News

1. The latest on COVID-19 and Northwood

The Northwood nursing home on Gottingen Street in Halifax. Photo: Halifax Examiner Credit: Halifax Examiner / Tim Bousquet

Yesterday saw the largest number of new cases of COVID-19 reported in Nova Scotia since the pandemic began. Of the 46 new cases, 36 are at the Northwood long-term care facility in Halifax. Northwood residents and staff now represent 151 of the province’s 721 confirmed cases.

Jennifer Henderson covered yesterday’s briefing for the Examiner, along with an online press conference held by Northwood.

As of today, says [executive director Josie Ryan], the home now has four people staffing each floor (usually about 30 residents to a floor) thanks to reinforcements from the VON, the Red Cross, students in the Continuing Care Assistant program at Community Colleges, Emergency Health Services, and nurses and respiratory technologists borrowed from the Halifax Infirmary’s COVID-19 unit.

Asked why Northwood didn’t request help earlier, Ryan said that “last Friday, we had an escalation of the virus. We saw residents with symptoms and we did the swabbing. We jumped from just under 50 to almost 100 cases. That’s why we reached out to the Health Authority and said we just can’t sustain this and we need help with staffing. The union (Unifor) also put out a call to its members. So there are lots of people in this but lots of people are scared, too.”

Janet Simm, Northwood’s CEO, thanked employees who have continued to provide care despite being reduced to only half their regular workforce because many must self-isolate until they no longer test positive. Simm called them “our health-care heroes” while acknowledging “we can no longer manage on our own.”

She apologized for breakdowns in communication over the past week between Northwood and the families of residents. She committed to doing better at sharing information. A new email address, northwood@nshealth.ca, has been established to assist with improving communication.

“And there will be more cases emerging throughout the next two weeks,” said both Northwood executive director Josie Ryan and Dr. Strang. The numbers will climb because the facility will continue to test every resident in the building this week, as well as staff when they have symptoms. Another reason the cases will rise is because of people who have no symptoms (asymptomatic) but carry the virus and infect others during the 14-day incubation period.

Henderson also notes that during his daily briefing, the province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Robert Strang,

delivered a difficult message at a time when dozens of families across Nova Scotia are mourning the loss of loved ones killed by a man on a shooting rampage. Strang warned there can be no coming together or lining the streets to pay respect to slain police officers and nurses. And no gatherings or traditional funerals for families and friends, a double blow for a province which is already reeling.

And that leads us into our next story, which Yvette d’Entremont has been working on for the last week, and which she unexpectedly had to update this weekend.

2. How can we grieve with no public mourning?

Roadside memorial to Heidi Betts, who passed away in 2006. Photo: Kent Martin.

In her story “A time for grief,” Yvette d’Entremont writes about dealing with grief in the time of COVID-19, and the added trauma of grief caused by mass murder.

How difficult is it to cope with grief when you can’t follow typical rituals and are then additionally confronted with a traumatic and horrific event like this weekend’s shooting rampage?

Andrea Cook is a registered psychologist who recently moved from Halifax to St. John’s, Newfoundland. She said the grieving process is multifaceted and includes wavering between acceptance, denial, depression, bargaining, and anger. A traumatic mass killing like this makes it all the more challenging.

“People are going to have a hard time just even wrapping their heads around the acceptance of what has happened. How you can even get to that stage of acceptance let alone getting to a place of closure,” she said in an interview on Monday.

d’Entremont speaks with a grieving daughter, a funeral home director, an academic, and a grief specialist, and I am grateful for their insights. The interview with neurosurgeon and Dalhousie professor Gwynedd Pickett is particularly moving. Pickett’s father, retired Dalhousie English professor Hubert Morgan, passed away recently:

Asked if her family is hurting because they can’t grieve in the typical way, Pickett paused. She then said although they didn’t have it all planned out, you do have an idea about how these things will unfold and it definitely didn’t happen as expected.

Although her family felt like they were forging a different path, they also weren’t worried about not doing what was expected because there are no expectations during this unprecedented time.

“There are ways in which we’re all kind of fumbling through. I don’t know that I will feel that this was a better or a worse way. This is how it is unfolding and I think we are all coping as best we can,” she said.

“And I think in the end I hope that we will all feel that we honoured him and grieved him and came to terms with his death in ways that we can go forward and I think we will…I don’t imagine any death or any funeral feels normal to the people living through it. I think at the end, I won’t know what it would have been to do it differently.”

3. There is a COVID-19 case at the Burnside jail

The renovated North Unit day room at the Central Nova Scotia Correctional Facility. Photo: Halifax Examiner

El Jones speaks with a prisoner at the Burnside jail, after news came out that a prisoner being held there has tested positive.

In response to a question from the Examiner, a justice department spokesperson confirmed the positive test, and said, in an email:

This individual has been in an isolated healthcare cell since admission to the facility, due to a pre-existing injury. As a result, this person has had minimal contact with staff and other inmates since they entered custody.  Our protocols for interacting with inmates in all facilities include enhanced use of personal protection equipment to prevent the spread of illness.

The prisoner Jones speaks to tells a different story:

My issue right now is the fact that this guy’s been here for almost a week, and now they say —  if it was actually just today they knew or yesterday — that he was diagnosed. So he would have been going to the shower. And they would have been coming in and doing inspection.

They said he was isolated the whole time he was there. Is that not accurate?

Not like that, no. Yeah, he would be isolated to an extent. But again, it’s not like he was totally separate. He would be using shared showers and stuff like that.

When did they tell you he had COVID?

This morning. They came around with an update sheet that said we have tested 17 people so far, and 16 have come back negative. Confirming, obviously, there was one person who tested positive.

How did you feel when you saw that?

It’s sickening, really. Especially when you get a bit more information and you hear this guy’s been here for a week, and come in contact with multiple different people. There’s people saying, yeah, I’ve seen him. I have heard that.

The New York Times reports that jails and prisons in the United States are some of the key cluster areas:

Though many of the first coronavirus cases in the United States were tied to overseas travel, localized outbreaks have become increasingly common. New clusters in nursing homes and other settings, including a McDonald’s restaurant in Hawaii and a psychiatric hospital in Wyoming, are emerging each day.

Times journalists have for weeks tracked clusters of cases and deaths across the country. The largest such outbreaks include a prison in Ohio, a meatpacking plant in South Dakota, an aircraft carrier docked in Guam and a jail in Chicago. The deadliest outbreaks have been in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

Some agencies and facilities have refused to release the numbers of cases or deaths. More than 1,100 cases attributed to the coronavirus have been reported among employees and inmates of New York City’s 10 jails.

Yesterday, in his daily tweet thread, Montreal Gazette health reporter Aaron Derfel summarized the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the city’s nursing homes:

The number of CHSLDs [long-term care centres] and seniors’ homes rated red has gone up from 24 to 28 in the past four days. At least one-quarter of the residents in each of these facilities is infected with #COVID19. And the biggest outbreak in the city is growing worse at the CHSLD Laurendeau.

Four days ago, 48% of the occupants in the nursing home in Ahuntsic-Cartierville were infected with the #coronavirus. Today, it’s climbed to 54%, or 162 people. That absolute number is the highest in any facility in all of Quebec.

While people are wiping down groceries (I’ve done it too, so I’m not judging) it’s clear that the close contact of workplaces, religious gatherings, and institutions are key drivers of infection.

4. Police don’t say much at press conference

Nova Scotia RCMP’s chief investigative officer, Chris Leather. Photo: Halifax Examiner.
Nova Scotia RCMP’s chief investigative officer, Chris Leather. Photo: Halifax Examiner.

Tim Bousquet attended the RCMP press conference yesterday afternoon and asked why the emergency alert system was not used. With someone was committing murders over a large geographical area, and over the course of several hours, the alert system could possibly have saved lives, by warning people to stay in their homes. The police did offers such warnings, but on Twitter.

From Bousquet’s story:

The crime spree lasted more than 12 hours, from late Saturday night until around noon on Sunday. During that time, the killer travelled about 140 kilometres, killing people in communities along the way, and randomly en route.

As the spree was unfolding, the RCMP used its Twitter account to alert the public.

Some 13 tweets were issued over the course of Sunday morning, but the emergency alert signal that automatically rings people’s phones was not activated… I asked Leather why the emergency alert wasn’t activated. He answered:

“That’s a good question, and I don’t have an answer for it at this moment. We’ll be looking at that and I hope to have an official response to you tomorrow or in coming hours. We have relied on Twitter … because of the instantaneous manner in which we can communicate. We have thousands of followers in Nova Scotia and we felt it was a superior way to communicate with this ongoing threat.”

Tim also asked about this Tweet:

Gabriel Wortman, suspect in active shooter investigation, is now in custody. More information will be released when available. Thank you for your cooperation and support. #Colchester

— RCMP Nova Scotia (@RCMPNS) April 19, 2020

I additionally asked Leather why the RCMP tweeted that the suspect was “in custody,” when he was in fact dead. Leather answered:

“So in terms of that description, I can see how, for instance, passersby may have considered Mr. Wortman to be in custody. But again, we’re moving into the search and investigational area. I think that question would be better posed to them.”

Passersby do not operate the RCMP’s Twitter account.

CP is reporting that RCMP commissioner Brenda Lucki is going to look into how police warned people in the area about the danger to them.

5. Provincial government still hasn’t produced fraud risk report

Does the blank FAQ page for the QE2 Redevelopment Project say anything about their attitude towards transparency in the public interest? Actually, probably not. But still.

This is a story from last Friday, but I wanted to note it here.

In the Chronicle Herald, Andrew Rankin writes about the provincial government’s failure to release its fraud risk report on the QEII redevelopment project.

Rankin writes:

Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal Minister Lloyd Hines said last month that the Grant Thornton-authored report on the controversial $2-billion QEII redevelopment project would be made public once completed.

The Chronicle Herald since reached out three times to the Transportation Department, which is overseeing the project, looking for confirmation that the document would be made public but it was never provided.

Instead, department spokeswoman Deborah Bayer said in an email this week that a copy of the report would be provided only to the Nova Scotia Office of the Auditor General.

While the province is in lockdown grappling with a pandemic, the government is moving forward with the massive project, which will transform the Halifax Infirmary site and see a new outpatient clinic built in  Bayers Lake.

There are rarely any issues whatsoever with P3 projects though, so probably no reason to worry, right?


Views

How we write about mass tragedy

The killer’s replica police car. Photo: RCMP
The killer’s replica police car. Photo: RCMP

Yesterday morning, amidst all the heartbreak, I woke up to seeing people justifiably outraged over some of the coverage of the weekend murder rampage in rural Nova Scotia. One of the targets of that outrage was a Globe and Mail story with the headline “Nova Scotia mass shooter was a denturist with an obsession for policing.” The tweet the paper published linking to the story put it this way: “Nova Scotia mass shooter was a denturist with a passion for policing.”

A passion for policing huh?

Gender equity and anti-gender-based violence educator Farrah Khan replied with, “I DO NOT CARE TO KNOW HIS PASSIONS.”

The story, by Andrea Woo and Greg Mercer, leads with an image from Gabriel Wortman’s high school yearbook, and goes downhill from there. Today, the paper follows up with a Patrick White story further exploring his motivations, and trying to determine which type of police impersonator the killer was.

I am not one of those people who thinks you should never say the names or publish the images of people who commit atrocities (though I will be happy if I never see that creepy grinning headshot that was all over the place on the weekend). The purpose of writing news is to inform, and the names of people behind horrific acts are part of that information.

And writing about breaking news is hard. Nobody really knows what’s going on yet, and everyone is shocked. Plus, you’re on a deadline. At times like that, it’s easy to fall back on familiar tropes. The killer was a nice guy, he was a loner, nobody ever saw it coming, everyone knew there was something strange about him and he was going to snap, he was outgoing and hosted neighbourhood barbecues, he was quiet and the neighbours never really knew anything about him.

It’s an old trope. Here it is in a story from 1985, where it’s implied fascination with an AC/DC album is a key to understanding a serial killer.

It’s time to change that old trope though. We need a new approach. You saw some of that yesterday, in coverage from the Examiner  and from Vice, who were publishing information about victims while other media were only sharing the names already released by police. And for those who think that’s disrespectful, really? The stories are mostly based on information from friends and family members.

Former Liberal MLA Joachim Stroink, chided Tim on Twitter, telling him to “stop and let the RCMP tell the true story.” Apart from that not exactly being the role of the media, it also ignores the fact that the RCMP were not saying much of anything at all. As a friend of mine in Ottawa said after the Sunday evening press conference: “I mean, this is truly horrible, but to give a [press] conference and neglect to mention how many may have died was just astonishing.”

Because we reach for the familiar stories, the familiar tropes, in disorienting times it’s important to start working to change those tropes. I don’t have a specific solution, and I don’t want to tell journalists who are working hard under pressure how to do their jobs. At the same time, I do think there are some types of coverage we can retire. They include the “he was a nice guy” story, and the search for simple motives. Most people who do terrible things are not terrible all the time. It should not be surprising that they did something kind for someone and at the same time could kill people. And it’s human nature to try to understand and make meaning out of chaos. But we don’t need to figure out meaning while events are still unfolding. Our conclusions will probably be wrong or facile.

It’s also important to recognize that there may be consequences to the way we cover events like these. Many media outlets have adopted guidelines on covering suicide, and ideally these guidelines are informed by research.

One document I’ve seen circulating is a 2017 paper from the American Journal of Public Health, called “Mass Shootings: The Role of the Media in Promoting Generalized Imitation.”  The paper proposes guidelines to help reduce any potential imitators. (The paper gets into differences between contagion and imitation, which I will leave aside here.)

Authors James N. Meindl and Jonathan W. Ivy write that when it comes to suicide:

If the manner with which the media (legacy, new, social) report a mass shooting event plays a role in promoting further mass shootings, changing these reporting methods could decrease imitation. This tactic has been effective in decreasing imitated suicide, and the World Health Organization, citing 50 years of research on imitation, has posted media guidelines on reporting suicides to prevent imitational suicides.

Their proposals for coverage of mass shootings are based on research into “generalized imitation.” Here is part of what they say:

A second strategy could be to avoid in-depth descriptions of the shooter’s rationale for engaging in the behavior. In general, people are more likely to imitate the behaviors of other people who they view as similar to themselves. When the media repeatedly describes a purported motive for the shooting they may inadvertently be pointing out similarities between the shooter and others that may have otherwise gone unnoticed. For example, stating that a shooter took revenge after years of bullying may portray a mass shooting as one possible response option for individuals experiencing bullying and with similar backgrounds as the shooter. Understanding the motive for a mass shooting is undoubtedly important, but in-depth descriptions of rationales may serve not only to inform but also to increase the likelihood of imitation.

As I understand it, we don’t know if media coverage, saying the killer’s name, sharing his photo and so on, do in fact increase the risk for more mass killings. What we do know, according to an analysis in the peer-reviewed open-access science and medicine journal PLOS ONE, (the PLOS is for Public Library of Science) is that there is “significant evidence that mass killings involving firearms are incented by similar events in the immediate past.”

The paper, called “Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings” set out to see if there was a link between these events and media coverage. In their conclusion, the authors write:

While our analysis was initially inspired by the hypothesis that mass media attention given to sensational violent events may promote ideation in vulnerable individuals, in practice what our analysis tests is whether or not temporal patterns in the data indicate evidence for contagion, by whatever means. In truth, and especially because so many perpetrators of these acts commit suicide, we likely may never know on a case-by-case basis who was inspired by similar prior acts, particularly since the ideation may have been subconscious.

I saw several journalists expressing reservations online yesterday, after prime minister Justin Trudeau urged reporters to not use the killer’s name. And it seemed interesting to me that when New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern said something similar after the mosque shootings, there seemed to be near-universal praise. (In my bubble, anyway.)

We may not know if the ways we report on mass murders lead to more mass murders, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to improve the ways we write about them anyway.


Noticed

Photo: Sara Lamb

Yesterday evening, we had our son on speakerphone, catching up with him and hearing about the new job he just started, when my partner, Sara, looked up from cooking tortillas and saw the sky outside. “Can you see the sky?” she asked him, and he said he’d go out to take a look. They both went out, and Sara took this photo, looking out over St. Margaret’s Bay.

Later, I saw people marvelling at the sky and posting images on social media. We see a lot of spectacular sunsets, but this one was truly remarkable. Here are a few photos from Examiner regulars.

Photo: Suzanne Rent
Photo: Joan Baxter
Photo: Yvette d’Entremont
Photo: Yvette d’Entremont

Definitely one of those things to feel grateful for at the end of a very tough few days.


Government

Nothing going on. No meetings.


In the harbour

05:30: Boheme, car carrier, arrives at Autoport from Southampton, England

East Coast. Photo: Halifax Examiner

12:30: East Coast, oil tanker, sails from Irving Oil for sea
21:00: YM Enlightenment, container ship, arrives at Fairview Cove from New York


Footnotes

The spring peepers are back. I had never heard them before moving to Nova Scotia, and now it’s like having an old friend return when I start to hear their calls coming from the pond in our back yard. Here’s a recording I made of them a couple of years ago.

Philip Moscovitch

Philip Moscovitch is a writer and audio producer, and the author of the book Adventures in Bubbles and Brine; Website:...

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  1. re “However, trying to keep the story going (following a news editor credo) by continually pounding on the RCMP—the people who head toward harm on our behalf—while they’re grieving the brutal murder of a colleague and are stretched and stressed in the midst of a complex investigation: that is not respectful, not to say unkind. Let some time pass. Imagine if the person you work next to everyday were brutally murdered.”

    Nobody’s “continually pounding on the RCMP”, that’s just silly and tendentious hyperbole. Nor does anyone need to “try to keep the story going” when it’s obviously an ongoing story. Tim Bousquet is raising critical questions that need to be raised. i.e. doing the kind of real journalism that has distinguished his and the Examiner’s reporting from the “mainstream” media for a very long time. The feelings of the RCMP are not the first responsibility of a journalist, and in my mind Tim’s reporting shows more respect for the victims of this atrocity, for the truth, and for journalism than your comment does.

  2. “The purpose of writing news is to inform, and the names of people behind horrific acts are part of that information.” Now there’s a concise statement of what the late communications scholar James Carey called the transmission theory of news, one that he says has dominated our thinking and culture since the beginnings of settler societies in North America. Carey contrasts this dominant transmission view of news with an older idea — the ritual theory of communication. “In a ritual definition, communication is linked to terms such as ‘sharing,’ ‘participation,’ ‘association,’ ‘fellowship’ and the ‘possession of a common faith’…A ritual view of communication is directed not toward the extension of messages in space, but toward the maintenance of a society in time; not an act of imparting information, but the representation of shared beliefs.” Both transmission and ritual elements are clearly apparent in current coverage. Moreover, historian Mitchell Stephens suggests that news is, and always has been, a dramatic form with the following set of standard qualities: impact, emotional appeal, conflict, timeliness, proximity, prominence and the unusual. As such, news is inherently sensational and can never be fully housebroken even though — to the despair of political dissidents — it tends to support the status quo and conventional wisdom. Stephens writes: “To think a society’s thoughts is to belong to that society. News provides the requisite set of shared thoughts. The more complex a society’s structures, the more work art, history, religion and news will have in maintaining that society’s self-identity.”

  3. Not sure if its rumour or fact but my understanding is that since “forever” there is no reporting of suicides off of the MacDonald or MacKay Bridges explicitly for the reason of wanting to avert imitation. If that’s really the case then there is precedence for understanding what the implications of if and how news stories are told. Good on the Halifax Examiner for raising attention to deficiencies in media mass shooting reporting, providing guideline resources and once again raising the bar.

    1. Peggy, your reference to the ban on reporting bridge suicides is not a good one. The Coast defied the ban in 2008 and the authorities finally installed suicide barriers on the Macdonald Bridge in 2016. Curbs on such reporting take the pressure off authorities to find real solutions. Malcolm Gladwell also reported on effective suicide prevention on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Think twice before endorsing restrictions or restraints on the reporting of mass shootings.

  4. Thank you, Phil, for your thoughtful comments about updating protocols about these kinds of events. May we never need to use them, but the tropes are unhelpful and unsatisfying obvious attempts to fill the airwaves and print columns, including talking to people who are in the first stages of shock and trauma. It’s too soon. A lot of heat and very little light emerges.

    It’s also helpful to note things such as the RCMP was probably wrong-headed to not use the Amber alert. That will definitely come out in the inevitable review of how this was handled. However, trying to keep the story going (following a news editor credo) by continually pounding on the RCMP—the people who head toward harm on our behalf—while they’re grieving the brutal murder of a colleague and are stretched and stressed in the midst of a complex investigation: that is not respectful, not to say unkind. Let some time pass. Imagine if the person you work next to everyday were brutally murdered. Corrective action can take place after the mourning has passed. A word to the wise is sufficient.

    1. Many people are using the term amber alert, but my understanding is the amber alert is specifically used for missing people, typically children believed to have been abducted. The criticism is over the emergency alert system. Again, from what I understand, the police can issue an amber alert on their own, but need to make a request to the provincial government to use the emergency system.

      I realize that doesn’t get to the heart of what you are saying (which I appreciate), but I think it’s an important distinction.

    2. Thanks Barry, I appreciate your comments, as much as I appreciate and respect Tim’s investigative reporting i don’t appreciate his American perspective, which Is much more confrontational, when it comes to government or policing issues. There will be time in the future to critically analyze everyone’s response to this terrible tragedy. For everyone, emotions are raw enough. Now is the time for compassion and sympathy

      1. Jesus Gary, Tim’s a Canadian citizen who attended an RCMP news conference where he asked a couple of questions. When authorities from the Prime Minister on down hold news conferences, they expect journalists to ask questions because they know it’s an effective way of communicating with the public. How does that reflect an American perspective and a much more confrontational approach?

  5. Completely unrelated to today’s important news:

    Anthony LeBlanc, at the forefront of Halifax’s CFL-franchise-to-be, was announced as the president of business operations for the NHL’s Ottawa Senators yesterday.

    Dave Naylor with TSN, which has exclusive CFL broadcast rights in Canada, suggested “efforts to land a CFL franchise in Halifax have been put on hold because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

  6. the person who handles their Twitter postings could have heard radio ‘we got him’ or similar and sent out the ‘in custody’ tweet.

    1. Would be great if the person who handles their twitter postings could have also reached out to the emergency alert service….

      I’m really curious what the end statement for that will be.