears into breaking news mode.

“I just jumped into work mode right away, even when I was in the field,’’ Silva said. “I thought ‘Okay, I’ve got this video. Do I stay out here?’ I was inside the ropes there by the bombing for like 22 minutes because I was calling the newsroom to get a story across. I was tweeting out a photo and putting the photo on Facebook, getting the video up.’’

Silva dictated what he was seeing to then-Boston.com sports editor Matt Pepin over the phone while filming what he saw around him.

His video was one of the first to be seen on the web and on news networks around the world. A clip of the video was used in “The Newsroom.’’

“I was just observing. I was seeing it all,’’ Silva remembered while talking about the events that day. “It’s all about that 22-minute video. I was seeing the wheelchairs come back and forth…There’s one [where] Jeff Bauman and Carlos [Arredondo] go right by me, on the left I can see it in the video.’’

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The veteran reporter worked to separate himself from what was happening in order to convey the most accurate reports he could.

“I really thought to remove myself from the situation, like ‘They’re going to want things from me. What do I need to be doing right now?’ That kind of saved me, I think. Just getting myself into the normal work mode. Like, ‘we’ve got to get on top of this story and I’m in a unique position to do so.’’’

Jumping into action: David Abel

David Abel was in a unique position the day of the 2013 Boston Marathon. A Boston Globe reporter, he had taken leave from his day job to become a fellow at the Nieman Journalism Lab, a project of Harvard University.

The focus of his fellowship: learning the skills to become a documentary filmmaker, with hopes of telling the story of the first dwarf to run the Boston Marathon. Her name was Juli Windsor.

As Abel stood at the finish line filming runner after runner while waiting for Windsor to cross, he was relishing the moment. He had spent months enjoying what he called a “very cushy academic world’’ where he could indulge in amazing classes and avoid stringent deadlines.

“When you’re on these fellowships you have a tendency to sort of envision the stress of what it’s going to be like that first deadline,’’ Abel said. “You also sort of worry when you’re in these fellowships what you’re going to do when you go back.’’

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Everything changed when the first bomb exploded.

“On April 15, I was thrust back into the journalism world immediately, so I did not have to labor or think about the stress of having to write a deadline story — I just had to do it,’’ Abel said. “I was right there. I had everything I needed to write that story.’’

Armed with a video camera and a cell phone, Abel worked in a similar vein as Silva, recording footage at the finish line, working to get angles no one else could.

“Like a lot of people who were at the finishing line, I was literally standing on the center of the finish line holding a camera just watching the runners come in,’’ Abel said.

After a few initial moments of confusion and fright, it took seconds for Abel to realize it was not an accident but a targeted attack.

“As soon as the second bomb, 12 seconds later went off, it was for me equivalent to when the second plane hit the second tower. I knew right away that this was an attack so I turned on my camera.

“At that point there were lots of people rushing toward the barricades, ripping them down, and I filmed the whole thing. I made it through the cloud of smoke and saw the worst possible things that anyone could ever see. It was an indescribable pain and horror. I basically, really didn’t give more than a moment’s thought to packing up and getting out of there. I felt like I was holding this video camera for a reason.’’

Within minutes, Abel and other reporters were ushered out of the immediate vicinity of the explosions. With his camera, he worked his way to the media tower and filmed everything from above. That’s where he called Boston Globe assistant metro editor Mike Bello.

“It was the first time I’d spoken to him in a while and he heard the fear and intensity in my voice,’’ Abel said of the phone conversation. “He had heard the scanner traffic blow up but he didn’t know what the hell was going on, so I told him that we were just attacked and that there were two bombs that went off.

“He immediately patched me over to Martin Finucane, who does breaking news for the website, and I dictated the story while I was filming what I was seeing. That was the first story that went up.’’

Abel’s fellowship was effectively over after the explosions. He felt tied to reporting what had happened and making sure the stories of the victims were told. He would go on to talk to many victims and their families, but his largest undertaking was a 14,000-word story on the Richard family, whose 8-year-old Martin Richard, was killed by the bombs.

“The Newsroom’’ cited The Boston Globe in Sunday’s episode when confirming the identity of Martin via broadcast (below).

Although he returned to work at the Globe, his documentary work with Windsor was far from done. He changed the direction of the film, titled “Little Leader,’’ to include the tragic events of that day and her triumphant return to run the 2014 marathon — which he ran beside her.

The film will premiere at the Nieman Foundation on Monday, Nov. 17, at 7 p.m.

Read “For Richard family, loss and love’’ via The Boston Globe.

Mobilizing the troops: Mike Bello

Before hearing from David Abel, Mike Bello knew something had happened at the marathon finish line. He just didn’t know what.

“I was listening to the scanner,’’ he remembered. “They said there was a lot of smoke near the finish line. Someone thought it was fireworks. It was unclear, initially, from listening to the scanner. Then David Abel immediately called and said a bomb went off.

“I said ‘are you sure?’ And he said, ‘yep, there were body parts.’ It was a pretty horrific scene initially.’’

Within 12 minutes of the initial reports, Bello had received confirmation from Boston Fire Department spokesperson Steve MacDonald. The Boston Globe and Boston.com published their first stories documenting the day’s events moments later.

After getting up the news, Bello began to mobilize the troops, much like Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) did in “The Newsroom.’’

“We sent reporters immediately to the scene,’’ Bello said. “We had reporters from the State House come down.’’

“There were bombs, people were hurt, and trying to get a count of what happened.’’

Other reporters were sent to area hospitals, four of which were mentioned in the episode of “The Newsroom’’ as being the top hospitals in New England. It was an all-hands situation.

Organizing the confusion: Eric Moskowitz

One of the reporters sent to the scene was Globe general assignment reporter Eric Moskowitz.

“I was just sort of walking in [the newsroom] with a late lunch and my memory is that I decided to look at my phone as I was coming through the door and I had all these missed calls, and as I was doing that, Bello was already sort of up coming across the newsroom anticipating my return somehow, or sort of just generally being frantic, and was like ‘Go, go, go. There’s been explosions at the marathon finish line. You’ve got to get there.’’’

In the hours that followed, Moskowitz tracked down runners, family members, Copley-area residents and worked the ground looking for a story. Confusion seemed to be the only common thread in every interview he conducted and when he returned to the newsroom just after 7:30 that night, he felt he had come up empty-handed.

“I walked around for four or five hours and approached a lot of people, but the more time elapsed, the less I was running into people who had any idea what happened. That day I felt sort of lost and unproductive but not for lack of trying.’’

That evening Moskowitz worked with State House reporter Mike Levenson, who had run from his office atop Beacon Hill to the finish line, to put together a straight news follow-up regarding security measures and logistics.

“It was not something that felt like it got your journalistic juices flowing but it had to be done,’’ Moskowitz said.

On Tuesday, Moskowitz began working to track down the victims of the bombings, using social media and fund raising websites as aids.

By Thursday, April 18, he was physically and emotionally spent. Having spent countless hours in the newsroom, he hoped to enjoy a beer at home just after 11 p.m. when he got the call about the shooting at MIT.

“I went out there immediately and was thinking, ‘Is this related to what happened Monday night on the marathon?’’’

“I got to MIT pretty quickly and they just had the crime scene on the corner then and hadn’t cordoned off the streets around it so you could get pretty close…I was there for a few hours as the cluster of media grew from a small group to dozens and dozens.

“After midnight…police started tearing away from there. That never happens at a scene where an officer has been shot, so that was clearly an indication that something else was going on. That was then I tried to extricate my car which was blocked in by police cars and [Boston Globe contributing photographer] Aram Boghosian helped me drive up onto the sidewalk and getaway.

“I just remember calling into the desk and not necessarily the editors you’d expect because everyone was working, but Andrew Caffrey from Business was like ‘Just go, follow the sirens,’ and sort of telling him what I was seeing.’’

“It was just like something out of a movie about outer space. There were one after another after another on both sides of the river, just blue lights and sirens screaming. It was like ‘Star Wars’ flying westbound, more and faster and louder than I had ever seen before. Andrew Caffrey was just like ‘follow the cars.’’’

After spending hours conducting street corner interviews beyond the police tape during the evening of the manhunt, Moskowitz on little sleep returned to the Globe newsroom and worked with police reporters Maria Cramer and Shelley Murphy to put together the material they had gathered for a story.

By Sunday, the Globe’s staff had come together to construct a tick-tock (or chronological retelling) of the events that had began at the finish line and culminated with Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s capture in the backyard of a Franklin Street home.

Read “102 hours in pursuit of Marathon suspects’’ it in its entirety on the Globe’s website.

Delivering the truth: Adrienne Lavidor-Berman

In the initial moments after the explosions, social media gave The Boston Globe eyes and ears as the newspaper’s staff worked to make sense of what happened.

The newspaper’s social media editor, Adrienne Lavidor-Berman, sprung into action as soon as she heard of the explosions. She returned to her desk from a colleague’s office and shifted the focus marathon’s existing live blog to focus on what she knew.

“We just called it ‘Explosions at Copley Square,’’’ Lavidor-Berman remembered.

She began filling the live blog with images and tweets posted by trusted social media sources.

“At that point, early on, it was definitely more curated in a sense that not everything was coming from within our newsroom, but a lot of it was because so many people were running the race and a lot of our photographers were there. As the day rolled on and a lot of the Metro reporters and folks were out there, I was able to veer away from as much reporting from the community versus what we knew.’’

Communication played a key role in making sure the news was reported accurately.

“I remember standing up and I would say ‘I’m hearing this’ or ‘I’m seeing this,’ and one of the editors would get on the phone and they would call someone who was actually there. A lot of the reporters were out there, so as they were reporting in to their editors they were reporting in via social media which we were then pulling into our live blog.’’

A pre-existing infrastructure played a large part in creating a well-oiled machine, Lavidor-Berman said.

“When this big event happened, the reporters knew that they were supposed to say what they were seeing and then the editors knew to look [to their social media accounts]. They trusted that their reporters would be there and be reporting.’’

Lavidor-Berman worked closely with the Globe’s editors to ensure that everything posted to the live blog had been proven true before publishing it, an effort mimicked by the “Newsroom’’ staff at ACN.

“We started with a few people [at the finish line] on the sports side and then metro got out there and it was just this big cycle of reporting,’’ Lavidor-Berman said. “I would say ‘I’m hearing this,’ and then Bello would say ‘we don’t have that’ or ‘no that’s not’ or ‘yes, we’re getting that,’ or ‘oh, we got it,’ and then I would report it. We were very cautious about what we were putting out there.’’

Checking, then double-checking: Jen Peter

Boston Globe senior deputy managing editor Jen Peter was nowhere near the finish line when the bombs went off, but within two hours she had returned to Boston from Portsmouth, N.H., dropped her children off with a babysitter, and saddled up for what would be the most memorable news week of her life.

“I took the day off because, I remember it had felt like a very long year,’’ Ryan remembered. She and her husband, City Hall reporter Andrew Ryan, decided to take the Massachusetts holiday off to relax on what is typically a slow news day.

“I remember saying to Steve Smith, ‘There’s never really any news on Marathon Monday.’ We usually go out and get some reaction from the fans and it’s happy…but it’s definitely a day that’s usually carried by the sports department.’’

Once she returned to her office, Peter helped to orchestrate the plethora of coverage being done by the Globe reporters.

“I feel like my main role once I got here, in addition to sending people to places where they needed to be, was figuring out have to get an immense amount of copy together by our deadlines and I worked with Mark Arsenault pulling together the main story,’’ Peter said.

“We weren’t putting together that main story until probably 8 or 9 that night, capturing sort of this idea of this glorious sort of celebration of New England and this beautiful Spring day turning into chaos.’’

Peter and the other editors on staff were cognizant of being careful which each piece of news, from sidebars to short interviews, that they reported the day of the bombings, just as the staff of ACN in the episode of “The Newsroom’’ were.

“We had seen the Newtown shootings [and] watched from afar when Newtown happened and there was a lot of misinformation being put out by reputable news organizations then,’’ Peter recalled. “We were very aware of how things can begin to seem. Rumors can become truth and get re-reported and then they end up being absolutely not true.’’

Despite the attention to detail and the staff’s effort to report only the truth, the Globe ran one item which turned out to be false: that a suspect had been taken into custody on April 17, per an anonymous source. The paper immediately recognized its error and corrected it.

“The AP and CNN I believe were both reporting [the arrest],’’ Peter said. “We were proud of what we had not reported on previous days. Still, two different parts of us wanted to go as aggresively after the news and make sure we’re matching it as soon as we can if someone breaks something first, but also wanting to be really careful.

“I think every top-level person in this newsroom signed off on what we reported.’’

A similar report had been delivered by CNN’s John King that day, a moment which was used in the premiere of “The Newsroom.’’ The fictional staff at ACN (below) opted not to run with the story because they hadn’t confirmed it with any of their sources.

Peter remembers the backlash she faced for using an anonymous source in such a tense news situation.

“Using them carefully, judiciously is a way we break a lot of news,’’ Peter said. “There’s some stories that would never be told if we didn’t use anonymous sources. We used [them] every other time that week to great effect.’’

An anonymous source, in fact, was responsible for confirming that the Watertown manhunt involved the bombing suspects on Thursday night.

“The night of the Watertown shootings we were the first to tweet and then report that these were the marathon bombing suspects that they were going after,’’ Peter said. “We did it using the exact same standard we had used the other time, with a source that we went back to 10 times and asked, ‘You absolutely know we’re good to go? We’re not going to look foolish? You have it? This is it, right?’ and we reported it first.’’

Part of the reason the Globe could be the first to break so many elements of the timeline that week was the dedication of its staff.

“The Friday after everything exploded overnight, I walked into the newsroom — I went home at 7 that morning and saw my kids briefly before the babysitter came and I came back to work at 9 — while I was gone the newsroom had completely filled up and people just showed up,’’ Peter said.

“Everyone was working,’’ she remembered. The Globe’s newsroom is typically quiet at that early hour, but “Every desk was full, every editor was in.

“That was a week when I think people would have done the job for free. That night when we were watching the capture it was really incredible.’’

Peter admits that the reason for the energy was awful, “but it also was a week that gave everyone a huge sense of purpose.’’

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