Boston Marathon bombings turned producer’s task into day of decisions

JJ Miller


A moment of terror, we are told, triggers something called the “fight or flight” response. A mountain lion pops out from behind your trash can and your brain instinctively gives you two options: Fight it or run away, and you pick one without thinking.

So when two bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon last year, why would Steve Silva move toward the blasts instead of away from it? You can’t fight a bomb.

“Maybe just my natural curiosity,” said Silva, a sports producer for the Boston Globe’s Website. “My father was a detective. I was doing my job. I was just curious. I had a unique opportunity. There’s not a lot of people that get to be inside the course on the finish line that aren’t runners.”

His first instinct was that it was some kind of planned event that went wrong: A misfire on a cannon salute or something.

Boston Marathon Tribute

“It sounded like a dull thud, with a lot of smoke,” he said. “Didn’t know what it was.”

So he was on his way to find out. Thirteen seconds later, it happened again.

“The second explosion went off as I was moving toward the first,” he said. “I realized pretty much was some kind of an attack, not knowing the origins of it or anything. But it was something sinister, obviously. I just kept my camera rolling the whole time.”

There were others who reacted this way. Mostly police officers, firefighters, paramedics. Silva was standing at the finish line shooting video for a package about the way people react when they finish. Jubilations shots, basically. It was going to be journalistic in nature, of course, but it was pre-meditated, neatly packaged, slick. Five hours of raw footage carved into five tidy minutes.

“I was trying to get a lot of those first-time marathoners and charity runners coming across,” he said. “People who aren’t used to running that race let out a lot of emotion on the finish line. You never know what you’re going to see, people doing cartwheels or all sorts of things on the finish line.”

In an instant, jubilation turned to terror.

His journalistic instinct was to document the chaos, but he had to make some quick judgments. There were people dying in that crowd, others that lost limbs or were disfigured by shrapnel. It was a bloody mess and Silva tried to find a way of capturing the honest horror of the scene without being gory.

“I was in the unique position to be able to show the rest of the world what happened,” he said, “so I just kept the camera rolling. And then I got to the point where I got really close to the fence, and I was looking down at the carnage on the sidewalk, but I didn’t want the camera to go there. So I kept the camera straight and up. Unlike a photographer, I don’t get the advantage of going back and picking photos I can use.”

People who study journalism in college have dealt with those ethical questions on (at least) an intellectual level. A journalistic depiction of something should be, above all, accurate and objective, but at what point does an image cross over from serving its journalistic purpose to needlessly upsetting people?

A good illustration of the dilemma is the famous Falling Man photo, showing a man falling to his death on 9/11, having jumped from the burning World Trade Center. The man, who has never been identified, was one of many people who lost their lives that way on 9/11, and TV networks covering the event live had to make snap decisions about whether images of people falling to their deaths was appropriate for a news broadcast.

Aside from whatever he might have picked up through cultural osmosis, Silva had none of that background. His professional life began in advertising, and he had no previous experience covering accidents or crime scenes. Silva didn’t enter the situation with any pre-conceived philosophy of how to handle it.

He just followed his instincts.

“I didn’t want some family member’s lasting legacy to be a shot of me video taping someone with their legs blown off on a sidewalk,” he said. “That was all happening very fast, but I knew that it’s something I wouldn’t do.”

That instinct earned him respect from people with extensive experience dealing with that very dilemma.

I never wanted any accolades for any coverage. I was just doing my job and I happened to be in that place on the scene.

Steve Silva

“I heard from someone in the Army who had been deployed in Iraq and was responsible for working with the media,” Silva said. “He sent me a nice note. He said, ‘The way you did it is exactly the way it should be done. We get a lot of media out here and they want to shoot soldiers getting blown up. That’s not what we want. You took people to the scene, but you didn’t show them what you didn’t need to show them.’ I was pretty happy with that. You know, you second guess what you could have done differently, but there’s not much I would change about it.”

This all happened in a span of about 20 minutes. Silva’s first priority was getting some video up on the Website and dictating a story to editors over the phone. Rather than spend the time calling and texting friends and family, Silva made a quick Facebook post from his phone to let everyone know he was OK, then got back to work.

That work made Silva an intensely popular interview subject for other media outlets. That day, he was all over the radio and live television broadcasts. Then came the morning shows and sit-down interviews. Now, it’s the documentaries and flashbacks. You name a major American news publication, and it has done something on Steve Silva, who has been managing his media schedule like a pop star. He has a spreadsheet, even, to keep it all organized.

It’s a bit uncomfortable for him.

“I was in the right place at the wrong time,” he said. “It’s awkward. People are saying ‘great job’ and you know there are all these lives that are affected forever, people that have lost limbs and their families. People that lost lives. I don’t really want to be connected to something like that. I would rather it be the Red Sox winning the World Series, or something like that. I never wanted to be the story. I never wanted any accolades for any coverage. I was just doing my job and I happened to be in that place on the scene.”

His proximity to the tragedy put him in the public eye, but then it did something more meaningful. The Boston Marathon decided to give out a certain number of spots in the race to people who were affected by the blasts that day. If you were interested, you could submit an essay and maybe get a bib. When that news came out, Silva was working on reporting it until somebody suggested he ought to participate.

Silva had run two marathons before, but never the Boston Marathon. He had thought about it a lot over the years. This was the final push.

“This was something I could do, that I wanted to participate in,” he said. “The comeback effort.”

Some of the people running in this year’s marathon have said they’re doing it, at least in part, as a way of symbolically overcoming fear. Showing themselves, and the world, that they won’t be afraid.

Silva never felt that. He says he didn’t feel afraid when the bombs went off, and he doesn’t feel afraid now.

“I think Boston’s going to send a message,” he said. “I think it’s gonna be the safest place on earth, forever.”