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Public Editor: Why being right beats being first

Globe and Mail Public Editor Sylvia Stead.

Today and yesterday, the website and the front page of the newspaper have been and are dominated by extensive coverage of the attack on the Quebec City mosque. Much more coverage is and will be done in the coming hours and days and readers still have many questions: mostly about motive, but also what kind of weapon and where did the shooter get it?

But when it happened, a few newspaper readers wondered on Monday morning why the shooting was a single column above the fold, while a story about technology leaders asking Ottawa to issue visas after the Trump immigration order was the four-column lead story?

Here's one from Pickering, Ont.: "What the heck!! 'Top tech leaders…' more important than mass shooting at mosque?? Read about this on Twitter last night, so surely ample time to headline in today's paper. Reason why not????"

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Another reader wondered why the two stories with the same number of "column inches" couldn't have been flipped, with the shooting taking the dominant position.

These are good questions and with time and more details, I have no doubt the shooting would have been the dominant image.

But there wasn't much time and there even fewer details on Sunday night.

First, you have to understand that reporters in bureaus are constantly on call even long past normal work hours. Secondly, The Globe and Mail does not have a bureau in Quebec City, so Montreal-based reporter Les Perreaux jumped into action as soon as he heard the news.

Although the shooting in Quebec happened just before 8 p.m., there were no news reports for close to an hour, as far as I can tell.

Mr. Perreaux said he was getting ready for bed when he heard reports of an incident at a mosque. He sent a red alert to the editors at 9:17 p.m. of a possible shooting and major police operation. It was 20 minutes before the police briefing and he filed immediately after that for online. While waiting for the briefing, Mr. Perreaux was making many calls and watching social media. The Montreal newspaper La Presse and later a Reuters reporter had unconfirmed details about a number of people who were killed. As some details started to come in, including an interview with a police spokesman, there were also false stories from other media including the wrong names of suspects.

The Globe editors asked for a delay in publishing and were granted the extra time to get as much information as they could. The story included official response from the Prime Minister and Quebec Premier, reaction, and details about former problems at the mosque. That newspaper story went to press at 10:14 p.m. Scrambling to get the newspaper story in on deadline meant the online story was not as fast as it would otherwise have been. At the same time, the editors were scrambling to get more help. The Globe's retired Quebec City bureau chief Rhéal Séguin was on the scene and two reporters from Montreal helped Mr. Perreaux with details, then arrived in Quebec City at 2 a.m Monday.

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But the important thing to note is that the story was correct. It did not include a number of people killed because that had not been confirmed. It did not include names because they had not been confirmed. You cannot name a suspect without confirmation for obvious reasons and so special care needs to be taken.

Because the first edition of the newspaper was given a later deadline, there was no time before the next edition to flip the stories, but write a new sized headline and change any inside turn pages.

And while the first reader noted there were details on Twitter Sunday night, it's important to note that many details came out well after the newsprint deadline and some of those reported by other sites were wrong.

"Our paramount job, as Globe journalists, is to be accurate. Better to be right, and hopefully fast with the news, than fast with the news, and hopefully right," noted Deputy Editor Sinclair Stewart.

Later deadlines wouldn't have helped in this case because you still need to print the paper, send it out from the plant and then have the carriers get it to the door before you wake up. Online the news is updated as it is confirmed and known, but it is worth remembering that the process behind print production takes time.

Readers also wondered why The Globe had put quotation marks around "terrorist attack." I explained there are quotation marks because that is what the Prime Minister and the Quebec Premier had called it. The public security minister in Quebec also called it an act of terrorism. When it is a legal term and possible charge, the quotation shows where that description came from.

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Finally, another reader took issue with columnist John Doyle's complaint that there was a lack of TV news coverage of the shooting on Sunday night and particularly noted that CBC English TV had a brief mention while the French-language TVA had non-stop coverage. .

The reader argued that The Globe's coverage was slow compared to a few others, so how could it criticize others? It's worth noting that Mr. Doyle is a critic who writes about TV (not print) and he is entitled to his view that as the public broadcaster, the CBC has a special role to cover national news.

So could The Globe's coverage have been a few minutes quicker? Perhaps, but at what cost? It is more important to check all the facts, get as much information as you can and deliver the news to readers on all platforms in a timely and correct manner. It's never about being the first to tweet.

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About the Author
Public Editor

Sylvia Stead has been a reporter and editor at the Globe since 1975, after graduating from the University of Western Ontario in Journalism with a minor in Political Science. She won the Board of Governors Award there in 1974. As a reporter, Sylvia covered courts, education and Queen's Park. More

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