Season 4, Episode 15
For April 30/2020
“On the failure to warn the public”.
Please note: Transcription of audio used yet to be completed.
Audio: no montage use Scene 1:…going on down there…11
We don’t typically get to hear this type of audio in Canada. This voice…seeming relatively calm, in a routine-sounding relay of information…is from an RCMP officer’s radio call. Audio that is not usually released to the public. But this audio…is from the early moments of what would turn out to be the worst mass murder in Canadian history.
This is Portapique, Nova Scotia…on a Saturday night in April.
No one could have known that in the span of about 12 hours, at least 22 people would be murdered.
But some of the killings might have been prevented…had anyone taken more direct action to warn the public.
I’m Paul Cross. This is Cross Talk. Media history, commentary and analysis. Season Four, Episode 15.
It may be hard to imagine why the police arriving at a scene to find bodies near burning homes would not think it was urgent to warn residents in a wider area. I’ll come back to this.
The criticism of the RCMP for its apparent failure to communicate urgently and sensibly to the public during the mass murder rampage is deepening. Why did the Nova Scotia RCMP use Twitter? Why did it not ask the emergency measures office of the provincial government to issue an “emergency alert”? Why, at no time, did the RCMP issue any information directly to newsrooms across the region, so radio and tv would be prompted to get the warning into the news?
But it’s not sufficient – and may not be ethical – for radio and tv news organizations and newspapers to be pushing the RCMP for failing to recognize the value of getting an emergency alert issued.
The question needs to be answered inside the newsroom first: Did we get the story on the air as soon as we possibly could have?
Did we catch the very first tweet issued by the RCMP and start reporting on air, calling the cops, developing the story?
Or…Did we miss it?
Did the events play out for hours, at a time when we had no staff in the newsroom, no scheduled news casts, and no one watching out for important news?
The 24-hour newsroom is rare now. There are no overnight live radio newscasts originating in Nova Scotia. You might think tv or newspaper newsrooms would still have their feelers out in this province of nearly one-million people; but apparently not on this particular night.
I’m cautious about blanket statements; but it seems obvious now…the newsrooms of Nova Scotia were asleep.
I don’t know whether the Nova Scotia RCMP assumed newsrooms were not active at 10:30 on a Saturday night. Whatever else they thought, Superintendent Darren Campbell goes before the microphones five days later, to explain…at the time of the call we heard earlier…police thought the killer too, was likely inside one of the burning homes. They thought he had three replica police cars; and there were three at the scene. No reason for any urgent effort to spread information; they put out a tweet, urging people nearby…to stay inside and lock their doors.
Audio: No Alert 1…at that particular time…37
But not very many people in rural Nova Scotia USE twitter, according to their comments since the case broke. Residents interviewed on the news are incredulous; you used Twitter?
So…did anyone see the RCMP tweet?
Radio and tv and newspapers…they all missed it. I have searched the Twitter feeds of the most significant newsrooms in the province. NO ONE…re-tweeted the Saturday night Tweet from the RCMP…ON Saturday night.
The story…did not become news on Saturday night. But it could have and should have.
Come early Sunday morning…as radio newsrooms across the province are waking up…likely around 4 or 5 in the morning…I would expect they’d be scanning police social media and making phone calls.
But my own search of radio twitter accounts and radio station websites leaves me the impression most were having a pretty routine, slow-start Sunday morning…in the time preparing for their first newscasts of the day. That’s 6 in the morning for most stations.
It’s not until after 7 in the morning, that the story starts showing up in Tweets, and website posts; and those would coincide roughly with the first time the radio station…broadcast something about the story on the radio.
It’s also this time of day when the RCMP realizes – apparently, because of a witness who was assaulted and then hid in the bush overnight – that the killer is still on the run…with yet a fourth replica police car.
The police…decide…close to 8 ‘clock Sunday morning…they need to attempt to communicate an update, since the case is obviously still active. Again…they issue a Tweet. On April 28th, Chief Superintendent Chris Leather finds himself offering an explanation:
Audio: No Alert 2…by the RCMP…50
So again, Sunday morning, the RCMP relies on Twitter, and the hope that someone sees and reacts to tweets. It’s the emergency measures organization – the people who can issue an emergency alert in nova scotia – that contacts the police to say, hey…we can get an urgent message out for you! The RCMP cannot quickly decide what needs to be said.
At newsrooms throughout the province, a sleepy Sunday morning starts to involve tweets, and re-tweets of the RCMP…peeps.
CBC seems to catch the Saturday night tweet first…but it’s aleady Sunday morning. Pure Country CKTY in Truro tweets, apparently after the RCMP’s first tweet of the morning; a few minutes later, News 95-7 in Halifax is tweeting; in the next hour, CTV in Halifax, Global News in Halifax, and the Halifax Chronicle-Herald newspaper all clue in. Nothing about the story hits the national newswire, the Canadian Press…which goes to pretty well every newsroom in Canada…until 9:10 Toronto time. It’s already 10:10 in Nova Scotia.
This is just minutes before the suspect is shot and killed. By then…he has killed 22 people…mostly before there’s a single word on the news.
One of the reasons it’s thought we need to get emergency alerts on our phones…is that too many people won’t get the information from broadcast radio or tv. Too many people…don’t use a lot of traditional live mass media these days.
The emergency alert that would have gone to phones across Nova Scotia, had one been issued, would have also gone automatically over every radio and tv station broadcasting in the province or distributed over regional cable or satellite providers.
Theoretically then…almost everyone in Nova Scotia could have known Saturday night, that there was a very dangerous situation in progress.
An emergency alert would have helped. This is a case that meets any test of urgency; certainly, once a witness came out of hiding Sunday morning. There’s absolutely no doubt an alert should have gone out.
But why radio and tv across Nova Scotia did not spot and react to the tweets from the RCMP; and get potentially life-saving information on the air sooner…there’s another…really big question.
Radio and tv need to answer for how they missed the story for so many hours. Complaining there was no emergency alert…is just a little too much abdication of their own responsibility and shortcomings in this extremely rare and tragic case.
This is Cross Talk. I’m Paul Cross. I study, and I teach…Radio.