When a producer from CNN called Carleton University’s journalism school for help covering the Ottawa attack, Kelly Hobson jumped at the opportunity.

By Kelly Hobson 

A quick shutter release and I have it: unequivocal proof that a young journalist can snag a picture with Anderson Cooper and walk away unscathed.

Before I lost my chance, I pulled out my recorder and asked if he’d answer one question: What is his best advice for journalists trying to break into the industry?

“Learn how to write,” Cooper told me. “No matter what you’re interested in, whether it’s print or digital, online or television…find your voice as a writer.”

I realized I was living every j-schooler’s dream. I was interviewing Anderson Cooper.

It is the evening of Oct. 23, 2014, just after CNN’s live broadcast from Ottawa. Anchored by Cooper, the two-hour segment contributed to ongoing coverage of the shootings at the National War Memorial and on Parliament Hill.

For the past two days, I had been freelancing with CNN. As the first person on the ground for the American news network, I became a source of local knowledge and a pseudo-intern.

My short tenure with CNN came about largely by chance. When news of the shooting broke, I was helping teach a third-year undergraduate journalism class on—ironically—how to write breaking news stories. A producer from CNN’s Washington bureau called Carleton University’s journalism school looking to hire someone to head downtown while a team travelled to Ottawa. I was in the right place at the right time.

I’m a recent smartphone convert and knew my iPhone was the best weapon in my limited amateur arsenal. CNN wanted as much information as they could get and their primary criteria was speed. I spent hours interviewing people coming out of lockdown and taking pictures of police in the area, immediately sending the footage and stills back to the news desk in Atlanta. I also texted editorial “colour” from the streets directly to a producer to save time.

When my phone and computer ran low on batteries, I found a cafe where employees let me use an outlet in a back storage area. I created my own personal news desk between bagels and canned pop, uploading photos from my DSLR camera and tweeting what I had seen.

Almost immediately, an onslaught of vigilante justice filled my screen.

How dare I tweet locations of police officers? Police asked people not to tweet information locating emergency responders and the public lambasted me for doing so. My clarification that locations and images were hours old—not useful to anyone looking to harm police—made no difference. The criticisms rolled in, making it difficult to focus on getting information out.

Meanwhile, CNN and some of its sister news organizations were running my photos—not just of the scene downtown, but also of the National War Memorial in September. I had joined the ranks of photographers whose tiny italicized names run at the bottom of images online and in print.

When I was satisfied with the charge on my devices, as well as the information I had disseminated, I packed up to get back on the street. On my way out, a realization dawned on me: I had no clue what was going on.

In my efforts as a small cog in the massive news machine, the context of my work had been obscured. Were the two, possibly three, shooters initially reported still at large? How many people had died in their rampage? Was that soldier going to live?

These were my questions, among many others. I came to understand that the practice of covering breaking news makes it almost impossible to keep up with the latest and most accurate information. Perhaps this is why so many newsrooms make mistakes when reporting on news as it happens.

Later that day, the CNN crew arrived and welcomed me into their fold. In the following days I became the rookie journalist on-site, eager to learn and quick to help. Although I’m not a political junkie, I answered every question I could about local Ottawa and Canadian government—even basic things like what does MP stand for.  I helped set up and take down equipment, stood in the anchor position while microphones and earpieces were tested and gleaned every piece of information I could about the industry.

The producers and crew members I worked with were equally bemused by and impressed with my willingness to do anything and everything. I was eternally grateful for the attention they paid me, their patience in answering my questions and the opportunities they afforded me to work alongside them.

I’m not grateful for the Ottawa shooting. My thoughts are with Cpl. Nathan Cirillo’s family. But I feel so lucky that I got to freelance with CNN. It was a whirlwind adventure covering the tragedy in our nation’s capital, but one I—like so many Canadians—will never forget.

Kelly Hobson is a first year master’s in journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa. She has freelanced for the Ottawa Citizen, Toronto Star and CNN.