Photo of alleged cop-killer, Justin Bourque (left), with a friend, a few of his weapons, and bullets scattered in front of him. Image via Facebook.
A desperate manhunt for the suspected killer of three RCMP officers in Moncton, New Brunswick ended late last night after a terrifying 28 hours of uncertainty. Moncton, and millions of others outside of the rarely newsworthy city, followed along closely. At first the crowd was desperate for information, then fearful for developments as the searching stretched into days, and finally, we were able to celebrate that no one else had to die. Thanks to Twitter, the population of Moncton grew from almost 70,000 to a virtual population of millions—myself included.
Residents of north Moncton had very little information to go on at first, other than scared tweets from neighbours: a shooter was staking their quiet suburban neighbourhood. Cops had been shot, some might be dead.
In the end, three officers were killed; two others are alive but in the hospital.
Justin Bourque, age 24, was armed with a semi-automatic rifle and a six-shot pump-action shotgun, which was determined by Global News. Decked in camouflage with two guns slung across his shoulders, he made it clear he was dangerous.
The people of Moncton had to wait hours to get that scary information, and really, it wasn't much.
The media scene in Moncton isn't like the cities where mass shootings have happened in the past, and it showed badly. At 7:20 p.m, calls were made to the police about a man wielding guns in the Hildegarde neighbourhood. Shortly after, accounts spread across Twitter like wildfire by people watching the firefight saying officers were down. Television and radio was surprisingly useless.
It wasn't until 9:12 p.m that the RCMP published on Twitter that there was a shooting in the area, and the press became more visible. At 10:17 p.m, the alleged shooter was identified—on Twitter—and it wasn’t until 10:54 p.m that it was confirmed three officers had died, two others were in the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries, but no names were given.
These were some of the only tweets that early in, and undeniably the most accurate.
The local hospital in Moncton tweeted at 9:27 p.m that they had received two patients with gunshot wounds, and a third later on at 10:56 p.m. It was a saving grace that they were self-sufficient online. With a hospital in code orange (an emergency status reserved for an event that results in massive casualties), being able to react quickly and get the word out are essential to saving lives. They didn't know how many bodies would be brought in, but they were ready and they made sure people knew.
That's the value of immediacy in news. Don't forfeit accuracy, but getting information out to people as quickly as possible when someone is shooting officers in the streets is day-one stuff.
The onus of coverage falls to the local resources: radio, television, and print—especially in a digital age when everything can be published immediately. For Moncton, that would be the Times and Transcript. As the local paper, they're expected to know what's happening, as it's happening and get the word out fast. Police scanners in the office aren't some sick kind of elevator music journalists just like to have going in the background.
So why did they not have anything online for people to see until 9 p.m, which only told people what they already figured out? “At least three police officers shot in Moncton—manhunt underway,” read the tweet.
Their staff were out on the streets, interviewing people and following what was happening, but no one was tweeting. Nothing was out for one reason: paywall.
Viktor Pivovarov, a photographer who snapped the horrifying photo of Justin Bourque patrolling Moncton with heavy rifles, could be said to have done great journalism—the type that regularly warrants a paywall. Thanks to his bravery, the people of Moncton and the rest of the world could put a face to a name, and somehow it felt like they were closer to catching him.
This is a whole new problem for the media: Moncton’s local papers have very strict paywalls. They’re arguably affordable to bypass, but impossible to take down from inside Moncton, for a night or even just for one story. The reaction on Twitter was almost unanimous: a lot of people were furious that the paper wasn't covering the shootings, and later even angrier to find the content they were putting out there wasn't made publicly available.
Global and CBC received similar complaints when the people of Moncton didn't see anything from them.
Those major media entities have a much different reason for their initial absences. The CBC has endured well-publicized budget cuts this year across the board. Now, like Global, they operate in Moncton but are overall run from Halifax, under the broader Maritime bureaus. They couldn't just as quickly pull the cord, cancel what was on the air and interrupt your regular broadcasting to bring you these important messages. And, with the bulk of the crisis happening after dark, it's not as if someone was sitting in Halifax waiting to do just that.
So if you wanted news on a shooting? Tune into talk radio.
Moncton isn't like anywhere else where a mass shooting has taken over because there is such a small pool of local resources that when the time came for it, they were ill prepared. Broadcasters couldn't regain control of their airwaves and your pen-and-paper reporters couldn't get their news out to anyone without a subscription. People went to Twitter because their televisions and radios gave them nothing, and very little was accessible elsewhere online.
This mass exodus of audiences away from traditional media and onto the internet was certainly noticed by the RCMP New Brunswick, who did an excellent job of keeping their Twitter feed updated. They also urged citizens to not share any information about police movements—just in case Justin Bourque was watching.
It only took a few hours for everyone to get their footing, but with a killer on the loose and families hiding in their basements, a lot more could have and should have been done. Panic and fear should have been met with up-to-date information, and the promise to be right there the moment there's anything else to report.
Despite their small-city status, Moncton is reminding the rest of Canada there's a lot more to prepare for in the event of crisis. Have your police ready, keep your hospitals in top form, but loosen the leash on your journalists enough so they can get their jobs done and provide immediate information to the local population. Media budget cuts and staff outsourcing are a bad first line of defence when people want to know where their news was when they needed it, and it won't be accepted a second time.