The second I step into the newsroom, my boss bolts up and out of his seat—I need to book an interview with the mayor of Moncton immediately. On June 4, 2014, three RCMP officers died in a mass shoot- ing. The next day, the search for the lone gunman is still on. I try to look up the numbers for sources online, but my lagging computer takes too long to load. My boss instead shouts out a number, and I swiftly pound the digits into my phone. The chase desk at CTV News is preparing for the 24-hour news channel’s continuous coverage of the manhunt.
As an intern, I am one of the chase producers assigned to booking witnesses. An unexpected energy takes over my body, making my heart race and my limbs go stiff. The feeling is not fear or panic; no, that would be appropriate considering the amount of pressure on an intern’s every move. Instead, it’s an adrenaline rush—and I like it.
The three people I book have the daunting task of describing shooter Justin Bourque’s demeanour during the attack. When I ask one witness if she can set up a FaceTime interview, she apologizes that she can’t: her computer is upstairs near a window and police told her to stay in her basement for safety. Suddenly, I snap back to reality. This guest is on lockdown. Three officers are dead; I’m safe and she is not. For the first time, I question the purpose of my call: how do journalists focus on delivering facts without letting emotion overwhelm them?
As I excitedly call the mayor, Global News reporter Natasha Pace does stand-ups from the scene of the shooting. Around her, police officers storm houses in search of the suspect. With the entire city on lockdown, she knows people are anxiously waiting for updates.
Pace makes sure to check and double-check her scripts for any sign of sensationalism. In an uncertain situation, she believes, it’s essential to remember what she’s reporting could still affect the outcome of the events unfolding.
A combination of focus and adrenaline carry Pace through the 36-hour shift. It’s not until a week later, back in Moncton for the funerals, that her rush subsides and she comes to terms with the gravity of what happened. “I started to realize how big a story it was,” Pace says, “and how it just touched people from one end of the country to the other.”
In the wake of such tragedies, every Canadian news outlet delivers updates. But not all can afford to send journalists across the country to report from the ground. That means news anchors have to accurately cover a story with missing pieces.
When a lone gunman stormed Parliament Hill and fatally shot a Canadian soldier on ceremonial duty on October 22, 2014, rumours spread of another terrorist attack nearby. CBC News was one network that had journalists at the scene. As a result, anchor Peter Mansbridge announced the situation was “tense and unclear.” He promised to sift through the confusion and report only the facts as the situation continued to unfold.
David Studer, CBC’s director of journalistic standards and practices, says this sense of calm and focus resonated throughout the newsroom. The alert desk created a breaking news email thread that included reporters in Ottawa, and producers and anchors in Toronto. When rumours swirled, the network waited until a journalist could confirm the facts with official sources before reporting it. Studer insists the emphasis was on being right, not first.
In a room full of focused journalists, it’s common to push aside the reality of the tragedy you’re covering. But it’s also important to not become desensitized; reporters must somehow strike a balance between the two.
Even after 15 years as a national reporter, this balance doesn’t come easily for CBC’s Stephen Puddicombe. He was in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami, Haïti after the 2010 earthquake and has reported from war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In places of turmoil, he thinks the most effective way of telling stories is through the perspective of the people affected, “but it just robs you of everything,” he says.
Puddicombe was on the ground reporting for the duration of the Moncton manhunt. He remained focused on his role as journalist until the day of the viewing—when all it took was a dog’s whimper to unravel him. He heard the heart-wrenching sound across the street from the funeral home and thought it was the dog of slain officer Dave Ross. By the time he arrived at the church, the dog was already gone. Puddicombe then approached an RCMP officer standing guard who had tears streaming down his face. The officer confirmed the reporter’s suspicions: it was Ross’s dog. Puddicombe stood there, staring at the man for a moment. This is it, he thought, this is what has just happened over the last few days. “They’re not Mounties,” he realized, “they’re people.”
By the time I leave the tense newsroom that day, my energy and concentration have subsided. I take a few minutes and allow the emotions I suppressed throughout the day to grab hold. I am both a journalist and a concerned citizen. But one identity can sometimes overpower the other because, after all, I’m also human.