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John Doyle head shot, headshot, portrait.
John Doyle head shot, headshot, portrait.

The attack on Ottawa: Restraint, confusion defined TV coverage that, mostly, failed Add to ...

We are not used to this. It’s not our thing - the shooting and ensuing chaos and confusion. The cop, calmly but emphatically explaining, live on TV, what the heck happened. That’s a ritual, an utterly familiar practice, on U.S. TV news.

Certainly, Canadian TV news isn’t used to this. Wednesday’s events in Ottawa, as consumed on TV, unfolded as chaos and confusion. Nobody in the Canadian TV news business emerges as especially thoughtful and skilled at handling the circumstance. It was less overwrought about terrorism and less frenzied about big-picture panic than U.S. TV news, is all.

Language is beggared by such events and TV news is challenged by it. Ironic then that the iconic footage of the Ottawa shooting, the shocking, truly memorable footage seen on TV news, came from a print organization – the Globe and Mail. Josh Wingrove’s brief video of panic and shots fired inside the Parliament building became the defining imagery. Hour after hour on Canadian TV it became the no-words-needed definition of what, in raw terms, actually happened.

Soon after the news of the shooting became known on Wednesday morning, all our news services tried to cover it. And, mostly, did it badly. Admittedly, it was a highly unusual situation. Parliament Hill is home to hundreds of reporters but many were in lockdown. For a while, early on, CP24 offered the clearest coverage, simply by using phone contact with MP’s to provide accounts of what transpired inside the Parliament building. That and instant interviews with people on the streets in Ottawa, meant vivid, forceful coverage.

CBC News took several hours to find a tone, a perspective. For some time it committed the cardinal sin of displaying multiple pieces of footage on-screen without explaining what was live and what had been recorded earlier. Also it repeated, with excruciating and inappropriate regularity, footage of the solider shot at the war memorial, being given CPR, until it became unbearable to watch.

Anchor Peter Mansbridge eventually found his footing – his familiar ability to talk and talk and talk, calmly, without saying anything at all. While he and CBC news can be recognized for restraint – as they were by online U.S. outlets familiar only with typical U.S. all-news TV delirium - that concept of “restraint” only exists in contrast to what some U.S. cable news outlets deliver. Besides, with the exception of the rogue Sun News (“Possibly multiple shooters in Ottawa area!”) outlet, all Canadian TV news, CBC, CTV and Global, was restrained in its coverage.

Perhaps CNN offered the most bizarre and insufferable coverage. Canadian Ashleigh Banfield was the anchor on-duty and, for ages, propagated the view that security on Parliament Hill in Ottawa is “unarmed.” The overall tone of CNN’s coverage, in images, was high on the possibility of a sustained terrorist attack, while no evidence of this existed. Simultaneously, Banfield seemed intent on painting a picture of an innocent Canada where the police don’t have guns. It was mind-boggling, and it took an insistent Canadian reporter she interviewed on the phone to persuade her that the “unarmed” notion was simply untrue.

In truth, on TV, nobody knew what was actually happening and nobody transcended the limits of live, frantic TV news. The contemporary reality is that, in such incidents as the Ottawa shooting, a smart consumer of news needs to use every tool of the digital age, not just TV images and nattering anchors. By late afternoon some U.S. web sites praised CBC coverage and an unwarranted consensus emerged online that CBC was doing a great job. There is something horribly jejune about this – Canadian TV coverage was better precisely because its not the usual American TV news coverage, but we crave a U.S. endorsement to tell us that.

By evening, just before the Prime Minister delivered a weirdly flat, uninspiring speech to the country, CBC News Network was cultivating the terrorist angle with aplomb, as Evan Solomon allowed former CSIS operative Mubin Shaikh to rant about the lack of terrorism-awareness in Parliament Hill. Over on CTV News Channel Dan Matheson was talking to security experts who pointed out that the system, as it is, worked.

We’re not used to this in Canada. The chaotic, unfocused and often incompetent TV coverage reflected that, and it amounted to a failure. But in that it reflected all of us in our consternation and unfamiliarity with such horrific events.

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Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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