Lack of TV news coverage of Quebec City shooting a huge broadcast failure by John Doyle

Jan 30, 2017

Source: Globe and Mail

According to the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report for last year, some 38 per cent of Canadians use websites, social media and mobile apps as their main news sources.

That means 62 per cent of Canadian rely on the traditional sources of TV, radio and newspapers and magazines. Among Canadians 35 or older, that percentage rises to 72 per cent.

On Sunday night, mind you, for many hours, information in English Canada about the mass shooting at a mosque in Quebec City was confined to a handful of online sources. English-language Canadian TV news was nowhere to be found. It was a catastrophic broadcast failure and, in particular, a disgraceful showing by CBC-TV news.

Pretty quickly, it was known with certainty that the shooting had taken place between 7:30 and 8 p.m. ET. Police responded to a 911 call at 7:55 p.m.

Well, almost 2 1/2 hours later on CBC’s The National, anchor Wendy Mesley was wittering on about “Trump and awards season.” There was, at one point, a very brief report on what seemed to be happening in Quebec City. It amounted to one phone call with one local CBC reporter who had nothing to say really except that there were “reports” of casualties. An obviously pre-recorded National just kept on going.

Much earlier, the commercial French-language TVA network was offering non-stop coverage and reporting that five people were dead and a dozen injured in the shooting. CBC’s main network and CBC News Network trundled on with packaged reports about protesters at U.S. airports and a Passionate Eye documentary. It was as if the mass shooting in Quebec was simply a rumour barely worth bothering with.

There are several assumptions that could be made in response to CBC’s failure. Maybe it is ill-prepared as a news organization to cover anything unfolding on a Sunday night. Or those in charge are lazy, smug and indifferent to the public’s expectations. Or the lives of those shot dead at a Quebec City mosque don’t matter that much. Or, perhaps, a billion dollars in funding doesn’t get you very much these days.

CTV News wasn’t much better. Again, there was only a brief chat with somebody who could confirm that something happened. CTV obviously has much fewer resources than CBC/Radio-Canada. There was an opportunity to transcend CBC’s inadequacy, but the opportunity was lost.

It was clear to me, after putting remarks on Twitter about the lack of coverage on English-language TV, that the public was just as frustrated. People were frantically hopping channels, from one source to another, looking for coverage. Even after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had issued a statement, saying, “We condemn this terrorist attack on Muslims in a centre of worship and refuge,” English-language TV in Canada seemed to be asleep. It was enormously frustrating and CBC should be ashamed of itself.

At one point, a CBC online news reporter responded to me, asserting that there was online reporting from CBC News in Quebec. And indeed there was. Some readers reported they got a news alert on their phones. While this is worth noting, far more important is the unassailable fact that CBC is funded as a broadcaster, with several radio and TV platforms in two languages. It is not now nor has it ever been primarily an online source. That is not what Canadians pay for. And, to go back to the beginning of this epistle, some 62 per cent of Canadians – the majority – rely on traditional news sources, not websites or apps, for their news.

CBC News Network should have been offering live coverage less than an hour after the mass shooting was confirmed. The technology is there to connect with reporters on the ground, almost instantly. Anyone who was looking at French-language coverage saw reporters, cameras, footage and interviews with people on the ground. There is no good reason why CBC, as a national broadcaster, failed to provide any substantial coverage in English for hours. None.

Oddly, Gerald Butts, principal secretary to the Prime Minister, took to Twitter to warn darkly about false reports – “Many fake news accounts are spreading false details of the horrific attack in Quebec City. Please look closely before retweeting.”

It is strange for the Prime Minister’s Office to warn Canadians about possible “false reports” online when the well-funded national broadcaster failed to respond promptly to the mass shooting and failed to offer as much solid coverage as possible. One has to wonder why English-language CBC even has a 24-hour all-news service in the first place. Maybe Gerald Butts is wondering the same thing.

On Sunday night, English-language Canadian TV was missing in action for hours. Online reporting simply isn’t enough. Ever. And CBC-TV let the country down, badly. That’s not a false report or eccentric opinion. It stands up.

© Globe and Mail