In a National conversation on violence, what do you talk about?

The complainant, Samira Kanji, objected to the omission of the Quebec City mosque killings in a conversation about the risk of violence in Canada. She believed that The National’s coverage contributed to a stereotype of Islam and was quick to label some events as “terrorism” more than others. This specific National piece did not violate policy. The larger question of a conversation about the coverage of violent events is far more nuanced. CBC News has a leadership role in getting it right.

COMPLAINT

You were concerned about the framing and focus of a special edition of The National that aired on June 5, 2017. It was characterized as a “national conversation on terror.” It was broadcast right after an attack in London, and weeks after a bombing in a Manchester arena. The format involved panelists answering questions which had been solicited from the public beforehand. You were concerned that the only attacks and incidents referenced were “jihadist”.

I'd be interested to know the rationale that guided the framing of the conversation so that it focused exclusively on "jihadist" terrorism, when clearly that is far from being the only, or even the most significant (in terms of incidence and tally of victims) source of terror/danger in our society, and the West generally (based on terrorism databases).

You pointed out that earlier in the day there had been a mass shooting in Florida, but it was not mentioned in the discussion at all. The shooting at the Quebec City mosque was also omitted, even though “it is the most recent and highest fatality terror attack on our own soil since the École Polytechnique killings in 1989.”

You were concerned that overall coverage of attacks associated with jihadists get far more coverage than other forms of terror. It is your belief that the Quebec City mosque shootings got far less attention than the recent London Bridge and Manchester attacks:

Both of these attacks, occurring outside Canada, received more intensive and live coverage than the Quebec mosque shooting, which happened in Canada, and so surely should have been of greater importance to Canada's public broadcaster. The night that the mosque shooting occurred, it received around five minutes of airtime on The National - in stark contrast to the hours of live coverage allocated to the London Bridge attack.

The very fact that Mansbridge's introduction to the "national conversation" on terror omitted any mention of the Quebec mosque shooting - the most fatal and significant terror attack in Canada in the last 20 years - is a sign of how deeply this act of violence against Muslims has been minimized, even in its own national context.

Your overarching concern is that there is a double standard in covering events when Muslims are the victims rather than the perpetrators.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Executive producer of The National, Don Spandier, replied to your concerns. He told you the context of the programming was a major determinant of how it was framed. The London Bridge attack had occurred two days earlier - this was the “third such deadly terrorist attack in England in just over two months:

Of course, all the stories we do are focused or framed for reasons of clarity and practicality. Even the time available for a longer feature of this sort is limited. This story came in the aftermath of the most recent London attack and was limited to similar terrorist attacks. Mass shootings – such as the one you mentioned in Florida that morning – are more common, certainly in the United States, but outside the scope of this story. However, if you are a regular viewer, you will know we have devoted a great deal of time to covering such stories over the years.

He noted that while the focus was on “jihadist attacks” there were questions raised about other sources of terror and what was being done to track down those perpetrators. He added the panelist specifically mentioned the shooter at the Quebec City mosque.

REVIEW

You raise complex and important questions - is there a double standard in covering violent events, with an overemphasis on those characterized as “jihadist attacks.” You cite examples where you think that to be the case. You pointed to the limited coverage of the Quebec City shootings on The National the night they occurred as one example of intrinsic bias. It actually points to some of the limitations of news values and resources. There were several complaints about the lack of coverage that night, and Jack Nagler, the Director of Journalistic Public Accountability and Engagement, provided an explanation to those who wrote to question the coverage. He pointed out that the salient information that was known at that time was provided but that there were resource and technical limitations to what could have been achieved:

The fact is that CBC News reported everything that we could responsibly report that night. We did it on radio. We did it online. And we did it as well on The National and CBC News Network. We gave our audience the details of what was known and what wasn't. And we avoided getting caught up in rumour and false information.

What we didn't do on television - and wish we had - was provide the volume of coverage befitting the story. By that, I mean the style of wall-to-wall "breaking news" coverage. In truth it would not have allowed us to give our audience better information than we did. But it would have conveyed the urgency and the enormity of the situation.

There are explanations for why we didn't provide that style of coverage: it was a Sunday night, when staffing is lower, and Quebec City is a location where we have fewer CBC English journalists than we would if the event had been in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. But none of that matters to you, and I understand why.

He also noted that by the next day both the News Network morning show and The National originated from Quebec City, with extensive coverage. From that slow start, it is fair to say that The National, along with other CBC news and current affairs platforms, provided extensive coverage of the attack and its aftermath.

The June 5th edition of The National you complained about had several components, other than the panel discussion about terror. The context was two recent attacks in Britain - the London bridge attack that had occurred the night before, and the Manchester arena bombing about two weeks earlier. The broadcast began with the day’s developments in London and featured multiple voices and images. It was followed by a piece that assessed risk in Canada for violent acts. In that piece reporter Catherine Cullen did reference Quebec City in a list of past attacks.

Peter Mansbridge did not do so in his introduction to the segment that was entitled: “Violence: A National conversation”. It would have been preferable if he had referenced it and other mass killings, but the participants did provide a broader context for an understanding of violence and terrorism. News values sometimes narrow perspective - the rash of recent events in Britain was the impetus for the discussion. News by definition confines itself to what is recent, fresh and dramatic. The public conversation centred on recent events whose perpetrators had association with or self-identified as jihadists. This is not something that can be ignored or omitted. It also creates the need for journalists to take special care to provide context and broader analysis. In this instance, while the introduction was narrow in scope, the conversation was not. There was, through selection of questions and certainly through the responses of the four experts on the panel, an attempt to provide broader context and framing. There was a question which asked about the ways in which threats should be put in context. Samantha Nutt, one of the panelists, provided this reply:

When you look at where terrorism is happening throughout the world, it is 50 times greater still in countries that are in Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa, than it is in Europe and the Americas. I mean, even in the last week, a hundred dead in Afghanistan, more than 30 killed in an explosion in Baghdad. So we need to put that context, at least the European and the Western world context, into a certain amount of a reality check. It is a risk and it is something that we need to take very seriously, but at the same time we shouldn't overstate that risk because, frankly, that does play into the hands of those who would seek to unsettle us and to impose that kind of fear.

Another panelist offered this observation:

SAEED KHAN (WAYNE STATE UNIVERSITY):

Well, to go along with what Sam was talking about regarding statistics, even in the United States the chances of being killed by a refugee or by an immigrant are far, far less than being killed by somebody who is a born and bred American citizen. We saw this as the case in Colorado where a young man shoots up a movie theatre or, for example, a kindergarten in Connecticut. So this idea then that this is a problem that will go away simply by going ahead and putting up walls and by excluding immigrants from coming to the country, that may solve one problem that isn't in front of us right now, but that's not doing anything about feeling safer when it comes to not only homegrown American citizens in the case of my country, but also a rising tide of white supremacy and hyper nationalism which is a bigger threat by far.

CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices allows for the presentation of a range of views and opinions over a reasonable period of time. The programme overall provided differing perspectives and did not overtly reinforce all violence as rooted in jihadist movements. Having said that, your observation about the framing of the coverage on this night and more broadly, touches on a difficult and more nuanced point. News organizations are obliged to report on events. News organizations, especially a public broadcaster like CBC, also have a responsibility to avoid reinforcing stereotypes or to provide a broader context and frame to a discussion. CBC Journalistic Standards and Practices has policy on stereotyping:

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.

We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt. Criminal matters require special care and precision.

When a minority group is referred to, the vocabulary is chosen with care and with consideration for changes in the language.

In this regard, the June 5th broadcast did not do as well. It is not this one item that is particularly egregious, it is the framing and discussion of this issue looked at in a broader context.

There are many academic studies - one of them Canadian - that point out news media tend to reinforce stereotypes and are much more likely to label an event involving some connection to Islam as a terrorist act, as opposed to a mass killing. You mentioned a mass shooting in Florida that went unmentioned. In that case, the perpetrator was a disgruntled employee, without political affiliation, whether to white supremacist groups or jihadist organizations. I don’t think there would have been greater balance or equivalence if that killing had been featured. I would also observe that CBC News has covered mass killings in the United States, and has framed them around gun control. The major question, in terms of framing the discussion, is which actually poses a greater threat to our society. If the issue is to understand the degree of threat and the framing is fear, then your point about casting a wider net in considering events is well taken. Neil Macdonald wrote about the point you are making in an Opinion column - that the media is quick to point out the religion of any perpetrator who is Muslim, but not as much if the perpetrator is non-Muslim. While it is relevant to mention, there should be greater care and a responsibility, wherever possible, to provide broader framing and context of a story.

The solution to this issue is not to ensure a listing of all violent attacks as “terrorist” or some kind of equivalent mention. The solution lies in an understanding of framing and to very consciously ensure that CBC coverage avoids the pitfalls of the daily news agenda, and for deeply embedded assumptions. The concern is that mass media - including news - shape public perception. One of the critical ways this occurs is through the framing of the discussion. From a 2013 academic study Framing Arab-Americans and Muslims in U.S. Media (Patricia Tanner Gerhauser) this is what is meant by framing in news:

News frames are patterns of selection, interpretation, and presentation that give order and meaning to the intricacies of politics (Gitlin 1980). In other words, framing is “the process by which a communication source constructs and defines a social or political issue for its audience” (Nelson, Oxley, and Clawson 1997; Entman 1993). The framing process entails how the story is written and produced, including the adjustment of headlines, word usages, use of rhetorical devices, and narration.

CBC News, on its various platforms and over time, have devoted significant coverage to Islamophobia and to seeking out voices from the Muslim community, thereby helping Canadians understand the breadth and diversity of the community in Canada and to counter stereotypes and the notion of a monolithic community. Two Canadian academics from St. Mary’s University in Nova Scotia, Ashley Carver and Conor Harrie, recently published the results of their examination of coverage of two acts of violence: Framing Terrorists in Canada: A Comparative Analysis of Two Shootings. They analyzed coverage on CBC, the Globe & Mail and the National Post regarding Justin Bourque’s rampage and killing of mounties in Moncton, New Brunswick, in 2014 and the Ottawa shootings by Michael Zehaf-Bibeau. They found that the Ottawa shooting was characterized as a terrorist act, and Moncton more as an unforeseeable act of violence, although they state Mr. Bourque’s motives “were clearly political and the severity of his attack was intentionally lethal. In others words, killing and wounding the police officers was an attack of political violence.”

All three media analyzed tended to use the terrorist frame more in the case of Ottawa than Moncton. The authors found one difference in the CBC coverage. CBC News contained many interviews with members of the Canadian Muslim community:

It should be noted that in analysing the three different news organizations, CBC News by far did the most to counteract the framing of construction of the ‘Other’. CBC News in the coverage of the Ottawa shootings and the after-impact of the shooting that was felt across the country had numerous articles to counter the main narrative of Islam as a source of violence. The CBC News accomplished this by interviewing leaders in Muslim communities from across Canada. Their message to the Canadian public was that the stereotyping that occurred in the news media after the Ottawa shootings is not an accurate portrayal of the Muslim community as a whole. These experts dissuaded the idea that all Muslims resort to violence to solve their issues and that people who identify as Muslim should not be seen as an outsider population within the borders of Canada.

I have quoted these studies at some length because it is beyond the resources of this office to provide this kind of analysis. Using this as a guide, CBC News staff and managers are encouraged to examine closely how they approach coverage of violent events, and how best to counter the inadvertent framing of Islam or Muslims as somehow inherently more prone to acts of violence. Not every news story can pause and examine assumptions and stereotypes. When jihadists are the perpetrators that fact is part of the story. The challenge is to change the narrative over time, ensure analysis and explanations come from a wide range of views, and to closely examine assumptions.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman