An RCMP Emergency Response Teams swarmed the University of B.C. campus on Wednesday, January 31. With bulletproof vests and dogs, they spent the better part of the afternoon in the biological sciences building.
Neither the public nor people inside the building were told what the police were doing. The RCMP taped off the building and surrounding area and dispatched a helicopter to monitor from above. Students in the building reacted, as suggested by police, by locking themselves in classrooms and offices. They were reportedly not allowed to go to the bathroom or do anything else. They were told these measures were for their safety, and that was all they were told. All over campus, shocked students and faculty watched, waited and wondered what could be happening.
Before long, clues and rumours abounded. Students became citizen journalists as they blogged reports from inside the biosciences building. The citizen journalism website Nowpublic.com published reports that a suicidal assailant was loose in the building, threatening people’s lives. One blogger said that, “According to an email released to faculty and graduate students working in the building, a suicidal student has been displaying threatening behavior.” As part of that same update, the blogger said a witness outside called him saying that the “assailant might have a gun.” That quickly turned the onlookers’ thoughts away from a bomb threat and toward a suicidal gunman. However, at that point the police had still confirmed nothing about the nature of the threat. The only verifiable story was the police presence. Attempts by JournalismEthics.ca to contact the blogger about the accuracy of the statements have yielded no response.
It was not until March 3 that the public got any substantial information about the crisis when police announced the arrest of 19-year-old UBC student Hwi Lee on charges of uttering threats and mischief. Police said the decision to stay mum was key to their investigation. But they’re still not saying anything about the nature of the threat because the case is now before the courts.
On January 31, local media outlets published stories on their websites that a police incident was occurring and a building had been locked down. All over campus – not just in the locked-down building – staff and students were told to stay where they were. Games of telephone tag yielded rumours that included a bomb threat, the aforementioned suicide gunman and even a drill. Since I work for the student newspaper, students inside the building and outside were calling me with questions saying that media were reporting these rumours. My girlfriend received a call from her parents telling her that there was a bomb threat. Scared I was in danger, she called me while I was on the scene.
Parents from around the country frantically called their children, haunted by images from Virginia Tech and terrified of imminent violence. At about 4 p.m., mass emails circulated, stating the situation was ‘resolved’ for the rest of campus. Police began slowly releasing trapped students and faculty and by 8 p.m. the building was cleared. The actual danger wasn’t known at the end of the day, and is still not known. The police were tight-lipped. The less they said, the more rumors soared. We often talk about how changes in technology are changing the way media operates. It is changing everything from the immediacy of spot news to citizen journalism. From Virginia Tech to the London bombings, ordinary people have begun documenting extraordinary events with the help of their cell phone cameras and blogs. However, the chaos at UBC last month is a perfect place to examine how these new tools can be used prematurely and mishandled.
Is citizen journalism really a benefit to citizens? Citizens were not informed by last month’s citizen journalism, they were merely terrified by it. And the rigid police silence fueled the fire. There are many instances where citizen journalism adds to the available information and takes the gatekeeper element out of news. Recently, when a fast food restaurant was blown up overnight on a main street in Vancouver, the damage and location were quickly reported by citizen journalists. Viewers could see the damage and know to avoid that area during their rush hour commute. News agencies only have so many reporters and can only be in so many locations, but with sites like Nowpublic.com, reporters can be everywhere.
However, in an event like the UBC lockdown, citizen journalists were feeding the public unsubstantiated rumours. RCMP Cst. Annie Linteau and UBC spokesman Scott Macrae told me, along with a horde of other journalists, that nothing could be confirmed. All they said was that the building was being locked down for the student’s safety. We did not hear how the police received the threat, the nature of the threat or how many people were affected.
First and foremost, it was the lack of information and the complete silence out of the RCMP that were a root cause of the numerous rumours. This case serves to show that in our age of communication, police need to provide more information. They can no longer keep their mouths shut and expect people to think the best. They may claim that their silence was critical to their investigation, but from where I stood, their silence was not in the public interest: it led to public panic. Almost 30 officers, a helicopter, ERT and a K-9 unit can no longer just show up at a school without an explanation.
The police silence led to a situation where the press wanted and needed to report something, but had nothing to report other than that there was a threat made and there was a police presence. Members of the media looked to what students were saying and looked to citizen journalists and the Internet. Some mentioned what bloggers were saying. Technically, as long as media reports cited bloggers, they were accurate, but readers must remember to read such sources with extreme skepticism.
Luckily nothing happened on January 31 and all the students and faculty inside the building were safe. But events like this will force people to reconsider any trust they may have had in bloggers. With the elimination of the gatekeeper function traditionally held by journalists and editors, people must spend more time deciphering the news to find what is accurate. While citizen journalism is oft-hailed – and rightly so – as a boon to freedom of expression and democratization of media, we can’t forget that it’s no replacement for good old fashioned accuracy.
At the time of initial publication, JORDAN CHITTLEY was in his second year of a master of journalism degree at UBC. He completed a B.A. in Political Science and Journalism Studies at the University of Denver where he was the editor of his school newspaper. He later worked as sports editor and multimedia coordinator for the Ubyssey newspaper and freelances for various outlets in print, online and television. He helped shoot, produce and edit a piece for Dan Rather Reports and assisted on a piece for Business Nation on CNBC.