“C’est le terrorisme à l’envers.”
Those were words that Pierre Bruneau would have liked to have had back (he apologized for them on Monday). He said them during a live telephone interview with Montreal mayor Denis Coderre just before midnight Sunday on TVA, hours after a shooting at a mosque in Quebec City left six people dead.
Bruneau was thinking out loud about how this was an apparent terrorist attack against Muslims, when we normally think of terrorism committed by Muslims (even though, with one major exception, such attacks are extremely rare in North America). He didn’t mean to say something ignorant or racist, but it kind of came out that way, at least for many of the now hundreds of thousands who have seen a video of the exchange on Facebook.
Bruneau is a veteran and a professional. He’s been dealing with breaking news for decades. And when even he starts mouthing off about n’importe quoi, it’s because there’s something wrong with the situation he’s been put in.
On Sunday evening, as news spread about the attack, people were hungry for information. Many of them lashed out on Twitter about the lack of live coverage on all-news channels. While LCN and RDI went live with special programming, CTV News Channel and CBC News Network did not at first. Critics tied the lack of live coverage to budget cuts, laziness and ignorance of anything happening outside of Toronto. John Doyle at the Globe and Mail made a column out of it. Even Le Soleil’s Richard Therrien blasted Radio-Canada for not more aggressively cutting into its main network programming, and then only doing so locally.
There are legitimate reasons to criticize CTV, CBC or other broadcasters. They’ve all had to undergo cuts to their newsrooms (mainly because their revenue has decreased as the market for TV advertising goes down). They tend to have minimal or even no staffing on weekends and overnight, and in a place like Quebec City where there’s no local English TV station, merely a bureau at the National Assembly, your immediate coverage is dependent on a single journalist and her cameraman.
The English networks could have gone live from Toronto, as the French ones did from Montreal, after the news broke around 9pm. But with the Quebec City reporter still rushing to the scene, and few details to go on, they’d be stuck spending 30 seconds recapping what they know (there was a shooting at a mosque, several people are dead and more injured, police have made arrests) and then filling the rest of every hour with their imaginations.
I’m one of those people who think 24-hour news networks should be focused on breaking news. After all, that’s what they’re there for, right? But I’m not sure special programming right off the bat is necessarily the way to go for an incident that is not a safety threat to the public. If they’d done that, we’d probably be roasting them over the coals for all the stupid ignorant stuff they said over the air to fill time, like we’re doing to Bruneau.
So let me propose a different solution to breaking news on all-news channels (and their related over-the-air networks):
- On the news channel, break into programming to announce what happened once it’s confirmed something actually did happen. Explain what you know and what you don’t know, and promise regular updates. Go back to regular or filler programming.
- Add a banner, ticker or other permanent on-screen element to whatever programming is airing explaining the news and giving the latest details. (This is standard on RDI when major news breaks but they can’t go live yet.)
- If your network has an over-the-air station in the affected market, and there’s a possible public safety issue, put that banner or ticker on top of programming there, include whatever public safety information needs to be communicated, and direct people to the news channel for more information. When the news channel has special programming ready, duplicate that channel’s feed on the local station.
- For the rest of the network, air a 30-second report instead of the first commercial at the next commercial break, directing people to the all-news channel (or if you don’t have one, your website) for more information.
- On the news channel, every half hour, give a 30-second (or however long it takes) update from the anchor desk, again being as transparent as possible about what you know, what you don’t know, and what you’re working on and cautioning that early information (even from official sources) can be wrong.
- When enough resources are mobilized that you’re confident you can have enough real information to air without having to resort to speculation to fill airtime, begin full-time special programming.
- Find things that can be cued or cut to when your anchor has run out of information to give. Maybe a two-minute roundup of the other headlines of the day. Even something simple like a graphic wall of text summarizing the known information so far. Do everything you can to resist the urge to start speculating, or asking other people to speculate, about breaking news.
- Once the influx of news has died down, especially if it’s now late at night, sign off from special programming and go back to updates every half-hour or hour.
Networks that run news channels need to do better jobs when news breaks late at night. So many major stories — the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the disaster in Lac-Mégantic and this — broke at night on the weekend, limiting the networks’ ability to cover them.
But like with those stories, there was plenty of coverage eventually. Every network and all the major newspapers sent reporters to Quebec City, either Sunday night or Monday morning. In fact, all three English-language national newscasts were anchored from Quebec City on Monday night (what journalistic use there is sending the anchors to Quebec City so they could deliver a newscast outside in the cold is still beyond my comprehension).
Plus, most of the information people were getting on Twitter or online came from the same journalists that were covering the incident for the major networks or newspapers. And yet people say stupid things like how they don’t need mainstream news because they have Twitter.
So the issue wasn’t a lack of interest, it was a lack of information early on, combined with difficulty mobilizing journalistic resources in an area that has few English-language journalists and at a time when most journalists in general aren’t working.
There are things that can be worked on there (though, of course, no consumer wants to pay for it) that may speed up the process a bit. But there is no circumstance in which you can produce a journalistically solid hour-long newscast about a breaking news event on a half-hour’s notice. You can’t make the authorities work faster, nor can you do their job for them. So in the first few hours of any breaking news story, you’re still left with some bad choices: wait before going live and continue with regular programming (pissing off the John Doyles of the world), produce live programming that repeats little information ad nauseam, have a lot of dead air, or ask your journalists to start doing what people on social media were doing on Sunday night: Repeating rumours, speculation and poorly-informed hot takes and emotional reactions rather than facts.
Which would you choose? My proposal above is the closest thing I can come to a compromise, but even the best-laid plans can easily fail when something big happens without warning.