There are a lot of crises to report on these days and most media outlets are doing everything they can to capitalize on the headlines and draw people in. Fear is a selling proposition while facts are not nearly as lucrative as controversy or outrage. This often skews the way that events get reported. But on Wednesday when news broke that a lone gunman had shot a Canadian serviceman and was attacking the Parliament building, the difference between reporting and speculating was laid out very clearly and the American cable news division did not come out looking very well. Some people are starting to notice how the media tries to create fear in their reporting and they are noticing because the reporting from Ottawa has put an ugly spotlight on the press.
CNN is one of the main cable media outlets that has copped flak for its portrayal of the shooting. One photo floating around the internet right now is a side-by-side of CNN’s front page and Canada’s CBC News. CNN’s headline reads “Terrified Capital.” The CBC headline reports the verifiable fact that there had been a shooting and people were dead. As facts trickled in to the newsroom, CNN’s television coverage was pitched to create worry about a terrorist attack and what could possibly be happening or occurr in the future.
On the other hand, CBC anchor Peter Mansbridge offered his audience clear and concise details as well as updates on how the station was reporting the matter. He acknowledged the fraught nature of the shooting, as well as the misinformation and rumors that inevitably arise during such a situation. However, keeping the public updated with the best information possible was what Mansbridge and the network were trying to achieve. “We try to keep them out of our coverage,” he told viewers about the rumors and speculation. But when they do get reported, “you carefully weigh it with what we’re also witnessing.” Thus, with reason and calm the Canadian news monitored the shooting in Ottawa in the way it should have been covered, giving its audience only what they knew was true and treating cautiously the reports they could not verify.
How Canada and the United States both covered the Ottawa shooting has put a spotlight on how the mainstream press tries to scare its viewers. By practicing what is essentially bad journalism, the America media does less to inform its audience and more to scare them. In part this is possible because the media offers more opinion and unreliable details that ramp up people’s fears of the unknown. By offering what is actually unreliable rumor and fictive speculation, the media fails to offer true reporting and instead prompts people to panic.
How might this trend be corrected? As Mother Jones noted, one way is to teach aspiring journalists to be more like Mansbridge. Credible details, exacting analysis of sources, and avoiding offering any opinion of his own at all should be the standard of good journalism. In reality, that is what young journalists are taught, but it simply does not sell. The fight-or-flight response is one of the most powerful emotional responses anyone can have and the media is using it to for their own gain, rather than the edification of its audience. This is sometimes difficult to see, but the way the Ottawa shooting was reported has put a spotlight on the press and its practices and will hopefully lead to a more critical audience.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury