2 Tragedies, 2 Countries, 2 Responses
Police forces around the world have walked a tightrope for years when dealing with the news media. How much information should be shared with reporters and when that information should be revealed are two fundamental questions that have been around for decades.
If too much information is revealed early, suspects may get away, or the court case against those who are accused could be compromised. Holding information back too long makes police departments look secretive and suggests they're hiding something.
Last week brought two classic examples of the fine line that exists when police share information with the media and the public.
A Bombing Too Close to Home
I followed last week’s bombing in Sherwood Park closely because it was so close to home. In fact, I recently parked in the same parkade where the bomb went off.
Almost exactly a month ago, I spoke at a Small Business Week event at the Strathcona County building and parked there. I’ve done media training for the County of Strathcona in that building and have had lunch at Vicky's Bistro there a few times. I know the County building well. It’s functional, beautiful and well used.
It was eventually revealed a 21-year old man named Kane Koslowsky was responsible for the bombs that went off last Tuesday evening. At first, the RCMP refused to release his name and only did so after Koslowsky’s family agreed to it a couple of days after the incident.
The following night, 13 people were killed in yet another mass shooting in the US, this time in a crowded country music bar in Thousand Oaks, California. It only took police there a few hours to identify former US Marine 28-year old Ian Long as the gunman.
Two senseless tragedies involving two men in their 20’s a little more than 24 hours apart, but that’s where the similarities end.
An Information Gap
In the Sherwood Park bombing, the RCMP didn’t provide any significant details until the following afternoon, around 20 hours after the first bomb went off. A few hours before that, the Mounties had a media briefing where they said very little, other than urging the media and the public not to speculate. Response on social media was swift and had the same message for the RCMP– if you don’t want the media and public to speculate, then share some information about what happened.
The RCMP later said it couldn’t say more at the time because of the nature of the investigation. Reaction was interesting. There was some grumbling from reporters, especially on social media and on-air reports questioned why police couldn’t say more. Despite that, there was a significant number of people on social media who seemed perfectly okay with allowing police to “have time to do their job” before providing details to the media.
Around 10 hours after the RCMP confirmed the bombings and that a young man was dead, the Thousand Oaks shooting occurred. Police on the scene in California provided information overnight on details of the shooting, complete with the number of people killed and injured and within hours identified the police sheriff who was killed in the gunfire after responding to the shooting and even provided a photo of him.
It was a stark contrast to the information void in the Sherwood Park bombings. Part of the reason is the difference in how police in the US traditionally speak to the media after high profile incidents. A bigger factor is this is how the RCMP operates and has done so for years. It rarely shares much information quickly and when it does, details are limited.
This summer the RCMP held a news conference to announce charges being laid against the truck driver involved in the Humboldt bus crash, but refused to answer any questions. It brought back the words of a former media mentor of mine “If you don’t plan to answer questions at a news conference, then don’t hold one and send a news release instead.”
The Role of the Media
Media reaction to the two incidents was different too. While we did have some reports in the local media of friends of Koslowsky talking about who he was and what he was like, we didn’t learn near as much as we did about the shooter in the Thousand Oaks tragedy, especially from police.
Within a matter of hours of the shooting, California police said they dealt with Long last April and cited his unstable mental health. There were details about his short career as a Marine and we even heard from his high school track coach who kicked him off the team after he attacked and groped her.
I’m not suggesting reporters in Canada don’t do their jobs, but the media environment is different here than in the US. I think we allow people surrounding tragic incidents to have a little more time to grieve. We didn’t see the media camped outside the home of Koslowsky’s parents like we did in the Thousand Oaks massacre. Maybe that’s a good thing.
As a former journalist, I want to see the media and public get the information as soon as possible. I don’t like information being withheld without a valid reason. I’m not saying the American way is right, but I would like to see a happy medium.