When the Canucks lost the cup, reporters covering the game found themselves in the middle of a riot. In this piece —originally published by J-Source — I explain how two Vancouver newsrooms, The Province and Global TV BC, pushed information out to readers, in real time, despite tear gas, press-targeted violence and countless dead batteries.
The main difference between the ’94 Canucks riot and last week’s: This time round, in addition to the usual footage of hooligans flipping cars and lighting fires, readers could access information of the practical sort — transit updates, photos and video, information on police barricades, fires, looters and injuries, and interviews with the mayor and Vancouver Police Department — all in real time, all pushed to the news desk by reporters wielding smart phones, all curated into liveblogs published by Global TV BC and The Province. While others were publishing photos or live video feeds, these two were dedicated to detailed, real-time, online coverage of the riots.
Sports reporters were early adapters of play-by-play coverage. So it makes sense that the immediate community that formed around a hockey riot found a place to express itself on liveblogs, which became a way to gauge public reaction. Supportive fans used the space to express their disgust and disappointment with the rioters. But they also asked for specific information: was the SkyTrain running? Was it safe to get to my hotel? This is where the two newsrooms really stood out against their competitors
“It’s a huge learning curve for all of us,” says Global BC reporter Yuliya Talmazan. She got a first-hand taste of the advantages — and limits — of covering an escalating, downtown-wide situation with her smart phone. Both newsrooms used ScribbleLive, a Toronto-based start-up, to power their liveblogs, which allowed them to moderate comments from readers, edit reports coming in from the field, curate social media updates and file photos and videos. (Full disclosure: I work for ScribbleLive as its digital journalism specialist.)
Get it out there
As web producer, Meiszer stayed in the newsroom and focused on keeping Global’s liveblog a resource for anyone caught in the riots or interested in the state of the downtown. He posted raw video feeds, noted rumours and set out to confirm them, coming back with updated facts as they became available. Everything that used to be behind-the-scenes — streeters, raw data, quotes from bystanders – was used to build up the story. In other words, he had to hustle just as much as the field reporters. And he didn’t forget to tell his readers where to find Global’s coverage, with links to developing stories and reminders when reports from colleagues went on-air. He did this again and again throughout the event, so anyone just arriving to the liveblog could get quickly caught up.
All the usual journalism rules apply
Speed is important, but not if it means sloppy reporting. The reporters cautioned that, just because you’re providing live coverage, you shouldn’t forgo basic journalistic tenants: talk to people, verify your facts, use proper grammar and spelling. Talmazan notes that she was careful about using “riot” in her early tweets. “I didn’t want to sensationalize,” she says, “but soon it was pretty clear that it was a full-out riot.” They took steps to verify social media updates by calling back to the news desk, conducting interviews or running to the scene. They let their audience know whenever they were unable to confirm a rumour, and told them that they’d continue to provide updates. For more about the ethics of reporting social media, read the Canadian Association of Journalists’ guidelines for retweeting.)
Global’s liveblog pulled in Scallan’s tweets amidst the chaos.
“There was a lot going on in all directions, requiring constant re-assessments of the developing situations and deciding quickly how to best cover them while staying safe,” Olivier says. “Police were not differentiating between spectators, rioters and members of the media, so if you had to be quick on your feet and aware at all times if caught up with the crowd.”
Know your tools
The riot liveblogs weren’t the first time Global or The Province attempted live, play-by-play coverage. Instead of waiting for breaking news, they’ve tested out various platforms and devices on coverage of smaller, more controlled events — sports games, live chats with guests, conferences — so that, in the heat of the moment, everyone was familiar with the tools.
To push out their updates, reporters employed a variety of tricks. They also used iPhones and BlackBerrys. Talmazan and Olivier used iPhones, which have decent cameras, while Scallan carryed two BlackBerrys in hopes that battery power would last throughout the night (it didn’t). She regretted not bringing her camera. Some used social media managers like HootSuite, Tweetdeck and UberSocial, which send updates to various platforms. Other reporters stuck with 140-character updates on Twitter, accompanied by links to photos via photo URL shorteners like Twitpic, yFrog and Instagram. No matter the method, all the content was pulled in the liveblogs, either moderated by producers like Meiszner back in the newsroom, or directly from a smart phone app in the field.
“Twitter and ScribbleLive proved to be the fastest tools for getting breaking information out,” Olivier says. Talmazan agrees. “It was great to have the Scribble app on my phone, so I could follow the conversation even when I couldn’t get any videos out. Even though my phone was dying, I was still getting pop up messages about what other people were saying.” There are plenty of other content curation tools out there, although I couldn’t find any used for coverage of the Canucks riot. ScribbleLive’s main competitor is Toronto-based Cover It Live. There’s also Storify, Tumblr and Posterous, and new companies will continue to pop up. Find one that works for you.
Chase the ambulance
To capture a variety of scenes, Scallan literally ran from hotspot to hotspot and captured scenes at pivotal moments. She saw the first flipped car become engulfed in flames, was pushed over by mounted police while confirming rumours of a barricade, and headed back to the arena, where she was close enough to hear the distinct thump of flesh hitting pavement when a man fell off the nearby viaduct. As the story unfolded, she updated her liveblog and Twitter readers paragraph by paragraph. She says the instant feedback she got for her efforts fuelled her adrenaline.
Stay in touch with the news desk
During brief lulls, Olivier would phone a quote in to the city desk, and get updates from other reporters. Niamh’s news desk told her about a rumoured explosion and she ran there to discover men dancing around burning cop cars, yelling “fuck the ‘nucks!” “That’s the point where everything just went totally insane,” she says. She told the desk she was scared. Her editor told her to soak her sweater in water and wrap it around her neck, so she could quickly cover her face in case tear gas flew her way. Thankfully she didn’t have to use it. Other reporters weren’t so lucky. “Because I’m a freelancer, I didn’t have any security of knowing I had a team behind me,” says former J-Source editor Deb Jones, who was reporting on the riots for Agence France-Presse. And since AFP didn’t expect the crowd to blow up like it did, she hadn’t arranged to call into the news desk, and was alone in the journalistic sense. While she enjoyed the flexibility and mobility that comes with freelancing, Jones wished she had the same advantage of Global or CBC, whose teams of reporters could provide updates to each other as they spread across the city. She had, however, brought a (larger, more imposing) family member along with her, just in case, although that didn’t protect her from her first whiff of tear gas.
The biggest challenge for reporters on the ground wasn’t dodging errant beer bottles — although that was a part of it — but something as simple as an internet connection: Tens of thousands of people were tweeting, updating, livestreaming and checking which bars were still open — all at the same time, from the same place. As result, the internet connection was gratingly sluggish, which affected reporters’ ability to share content with the news desk. Talmazan began dipping into franchise coffee shops to steal a bit of WiFi during the game, but most of them, having caught scent of the increasingly agitated crowd, shuttered their doors around 7 p.m. PST. The next challenge was battery life: constant updates are quite the power suck. Some bought replacements before the computer stores closed. Talmazan found a friendly 7/11 that let her occasionally pop in to recharge her iPhone, before it too was vandalized by rioters (she was still inside, and caught it all on video). And it wasn’t just smart phones that conked; at least one TV newscast went black on-air because the camera battery had died.
The press are a target
TV folk, with their gear and crew entourage, are more of a target than print and radio reporters. Global’s injury list is nearly as long as the Canucks’:
–A cameraman was shot in the arm with a rubber bullet (although he continued to record the scene before eventually going to the hospital for treatment)
–A cameraman was punched in the face (still made it in to work the next day)
— A cameraman had his camera ripped from his hands, thrown to the ground and smashed beyond repair
–A Global TV’s truck was totalled when it was hit by a bus
–Another Global TV truck, parked in a lot where a car was torched, was broken into, looted and completely destroyed
–A reporter had his mic stolen
–Three Global reporters were teargassed, including Talmazan (“The feeling is horrible — you can’t see, and you have to run away because you can’t breathe.”)
Olivier doesn’t think safety should be sacrificed for a by-line. His advice for staying safe: “Try to predict what is happening and stay one step ahead. File as you go, but don’t stay in one spot too long,” and, if possible, “Work with a partner who can watch your back.” You’ll get a larger picture of what’s happening and it won’t be as obvious that you’re a member of the press. For more on keeping safe, read J-Source’s riot survival guide by Dominik Bärlocher, who has spent the past four years on riot duty at a Swiss newspaper.
Ditch the notebook
Or stick it in your pocket. This is a partial solution to #8: with a smart phone, you look less conspicuous. Talmazan says going iPhone-only was “a great way to blend with the crowd and follow their every move. It gives you a level of intimacy.” On the other hand, she points out, technology is oh-so-fallible, internet isn’t guaranteed and batteries always seem to die at the absolute worse possible moment.
Perhaps it’s a matter of resources, or foresight, but I only found a few media types jumping into real-time riot coverage despite the media manpower already at the game. Some Vancouver news sites posted photos, but little in the way of practical, serviceable information. One way to incorporate all this breaking news in a visual way would have been to create a real-time map of the downtown that could be updated when reports of fires or police barricades came in. That would be a real public service. Someone could have launched an impromptu car pool site to help get stranded fans out of the downtown, or conducted interviews with bystanders to get a better idea of why people stuck around (instead, we have endless speculation from the media).
Now that Global and The Province have worked out a few of the kinks, here’s hoping other news orgs step up their own breaking news coverage.