What the media didn’t get right covering the attack in Ottawa

While Canadian coverage was praised worldwide, it catered to a national audience. Seemingly mundane questions—such as whether buses were running and which roads were closed—didn’t become the focus of local coverage until much later the day. By Lindsay Fitzgerald A soldier has been killed; there’s been a shootout in Centre Block on Parliament Hill; police…

While Canadian coverage was praised worldwide, it catered to a national audience. Seemingly mundane questions—such as whether buses were running and which roads were closed—didn’t become the focus of local coverage until much later the day.

By Lindsay Fitzgerald

A soldier has been killed; there’s been a shootout in Centre Block on Parliament Hill; police have not yet eliminated the possibility of other gunmen—and you have kids to pick up from daycare. Or plan a homeward commute that normally would take you through the shut-down Parliamentary Precinct. Or, you’re in lockdown and need to go to the bathroom. And no one—least of all the news media—seems interested in helping to figure out those answers.

The attack in Ottawa immediately became an international news story. Chief correspondent Peter Mansbridge anchored the story for CBC all day, winning international acclaim for the network’s calm, considered approach. Even CNN’s Anderson Cooper was on the ground in Ottawa within hours of the first shot. Canadian media have been continuously praised for accuracy in reporting the day’s breaking news to a waiting nation, but some of those caught up personally in this crisis needed answers that few journalists were seeking.

“The first thing I wanted to know was how long am I going to be here…. because I need to go and get my daughter,” said Tamara Gordon, a front desk receptionist at Sparks Dental Office, in the heart of downtown Ottawa.

Gordon has two children, one in daycare and the other in elementary school. When she tried to call the school, there was no answer, so she could only assume they went into lockdown as well. Fortunately, she got hold of her husband, who was able to coordinate picking up their kids.

Although Gordon praised the caution of the CBC coverage and she watched it nonstop until 6 p.m., she heard no mention of school closures.

Emma Bellini, who works for RBC Royal Bank, was stationed off site that day and was not in the lockdown but needed to drive through central Ottawa to get home. “I wasn’t sure if I was safe to go or even if I was supposed to go to work the next day,” she said. “They needed to give more information to the public.” Bellini’s usual 20-minute drive home was closer to a two-hour commute that night.

Like several large institutions in the city’s core, the University of Ottawa was in a lockdown until 6 p.m. “We were watching the news but heard no mention of our university,” said Timothy Lethbridge, a software engineering professor. “And yet there are 30,000 people here. We are the downtown campus.”

UOttawa provided updates to students and employees through email and Facebook from the beginning of the crisis until the lockdown was lifted. But Lethbridge, who was overseeing 70 students in the Vanic Building when they went into lockdown, was struck by important information gaps. “The media should probably still channel emergency situations,” he said. “Why certain areas on lockdown? Where to go? One thing I wanted to know was about the biological need. When you need to go to the washroom after four hours, what do you do?”

When UOttawa human kinetics student Jordi Goldberg saw a post about the first shooting on Facebook, she didn’t take it too seriously and continued to study until receiving an email from the university about the lockdown. She gathered with 10 other students in a departmental office, seeking news on Twitter and Facebook. “There was a lot of misinformation at first—multiple shootings,” she said. When the school’s lockdown ended at 6 p.m., Goldberg and a friend walked to two different bus stations and finding both closed, she walked approximately 30 minutes to get to her home.

Many Ottawa residents and visitors interviewed by J-Source mentioned transit as a big issue. “I think as far as reporting went and what was being investigated, that was good,” said UOttawa international development student Caelen Morrison. “But what I needed to know was how to get around and how accessible the downtown was.”

Meanwhile, Morrison’s mother, Colleen, had a more visceral worry. She heard the news while out grocery shopping near her home in Lindsay, Ont., and spent much of the day hunting news via CBC Online. Knowing that her daughter often hangs out at the Rideau Centre just north of campus, Colleen needed to know if rumours of another shooter in the mall were true.

And that question—how many shooters and where?—was indeed among those preoccupying reporters and editors.

For many journalists, that day was the first time covering anything like this. David Reevely, who is usually a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, was sent into the field immediately for what became an “all hands on deck” day for the paper. At one point, Reevely started to get tweets from the public asking the more “practical” questions: Where is the mayor? Are the buses running? How do I get home?

But those were questions Reevely could not answer. “It’s not like getting to the crime scene, showing up three hours later. It was still actively happening and it was getting a handle on what was happening in that moment, let alone what had happened already,” said Reevely.

“I wanted to know, I guess, what everyone else wanted to know: how many gunmen are we talking about here? Is someone with a gun running loose in the city?”

When Reevely did start tweeting out more practical information—which roads were barricaded by police, for example—he was criticized on Twitter from those outside of Ottawa asking, “Why are you tweeting about police barricades?”

Putting aside the conflict between answering local concerns and security precautions, practical answers often seemed trivial compared to the one that seemingly every journalist was seeking: Who was this shooter? And equally important: Was there more than one?

Answers were slow to come. The Citizen did not get a confirmation and report with certainty that it was one shooter until 8 p.m. that night, according to Andrew Potter, the editor-in-chief.

“There were four hours of lockdown and a lack of communication from anyone official,” Potter said. “The press conference they held was atrocious, and I had reporters locked down in their offices, even public officials in lockdown, and reporters in the field that were also at risk.”

As for advice to people caught up in the events, Reevely said, “It was just instructions without the rationales, which is not at all unreasonable. I get that. But it made it hard to understand what was happening.”

One peculiarity to the Ottawa news scene is that the city has more national reporters than most cities. If the shootings had happened in Calgary or Halifax, practical coverage would probably have risen to the fore, but for Parliament Hill bureaus, this was a national story.

And although Potter said that in partnership with Postmedia colleagues, the Citizen was covering all of the bases, at least one senior reporter said practical local questions seemed “mundane”. “We were just operating on a bigger scale that day,” said the Citizen’s Andrew Duffy.

Stationed at the paper’s Baxter Road bureau, Duffy’s perspective was a bird’s eye view, collecting minute-by-minute information from reporters in the field. Some of the answers he was looking for didn’t come until much later, if ever: What happened in the Tory caucus that day with the Prime Minister? Why did CBS have the name of the shooter first? Who followed the shooter’s Twitter account?

At first, similar national questions drove coverage at CTV Ottawa. But as the day wore on, the station’s emphasis shifted. When streams of questions began to filter in from the public asking about bus routes and how long they were going to be in lockdown, the affiliate’s news director, Peter Angione, realized that Ottawa people had different needs from the network’s national audience.

“We got school board calling us saying lockdown, and I’m a parent and thinking is everything okay with my kids? Do I need to pick them up?” said Angione. Social media, often an essential tool for journalists, was producing too much noise to help much, and at times that day, Angione recalls, the noise was “terrifying, to be honest.”

At 4 p.m., Angione told CTV’s national executive director that Ottawa needed to leave the network and start local coverage immediately. CTV Ottawa’s next three hours turned to questions like school, transit and road closures. People, said Angione, “needed to continue their lives.”

Lindsay Fitzgerald is a final-year bachelor of journalism student at Toronto’s Ryerson University, where she is currently a managing editor at The Ryersonian.