Reporting on Michael Zehaf-Bibeau

The complainant, Khaled Mahmoud, thought a World Report story about the past activities of Michael Zehaf-Bibeau equated being a devout Muslim with being an extremist. I did not find that link made in the story. His religious observance was put in context.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about a news item aired on the November 20, 2014 edition of World Report.

The item highlighted new facts and information about the state of mind and past activities of the man who attacked and killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo. Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was shot and killed as he continued his attack on Parliament Hill. You were concerned that the reporter, Evan Dyer, left the impression that Muslims who pray five times a day are radicals. You wrote:

I think your news talked about how radical he became after he starts praying five times a day and he just drops everything at work to do his prayers, you made it sound like any Muslim who prays five times a day become a radical Muslim and he has to stop working immediately to go to prayers, this is an insult to Muslims, all Muslims prays five times a day and they don’t have to just stop working and drop everything, Muslims follow commons sense like any other rational people, prayers can be done during work breaks or when work schedule permits or when you find somebody to fill your place so work doesn’t get interrupted.

You thought this created a false impression and stereotyped devout Muslims as radicals. You were concerned that this would encourage hate of Islam and of Muslims in Canada. You wanted a clarification and an apology for the report.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The managing editor of radio and TV news, Paul Hambleton, replied to your complaint. He said he appreciated your concerns and told you that according to CBC policy, it is important to avoid stereotyping and to refrain from using religious affiliation unless it is editorially justified. He said that in this instance, describing Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau’s religious practice was relevant information. He explained there was a public interest in providing details of the attacker’s background or possible motivation for the attack:

The RCMP had said they believed he was driven by ideological motives, and had left a video message. The Prime Minister had called it a terrorist attack. Journalists at the CBC had determined he had referenced Allah in that video. So discovering that in fact he had been a practising Muslim years earlier was quite interesting and relevant to our understanding.

In the telling of the story, the fact that he prayed five times a day also helps us understand his dedication to the religion. That it “annoyed” his co-workers, as reporter Evan Dyer told us, was an illuminating detail. It conveyed the sense that his devotion to prayer was such that it bothered the non-Muslims around him. That idea was further supported in the piece when we find out he would show co-workers jihadi videos that praised the 911 attacks.

In fact, what we did was offer a fairly detailed portrait of a killer who had evolved from his working days in BC, to his final desperate hours in the Ottawa homeless shelter before that fateful day. We were talking about one man, not a religion.

He concluded by telling you that he believed there was nothing in the story about this individual that was a criticism of “Muslim prayer as a whole” or that suggested Muslims who pray at work are considered disruptive. The story talked about Zehaf-Bibeau’s experience, and in no way had a broader context.

REVIEW

In your reply to Mr. Hambleton’s email, you said you were not questioning Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s “ideology or his misunderstanding of Islam.” You were questioning how the facts were presented:

“You did specifically say ‘Michael became Radical Muslim when he started praying 5 times a day…’”

If the reporter had actually used those words, you would be right to call it unacceptable. The reality is that the script was quite different. In fairness to you, you did ask CBC News to send a recording of the newscast. Mr. Hambleton explained that unfortunately they do not have the resources to provide dubs to members of the public. The newscast is also not available via the website.

I have listened to an archived copy, and the script is actually somewhat different. The story aired about a month after the attack in Ottawa. Reporters were still piecing together information about Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau. After these kinds of violent incidents, there is always a desire to fill in the blanks and to try and understand what motivated a person. The host of World Report, David Common, introduced Evan Dyer’s report this way:

Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, the man who carried out the attack on Parliament, had become radicalized years earlier, back when he worked in British Columbia. More recently he returned to a crack addiction, something obvious to others when he was living in a homeless shelter days before the attack.

What followed were two brief voice clips of people who spoke about his state of mind and his strong desire to get a passport. David Common then went on to set up Mr. Dyer’s piece, saying that CBC had learned new details about Zehaf-Bibeau. He then went into some detail based on information gained from an unnamed friend, who was also the foreman at Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau’s work place at a hydro project in Squamish, B.C. It was at this point there was a reference to prayer:

His foreman, who shared his six-day weeks and 13-hour days, also car-pooled and socialized with him…He says the man he knew as Mike Zehaf was mild mannered and polite most of the time and deeply religious, praying five times a day, much to the annoyance of some co-workers. Zehaf also aggravated other members of his crew by showing videos on his cellphone of Taliban attacks on coalition forces and expressing approval – this at a time when Canadian forces were still in Afghanistan.

The reference to praying five times a day is an illustration of his religious commitment. I can understand your concern about the reference to co-workers. I think if you see it in this larger context, it can be interpreted to reflect badly on the workers, rather than on Mr. Zehaf-Bibeau. The piece also talks about his aspirations to live in Libya, where he had once lived with his father, and to find a wife. These are details provided to paint a fuller portrait of the killer. It is not directly connected to the mention of his “radicalization”, stated only once in the original introduction to the piece.

Taking the item as a whole, I do not believe it is stereotyping or implying that observing religious ritual is in any way equated with radicalization. CBC News Journalistic policy cautions against stereotyping religious or ethnic groups in use of language, and states that such descriptors should only be used when there is a strong editorial reason to do so:

We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived. We do not mention national or ethnic origin, colour, religious affiliation, physical characteristics or disabilities, mental illness, sexual orientation or age except when important to an understanding of the subject or when a person is the object of a search and such personal characteristics will facilitate identification.

This story conveyed the information in an appropriate way. Its mention was justified. There was no violation of CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman