CBC Ottawa and the coverage of the recent Bus Crash: journalistic norms reinvented

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Image from CBC Website

The coverage of the recent bus crash in Ottawa on September 18, 2013 is a good example of how media reports on major accidents.

Everyone in Ottawa must recall the full week of media coverage of the accident on every platforms. One media outlet will never forget its coverage of the Bus Crash as they had to deal with audience’s fire: this is CBC Ottawa. However, a trip to the CBC Ottawa building on October 1st—less than two weeks after the accident—helped me put into perspective this media coverage, and the way people have responded to it.

Before going further into details concerning CBC Ottawa’s coverage of the bus crash, let’s reflect on what is at stake in this coverage. What are the journalistic norms that are challenged here? Do traditional journalistic norms become obsolete? What are the steps for reinvention and how and when to trade journalistic norms?

Presentation of CBC Ottawa

CBC Ottawa is a local TV channel, a branch of the mainstream media outlet and funding Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). However, as a local broadcaster, CBC Ottawa reports locally on news happening in Ottawa and worldwide with an impact for the citizens of Ottawa. The structure of this organization is defined by what Infotendencias Group called convergence. As they explained in their article Media Convergence, “the media are going through a period of thorough-going change”, which is a direct consequence of ‘new habits’ in the industry (Infotendencias Group 2012, p21). In an effort to conquer these new habits, many news media went through the internal reorganization form called convergence. CBC Ottawa also followed this path.

As a matter of fact, I learned during my visit that since 2004, CBC has relocated all of its services under one roof on their location on Queen Street. Editors and staff of French and English News, radio, TV and online news work side by side in an attempt to respond “to the challenges posed by a media market with new rules”. (Infotendencias Group 2012, p21) This work reorganization allow daily editors’ meeting in order to facilitate an effective implementation of the news making. I was lucky to observe one of these editors meeting and witnessed the efficiency and innovation brought by this new journalistic process. Beyond the journalistic and learning aspect of this experience, I also realized that female presence was more than well distributed. Among the 11 editors who attended the meeting 9 were female. Does this answer to a positive government trend to increase women presence in the workforce? This is a question that will require considerable thought in a later work. Nevertheless, the increase of women presence in journalistic field, as seen at CBC Ottawa, brings us far away from traditional journalism. It also expresses how things are being reinvented in the profession and the obsolescence of traditional practices that some media businesses seem to hold on.

Brief description of the bus crash from CBC Ottawa coverage

Despite of its funding status, CBC and its branches, namely CBC Ottawa, are impacted by the pressure felt by every media business to be the first to get the news and in the same time to report in an accurate and ethical manner. On top of it, journalists are also required to be held accountable for their news reports. The recent bus crash is a good illustration of news event that put media on the race for scoop. Building on a CBC blog post about the crash and some journalistic papers, I offer a brief analysis of CBC Ottawa coverage of this accident while touching on the journalistic norms and other mediated trends used on this case.

I recalled being at home on September 18th surfing on the Internet when I first saw the news on Facebook. I then rushed and opened the TV; CTV was broadcasting the first images of the crash. In order to get more information I went through other news channels including CBC Ottawa. Later on, I got back to Facebook and Twitter to learn more about the accident. At that moment there were only raw news coming from many sources of respected journalists and citizen journalists as well. I learned that an OC Transpo Bus had crashed into a Via Rail Train and that several people included the bus driver had died. Obviously, I would not be able to consume the news through so many platforms back in the last century. About two decades ago I would probably seen the breaking news on television, wait for the day after newspapers to get a first analysis of the situation. But, that was then. The next Tuesday in a class discussion for course CMN5165 – New Directions in Journalism, I understood that most of my classmates followed the same trends, and mainly used the Internet to get the latest about the bus crash. Undeniably, Internet has changed the way people consume the news, developing new platforms and bringing new journalistic trends. As we could see in the coverage of CBC Ottawa, the use of social media was a key factor.

There were two meaningful and pervasive developments in this coverage: a mistake regarding the death toll and an interview with the driver’s widow, which had happened too soon according to audiences’ view. As far as journalistic norms were concerned, CBC Ottawa and the whole corporation were held accountable for this coverage. In fact, this is one of the reason CBC’s editor in chief, Jennifer McGuire, wrote the blog Covering the Ottawa Train-Bus Crash. In this blog post, which explained the whole coverage, Ms McGuire said that they were receiving emails, photos, and video footages from many sources including bystanders. She also added that “sometimes in a fast shifting story such as this one, the rush to be first with the news can sometimes overwhelm the need to be right” (CBC blog). As a matter of fact, “early in the morning of day two, one of [CBC] reporters at the crash site announced on air that the number of dead had risen from six to seven” (ibid).

This is another way of saying that accuracy and verification, investigative journalism, and credibility of news reporting are often challenged in big stories like this. My encounter with CBC Ottawa journalists helped me understood that it is never simple. Despite years of experiences and dedication for trustworthy reports, mistakes happened. Besides, the new challenges brought by the Internet and a market in crisis don’t make it any easier. Then a mistake such as mentioning seven deaths instead of six took on dramatic proportions. Adding to that, ‘the rush to be the first’ as stated by Jennifer McGuire, and the willingness for greater analysis led to an interview that many had judged inappropriate. CBC Ottawa had contacted the bus driver’s widow the day after the accident in an attempt to learn more about the man and try to put into perspective what might have happened. CBC journalists told us that audiences’ response on social media and emails were huge and straightforward. Many believed that it was beyond decency as stated in McGuire’s blog post. However, this example did prove how much the relationship between consumers and news makers have changed. According to Alfred Hermida, “social media builds the notion of a participatory media culture, where citizens are viewed as going beyond just reading the news”. (Hermida 2012, p312). Audiences don’t just consume passively the news. Internet and social media offer them new platforms to interact with news producers by making comments, sharing footage and video of news unfolded before them. Today journalists and traditional media outlets have no choice but to negotiate with the new kind of consumers. As such, CBC felt the need to explain why they decided to go along with this interview in an online statement.

Indeed the coverage of the Ottawa bus-train crash have put into light more than the challenges faced by traditional media outlets and the new trends in reporting. It also enlightens a greater fact: the need for reinvention and innovation. Undeniably, the increased participation of consumers in the news making is saying more than clearly that the traditional practices in the profession of journalism are obsoletes. Where convergence and other managerial measures might help the industry survive the ongoing crisis, true journalism cannot survive unless it pays particular attention to its audiences and its environment. Reactions to the interview with the widow of the bus driver also showed that a new era of journalism is here: digital, citizen media, but first of all an era made of new rules. We are experienced an era where citizens can force journalists to be accountable and responsible for their news reports. I argue that the best way for news media to fit and succeed in this new era is to listen carefully to its environment, while keeping in mind the respect of journalistic norms, and the way to adapt them in regard of these changes.

By Katia Ulysse-Saint Vil

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