Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

U.S., Take a Leaf Out of Canada's Book: Stop The Outsized Coverage of Terrorist Violence

By Sarah CutlerPublished November 9, 2014

A side-by-side comparison of U.S. and Canadian coverage of the October 23 Ottawa shooting provides valuable lessons for American media.
By Sarah Cutler, 11/09/14

By now, the details are old news: on the afternoon of October 22, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, 32, fatally shot Canadian Corporal Nathan Cirillo, who was standing guard outside the National War Memorial in the country's capital, before fleeing toward the Parliament building. Outside the Parliament, the attacker engaged in gunfire with guards, only to be shot point-blank by Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers inside the building. Though Zehaf-Bibeau's motives remain unclear, it appears he was linked to ISIS and had a history of mental illness. 

The U.S., of course, has had its share of similar events, including terrorist attacks and school shootings, but Canada differentiated itself — and provided lessons for American media — in its coverage of rapidly developing events. Where news outlets like CNN, MSNBC and Fox News covered the shooting (and have covered past domestic attacks) with what Mother Jones called "wall-to-wall speculation" and numerous reporting errors, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) gave a "master class in calm, credible breaking-news reporting."

This played out in two key ways: first, anchor Peter Mansbridge took extreme care with the news he presented, "weighing the credibility of every detail [and] constantly framing and reframing what we knew," while his American counterparts were quick to diagnose the situation as a "terror attack" or an incident of "terror in the Canadian capital." Second, the American media focused extensively on the shooter and lengthy examination of his background and ties to ISIS. CBC, in contrast, gave no more than a passing mention of the identity of the shooter, focusing instead on the guard who had been killed and the bravery of Kevin Vickers, who ended Zehaf-Bibeau's assault.

Media treatment plays a key role in the likelihood of repeat attacks. The more attention the terrorist nature of the attack receives, the more likely potential terrorists (those who are down on their luck, mentally ill or otherwise susceptible to terrorist propaganda pushing them to become "martyrs") are to see terrorism as a viable way to get attention.

A New Yorker article on October 25 cited a similar observation by Heather Hurlburt of Washington-based think tank New America. She noted that ISIS "seems to calculate…that small-scale lone-wolf attacks on symbolic targets will get outsized attention. So you see these propaganda broadcasts encouraging individuals who may be mentally unstable, who may have had little or no actual training, to use weapons like knives and cars that will surely lead to the attackers' capture or death."

She added: "The propagandists seem to understand the link between certain forms of mental illness and susceptibility to mass violence, even if we don't."

What does this mean? In part, that outsized American media coverage of relatively small attacks plays directly into the hands of groups like ISIS. The more we speculate, start rumors and panic in our coverage of these attacks, the more we encourage similar attacks in the future. 

It is worth noting that even Canada's coverage had its flaws: in the days after the attack, CBC published Zehaf-Bibeau's homemade video, in which he describes his conversion to Islam and his motives for the attack. In publicizing his video, CBC gave him outsize attention and implied that becoming a terrorist made one worthy of the public's attention.

And that's a dangerous lesson to teach those on the down and out. If they're looking for a way to make something of their lives — and perhaps get some notoriety out of it — the last thing we should do is indicate that terrorism is the path of choice.