Behind the scenes: How journalists covered the Ottawa attack from the streets and in the newsroom
Canadian news coverage of the Ottawa attack has been praised around the world for its restraint in the face of terror, many being lockdown or out of their newsrooms, as well as conflicting and confusing information on social media. So how did newsrooms cover the attack?
Canadian news coverage of the Ottawa attack has been praised around the world for its restraint in the face of terror, with many journalists being locked down on Parliament Hill or locked out of their newsrooms while dealing with conflicting and confusing information on social media.
So how did newsrooms cover the attack? J-Source spoke with journalists who were on the streets, in lockdown and in the newsroom.
In the newsrooms
Jordan Press was coming out of a morning meeting when a colleague told him shots had been fired at the National War Memorial. It was 9:45 a.m., and on a regular day at the Ottawa Citizen’s Parliamentary bureau, about a block south of Parliament Hill, reporters would be submitting deadline schedules to their editors. But this was unlike other days. Reporters dropped everything, rushed toward Parliament Hill and started contacting sources along the way to get more information. As a publication dedicated to covering the city, the entire newsroom was mobilized. Press stayed behind in the bureau to “man the fort.”
Besides finding a source with a firsthand account of the shooting, verifying his description of events and getting that story out, Press was also responding to an overwhelming number of interview requests. Press spoke to many media organizations including the BBC, the John Gormley Show and a morning show in Australia. Police put the building on lockdown to secure the Israeli embassy, a couple of floors below the bureau, which made Press’s job even more challenging. His colleagues couldn’t get in and no one could leave, so Press touched base with everyone to make sure every angle of the story was being covered.
Chris Carter, senior producer of politics at cbc.ca, was teaching students a lesson on breaking news at Carleton University? when one of them, who was on Twitter, said there had been a shooting. He scrambled to hand off his class and rushed to the CBC building downtown, arriving just minutes before it was was locked down.
The newsroom started an online file that was coordinated by two writers and updated with all of the reports being filed from CBC Ottawa reporters. The CBC newsroom in Toronto also set up a live blog that pulled in all the tweets from their reporters on the streets.
“The challenge was keeping on top of all the info that was coming in and checking every bit to say, Has this been verified by at least two sources? And then beyond that—is this something we should be publishing,” Carter said.
Inside the Citizen bureau, Press said was able to piece together the best version of the truth quickly and more easily than he expected. He contacted people locked inside Parliament and others in their offices, while journalists were trying to get closer to the scene but were being pushed back by the police. Citizen reporters sent all of their information back to the main desk, where it was sorted by editors. Andrew Duffy, a senior writer, took everything he needed from this pool of coverage to write an ongoing narrative of the day.
“That became the running piece we had online, which was a smart move. You don’t really want too many people writing. This way, the person writing was able to do so with clarity and was not overwhelmed by needless information,” Press said.
Trying to keep things organized when very little information was being provided by authorities, Press watched live coverage by CBC’s Peter Mansbridge and CTV’s Kevin Newman to keep him focused.
In the days since the shooting, the Citizen’s coverage has been guided by the need to address the many unanswered questions that remain. “I think the entire press gallery did a great job of providing much-needed answers. Everyone who was here tried to tell a story and at the same time did not tell too much. They did not over hype. They simply said what happened, because the facts are dramatic on their own,” Press said.
On the streets
Jamie Long had just arrived in the CBC Ottawa newsroom Wednesday morning when he saw producers and managers stampede out of the morning meeting. Shots had just been fired at the War Memorial two blocks away. “My executive producer said, ‘Just go,’ and so I ran out.”
Long said the police had not arrived when he got to the scene and saw CPR being administered to Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. He started taking photos on his phone and tweeting what he saw.
Soon the police started pushing the media back. It wasn’t a problem, Long said. But he did get nervous when police said there might be a second shooter on the loose, possibly on a roof. “Your first instinct is that I’ve got a job to do,” he said. “But when you hear that you shouldn’t be here and to get out of the sight lines from the roof, that does make you fearful.”
Long stuck to tweeting and filing what he could see. “There were so many unknowns, so there wasn’t any point in me writing about things I was hearing, the rumours,” he said.
On the other hand, the challenge was that he didn’t really know what was going on elsewhere.
“Normally when you go to the site of the breaking news, the reporter on the ground gets almost all the facts. But painting a picture is hard when you’re in one scene and there are actually multiple scenes,” he said.
Long said he kept filing—and didn’t hear too often from the newsroom, except in one case where they asked him to go to the Rideau Centre. “I stayed until my phones died,” he said. “It was only when I got home that the shock sank in…. I was born and raised in Ottawa and that this happened in my city….”