Oh, Canada

This post originally appeared in the October 25, 2014 edition of the Wise County Messenger. Photo found here.

This time last year, I was in Washington, D.C. for an internship. I got to witness some interesting parts of U.S. history while I was there.

I saw the government shut down in response to the Affordable Care Act rollout. I saw Ted Cruz filibuster the same bill for 21 hours while reading “Green Eggs and Ham.” I got to cover a lot of the protests that came up as a result of that whole mess.

I never feared for my safety that day. It takes 10 minutes on the Metro and at least 11 minutes driving just to travel four miles in D.C. The shooting happened on a Monday, which meant I had the day off from work, as did every other intern in my program.And I lived within four miles of the Navy Yard shooting on Sept. 16, 2013.

However, if you watched the news at all that day, it seemed like the whole capital was on lockdown looking for multiple gunmen with an arsenal of weapons at their disposal. I got texts and phone calls all day from family members asking if I was OK.

In the end, it was only one gunman, Aaron Alexis, with one shotgun, who ended up shooting and killing 12 Navy employees and wounding several more before he was killed by law enforcement officers.

It was a devastating tragedy for all those involved, but it was made worse by the frenetic, assuming way the media covered the events. “We assume” became “Unnamed sources have told us.” “We cannot confirm anything at this time” morphed into “We have a reporter on the scene who tells us a worker heard something this morning.” With that kind of coverage, it’s no wonder so many people thought the entire district was under attack.

The old, oft-repeated phrase in journalism classrooms across the country is “Would you rather be first, or be right?” Meaning, do you want to be the first person to report a story that could potentially boost your career and the prestige of your network – or do you want to wait until you have confirmed facts before you go on air with anything?

I was reminded of the Navy Yard shooting this week, when a lone gunman killed a soldier who was keeping watch at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Capitol Hill in Ottowa Wednesday. Several American news outlets praised the Canadian media for their calm and non-sensational coverage of the event, which stood in contrast to the way the American media covers shootings.

Take this example of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s coverage of the Ottowa shooting:

“And it’s on days like this – we keep reminding you of this and it’s important – it’s on days like this, where a story takes a number of different pathways, a number of changes occur, and often rumors start in a situation like this. We try to keep them out of our coverage, but when they come, sometimes from official sources, like members of Parliament, you tend to give them some credence.” – Peter Mansbridge.

Mansbridge told where he got the information and how he came to know it, and he acknowledged that there were a number of unknowns. To view the video where this quote came from, visit youtube/MLORytusZ4c.

In watching more news footage from Wednesday, I found that Mansbridge was beaten to the punch on many events by citizen journalists on Twitter, but whenever he reported something, it was concrete fact and not speculation. At one point he asks the audience, “What do we know with certainty now?”

I found it refreshing but shocking at the same time. I wasn’t bombarded with cloying BREAKING NEWS graphics or emotive musical cues. No talking heads told me the underlying cause for this was the immigrants coming into the country or the president’s failure to pass more stringent gun control laws.

There was only a reporter, talking only about what he knew, and a camera focusing only on the Parliament building. That was it.

In short, it was the Canadian stereotype many Americans think about when we picture our friends to the Great White North – thoughtful, apologetic and understated.

Maybe Canada’s onto something.

Jake Harris is a reporter for the Messenger.

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