Two Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers leave the Nova Scotia RCMP Headquarters in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, on April 20. Journalists in the province have struggled to cover a mass shooting due to COVID-19 containment measures. (Reuters/John Morris)
Two Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) officers leave the Nova Scotia RCMP Headquarters in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, on April 20. Journalists in the province have struggled to cover a mass shooting due to COVID-19 containment measures. (Reuters/John Morris)

Halifax Examiner’s Tim Bousquet on covering a mass shooting in a pandemic

When news broke that a gunman had killed at least 22 people in Nova Scotia on April 18 and 19, the Halifax Examiner, a small independent local news website, began piecing together how the deadliest mass shooting in Canada’s history had occurred.

In normal circumstances, the team—two full time staffers and up to five part-time reporters—would have been out in the field reporting, founder and veteran investigative reporter Tim Bousquet told CPJ in a late April phone interview. With the need to maintain social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic, they mostly worked the phones and navigated electronic press conferences.

Bousquet said the website’s direct and uncompromising coverage of the impact of COVID-19 had increased reader subscriptions, providing the news team with resources it needed to cover the shooting and hold local authorities, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police [RCMP], to account for the way it was handled.

CPJ called and emailed the RCMP for comment about its engagement with the media and response to the shooting. A spokesperson requested questions by email but did not respond before publication.

The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How did your approach to reporting breaking news differ with COVID-19?

In the normal course of events, we would send people to the scene. This was a little different, both because of COVID and because of the way events unfolded.

There was a communication failure on the part of the RCMP, which is the police force in rural areas in Nova Scotia. They did not convey to the public the gravity of the situation.

[On the night of] Saturday April 18, there were 13 people killed in Portapique, which is a small hamlet on the Bay of Fundy. Through the course of the night, they never issued a statement or anything other than there was a firearms complaint.

The next morning, the RCMP was only communicating via Twitter. They hadn’t made any official releases and did not activate the province’s emergency alert system, even though a mass murderer was wandering across the province killing people.

[We were all at home because of COVID] and I had no indication of just the dimensions of this.

What did you do after began to realize how bad things were?

It wasn’t until a Sunday evening press conference that they related that one of their own officers had been killed in this pursuit. It was ten minutes into the press conference when they said that there were over ten more victims.

Typically, we would send a couple of reporters to Portapique, but that wasn’t really an option. We did have a reporter drive around to the various sites, and we had a sense of it that way. Otherwise we’ve been doing all our work on the telephone.

We’re a relatively small operation. Collaboratively through our own phone calls and contacts, we were able to piece together who the victims were and then a timeline. I think we were the first out [with that information] in Nova Scotia, so we’re quite proud of that.

You and other local media have been a main source of on-the-ground reporting since outside media was not allowed into Nova Scotia. What’s that been like?

I see that as a big issue that’s worth pursuing down the road. We have these COVID-19 restrictions in every province. If you cross the provincial line, whether driving or flying, you are ordered to self-isolate for 14 days.

There’s only one road into Nova Scotia. The international media had great interest in the story and wanted to fly their own reporters in to cover it. They asked for an exemption to that health alert. The chief medical officer declined to give that exemption.

I find that problematic. I recognize that there are public health issues, but we are a small out-of-the-way province and we don’t have a large reporting pool here. Not to take away from my colleagues here in Nova Scotia, but it’s hard to challenge the powers that be as a [local] reporter. My repeated criticism locally is that the reporting hasn’t been tough enough, and I think we could have used [colleagues from] outside to give a broader perspective and context. We’re trying to ask the challenging questions, but it’s another thing entirely when CNN or The Guardian or whoever is able to bring their reputational power into the provinces and ask those questions.

Has the RCMP held any press conferences?

The RCMP held two in-person press conferences following the massacre, but they’ve since moved to virtual press conferences, which are problematic. Only a pool TV camera is allowed in the room and a moderator gets to control who asks the questions.

During the one on [April 28], the Wall Street Journal got to ask a question, the Globe and Mail out of Toronto got to ask a question, some gun rights organization got to ask a question, but the Halifax Examiner, which has been leading the reporting on this, did not get to ask a question.

They also sent out several press releases. One of them was very bizarre, it gave very little new information, but it had a Q&A attached. The questions were not from reporters, they were crafted by the RCMP’s PR people. The answers were also run through that filter. For example, one asked if the shooter had a criminal record. The answer they gave was “no.”

It’s technically true that he didn’t have a criminal record, but he certainly had a court record and it included a conviction of assault. The way the RCMP framed that question and answer eliminated that.

How do you think things might have unfolded differently if COVID-19 wasn’t a factor?

Frankly, we’ve been exhausted, because we’ve been all out on the COVID reporting for six weeks now. All of our resources have gone into that coverage. When COVID started coming on to the scene, I said, “I don’t care about our budget anymore. We’re going to cover this as good as we can, and we’ll max out the company credit card and the line of credit, and take out whatever loans we need.”

I fully expected that we would reach an effective bankruptcy by this time, that we wouldn’t have any more resources to continue reporting. But because of that coverage, the public has been extremely supportive of the Halifax Examiner and has been subscribing in very large numbers and donating money. As a result, by the time the mass murder happened, we had a bunch of writers we could get to cover it. It’s bizarre to think that COVID actually helped us to be in a position to better report on the mass shooting.