Boston Marathon bombings had professor fearing for her students

Boston University professor Michelle Johnson at work.



(Our continuing series about the Boston bombing tells the tales of more than two dozen people directly affected at last year’s marathon. So 2014 is the comeback, because 2013 was the knockdown. This is our latest installment. Read their stories.)

Michelle Johnson had spent most of her day working from a classroom in Boston University’s College of Communication. From her makeshift newsroom, roughly one-and-a-half miles from the Boston Marathon finish line, Johnson sent out a message to her students – check in as soon as possible.

Suddenly, the journalism professor, along with College of Communication Dean Thomas Fiedler, had to wait for students to post on Twitter or elsewhere that they were safe.

“We had photographers who had pictures of bloody sidewalks and bandages and things that they had just walked away from,” Johnson said. “At that point you didn’t know who the casualties were. There were no names or anything.”

Boston Marathon Tribute

Marathon Monday had started off well enough for Johnson and the students contributing to the Boston University News Service. With about 20 of her pupils scattered along the marathon route, ready to tweet updates and photos from the racecourse, and innumerable others creating profiles of runners, Johnson and three students began to work editing and curating at about 8 a.m.

By two in the afternoon, the elite runners had long-since finished the race. Johnson’s team signed off from Twitter and closed up their live blog. As Johnson prepared to leave the building, though, her phone went off – it was one of her students. The young woman had heard two loud noises. She did not know what they were, but people suddenly came running away from the finish line.

Johnson asked the only remaining student in the classroom to check the wires, but nothing had shown up yet. Then the student looked on Twitter where photos of blood-covered sidewalks and postings about missing limbs filled newsfeeds.

“This better not be a joke,” Johnson recalled thinking. “You can imagine some prankster pouring red paint on the sidewalk or dropping balloons with red dye in it or something.”

As Johnson quickly learned, it was not a prank.

By 4:11 p.m., just over an hour after the two bombs had gone off along the marathon route, Johnson reported on the BU News Service Twitter account that all of her reporters were safe. That tally included at least one student who was working on a profile at the finish line when one of the devices went off.

I was so impressed how brave and smart the students were.

Prof. Michelle Johnson

While Johnson checked off every student’s name on her list, though, she continued to receive photos, video and more coverage. In fact, her students went on to produce work that appeared in several national media outlets including CNN, MSNBC and The Boston Globe.

“All of the students went out and went for it,” Johnson said. “They just started reporting. I’m sure people were scared or worried about things happening along the line, but it didn’t stop anybody.

“I was so impressed how brave and smart the students were.”

In mid-February 2014, Johnson began an early discussion with her staff of BU News Service editors about marathon coverage. With the exception of one student’s brief mention about a one-year anniversary article, nothing seemed much different from the previous year.

For Johnson and the rest of the journalism department faculty, though, things had changed and they needed to teach their students an entirely different skill.

“We had never had students facing that kind of risk before,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t exactly on anybody’s syllabus – how do you handle yourself when somebody’s bleeding next to you? Do you stop and help or do you continue to report the story?

“All of us are going to have to talk and say if you’re going out today be aware. Be aware of what’s around you – who’s setting things down. That wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago.”