Turning inner space into outer space

October 25, 2014

CBC's careful reporting a reflection of Canadian values

CBC coverage of breaking news out of Ottawa on Wednesday was praised by many, including media critics in the U.S. who found it a refreshing change from the reckless methods used by American networks in similar situations.

Anchor Peter Mansbridge steadfastly stuck to the facts, refused to speculate, and nuanced updates by informing us of the reliability of their source. He did not jump to conclusions. He did not get ahead of himself. And in doing so provided a great service to our nation at a time of crisis.

The U.S. magazine Mother Jones had this to say:

. . . news of the shootings in Ottawa unfolded live on the CBC much like they do here in the United States: lots of sketchy details, conflicting reports, unreliable witnesses, and a thick fog of confusion. All of that was familiar. What was less familiar was how Mansbridge and his team managed that confusion, conveying a concise and fact-based version of fast-moving events to viewers across Canada and the world.

Media Bistro described it this way:

Mansbridge, in sharp contrast to the frenetic, breathless delivery we’ve come to expect from American news anchors in times of breaking news (including stories of far less significance than the attacks in Canada), was thoughtful, took his time, and seemed at times to pause, and to consider his words before speaking. Just. Imagine. That.

Thinking about the differences in style between the U.S. and Canada, the first thing that came to mind was ratings. The people who run U.S. networks are under enormous pressure to boost their ratings. For them, a crisis like this is heaven-sent: they can pull out all the stops.

This attitude works if you don’t look past tomorrow, and believe that your competitors will follow along. And, to be fair, the CBC — as a broadcaster subsidized by the public — does not feel the same compulsion to be obsessed with ratings and the ad dollars that come along with them.

Even so, you would think that there is at least some segment of the American audience large enough that it would turn to and reward a more thoughtful approach to the news. No one cares or remembers who was first with breaking news. They just want to know what’s happening — what’s really happening. In fact, people are more likely to remember who made the gaffe.

This applies even on a local scale. I wince every time I see a news organization retweet something reported from a police scanner, because this is not a reliable source. The chatter we hear on scanners is of first responders communicating so they can quickly get to the scene of an emergency and deal with it. They sometimes get things wrong, such as the location or how many people are hurt. But they don’t issue corrections — they just go and figure things out when they get there.

You can bet CBC reporters were listening to police scanners as well, hoping to pick up tidbits that might help them understand what was going on. But as Mansbridge demonstrated, they used these sources for tips to be investigated and confirmed, not as news itself. In the U.S,, and sometimes in Canada, when news outlets are scared to death of not matching competitors, reports from the scanner or other unreliable sources are considered fair game.

In fact, the CBC did get scooped, but so what?. As Media Bistro put it:

CBC News was soundly beaten by various journalists on Twitter with word the War Memorial soldier had died, but when time came for Mansbridge to bring this sad fact into his coverage, he warned he had “bad news” to report, and then very carefully explained how CBC came to believe this information was correct.

The events in Ottawa, and before that in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., have brought forth many emotions. Perhaps one of the most enduring will be that of pride in ourselves as a nation for not allowing nutcase gunmen to shake our core values about we react to their threats.

Image credit: CBC