The two murders couldn’t be more different: One was conceived as a public performance, the other seems to have been the result of a private dispute that spilled out into public with immediately tragic results.
But the news about both of them - the shooting last Saturday evening at Toronto’s Eaton Centre and the case of the so-called Canadian cannibal - offers a penetrating snapshot of how we now consume information. Both stories emerged first in social media and were then picked up by establishment outlets, which were forced to keep pace with the adrenalin rush of Twitter and other online channels while also pushing the stories forward.
And the news accounts that emerged of the two killings carry lessons about the challenges of doing the heavy lifting of actual reporting while simultaneously trying to conduct a conversation.
When the Luka Magnotta case first broke last week with the delivery of a human foot to the Conservative Party offices in Ottawa, both the media and the police had to play catch-up to a conversation that had been playing out online for a few days. At BestGore.com, aficionados had spent the weekend debating whether a video that purportedly captured a murder was real or merely the product of special effects. They apparently had no sense the information might have some value in the real world, for only one man in the virtual crowd, a Montana lawyer named Roger Renville, stepped away from his computer long enough to try to alert the authorities.
In time, the story exploded like shrapnel, propelled in large part by Magnotta’s extensive documentation of his own life. But it also demonstrated some of the hazards of reporting from single sources, especially online ones: British tabs such as The Sun and Daily Mail, which gleefully played up the alleged cannibal angle, pronounced Magnotta a “porn star,” though scant evidence of that existed beyond the accused’s own bragging. Some of the reporting seemed to have as casual a relationship with reality as Magnotta appears to have had. By the time he was arrested Monday, the online echo chamber had begun to run out of fuel.
News of the Eaton Centre attack also first broke on social media, with spot news emerging first on Twitter. TV crews and other reporters arrived quickly but had trouble catching up, stuck as they were at the street level, with the crime scene unfolding two storeys below. Even by Tuesday, three days after the shooting, the lack of access prompted the Toronto Star to publish a photo grabbed from Twitter by a witness.
You could feel the challenge in catching up to events, which were being documented and broadcast as they occurred, in some of the papers’ coverage: the Toronto Sun declared on Monday, almost hopefully, that the shooting signalled the start of “The Summer of the Gun, Part 2,” while the Star went with a crusading demand for answers on its front page. “Wanted: answers,” the paper declared, noting in the sub-headline of its lead article that Toronto Police were “withhold(ing) information on the suspect.”
It was an odd moment that, while channelling the conversation on social media, also overstepped: Police reporters recognized there was a legitimate need to not name the suspect, in order to avoid potentially spoiling the Crown’s case. But without new information, the Star couldn’t carry the story forward, and its frustration showed. You could feel it as well from other reporters, who tweeted the name of the accused an hour before the police finally made it official.
By Tuesday, the legacy news machines were up to speed, doing what they do best: tapping their sources and advancing the story with details about the intersecting lives of both the suspect and his alleged victims. It may not be exciting, or scandalous, but it has the benefit of being fact-checked.