Of Terror and Twitter: Shootings in Ottawa and Media Coverage

I have been glued to my computer screen, CBC live coverage on as I scroll through tweets and Facebook posts. If I had another screen CTV would be on too, as would CNN and anyone else reporting on the shootings today in Ottawa at the War Memorial and on Parliament Hill. It hits too close to home, I walked by that memorial at least twice a day for nearly four years working on the Hill.

As I grasp desperately for meaning in a flood of speculation from traditional and social media alike, I can’t help but notice stark differences in the way today’s horrible events are being portrayed in Canada, the US and on Twitter. I want to preface this post by stating that I have not conducted a full fledged media analysis, if you want to hear about my rather rudimentary methods let me know and I’ll write it up.

Terrorism wasn’t the story. But it might be soon.

Canada’s mainstream media outlets have worked to present up-to-the-minute reporting. Every briefing from every possible political player, it seems, has been covered. Journalists have worked to inform citizens, they have not speculated about terror attacks or the “islamic threat” as US media outlets have.

On Twitter the chatter started out very much in line with the reports coming from CBC, CTV, and other Canadian outlets. The hashtags #OttawaShooting, #StaySafeOttawa and #PrayForOttawa jumped into action with the first serving as a venue for news sharing and the second and third for offering messages of support. Overlap exists and other kinds of messages were certainly sprinkled in, but these were the dominate themes.

Trends

Mid-afternoon, as the dust settled and buildings began to be cleared the chatter started to change. The RCMP held a press conference and wherein little concrete knowledge was shared. The panel was asked about the possibility of continued threat and if anything was known about the shooter who was killed in Parliament. For the first time I’d heard, a journalist eluded to the possibility that this might be an act of terrorism related to ISIS. Coverage following the press conference did not follow this line of questioning, presumably because there was, and currently is, no reason to believe it is the case. We just don’t know.

Next, CNN and Fox News started to join CBC and CTV as dominate message senders in the Ottawa shootings Twittersphere. At the same time #ISIS is becoming an increasingly popular hashtag in Canada, in Twitter terms it was “trending.” And Twitter’s algorithms which are designed to help you find information better start suggesting you search ISIS when you search “Ottawa,” “#OttawaStrong,” and “PrayForOttawa.” This suggests that people are posting on these topics simultaneously and/or they are searching for these topics in conjunction. Either way, the general Twitter public is exhibiting a new concern which Canada’s traditional media are neither instigating nor fuelling at this point. For one 30 minute sample, 1 in 5 tweets containing the hashtag #OttawaShooting had some reference to ISIS, terror, islamic threat or related concept.

Related Searches: ISIS

Search Fill

Not only is the threat of terror becoming an increasingly dominant theme, but the classical response to a national threat is also emerging. The hashtag #CanadaStrong which is dominated by photos of the Canadian flag and messages of Canadian pride became the second highest trending hashtag in Canada by 4:00pm EDT. While this hashtag is dominated by positive messages increasingly there is a sense of “us versus them” being established and many racial slurs and references to terror have been evoked. At this point I have yet to conduct any formal content analysis on this hashtag.

Twitter and the traditional media

Now, Twitter loves to comment on traditional media and traditional media seem to like to reference Twitter now and then. There are a lot of different approaches journalists and media outlets have taken to incorporating social media into their reporting. All major outlets have active Twitter feeds and Facebook pages, many news programs also have specialized hashtags they promote, some solicit input from viewers and scroll tweet responses across the screen. And sometimes, a journalist is pushed a piece of paper that says something along the lines of, ‘it seems Twitter cares too! For example, there is debate as to what the Prime Minister is drinking in the photo his office released while he was getting a security briefing.’

It was probably juice. But hey, if it was whiskey I don’t know that I’d blame him. Simply, not the story.

Security Briefing

The anchor, rightly so, told viewers that was not the story as he was reporting it and that was the last of Twitter time.

The problem is, there is a lot of interesting information about what citizens care about and what they think that can be drawn from Twitter if done properly. Talk about the fact that terror threats are concerning people across the nation or that citizens are also calling on each other to be calm and collected and to wait until we know more details. Explain that Canadians are turing to social media to share stories and words of hope and support. Describe how people are reacting so those of us far away can feel connected. That is what Twitter offers, you can too.

Obviously there are a lot of unknowns when it comes to Twitter use by traditional media and obviously mid-breaking news story is not the ideal time to sit and ponder the best use. But breaking news stories are also the moment at which activity is at its highest and payout is greatest in terms of generating discussion, informing the public, and broadening your audience.

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