Reality or Perception?

Many readers objected to an Opinion column which explored the different ways we think about mass shootings when the perpetrators are Muslim and when they are not. Neil Macdonald pointed out that many in Canada’s history were born here, are white and Christian. This complainant, Tony Peters, like many others, said their religion was irrelevant because they were not practicing and it condemned all Christians. The column would be clearer if it had developed the idea more, but it was apparent not all Christians were being targeted.

COMPLAINT

You were one of 25 people who objected to an Opinion piece published on CBCNews.ca entitled Simple Truth is Canada’s mass shooters are usually white and Canadian-born.” Three other people also asked that I review the matter. Their concerns were similar to yours. There was a strong reaction to columnist Neil Macdonald’s statements that those who have perpetrated mass shootings in Canada are mostly white, Canadian-born and Christian. You thought the article raised questions of “integrity, truthfulness and unrelenting bias.” You believe Mr. Macdonald “has an axe to grind with Christians.”

“Why bring up religion if it is irrelevant in this context?” you asked. “Why mention the white race?” In the list of perpetrators Mr. Macdonald referenced, there was no evidence that any of them were practicing Christians or people of faith. You felt that the piece was falsely targeting Christians, painting a picture of them as violent. The column was written the day after the mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque. The police had arrested and identified a suspect named Alexandre Bissonnette. (He had been charged with six counts of first degree murder and five of attempted murder). Initially there were erroneous reports that there was a second suspect wanted by the police named Mohamed Belkhadir. Mr. Belkhadir was not a suspect, but an eyewitness to the massacre.

You said it was “idiotic speculation” that the accused, Bissonnette, was Christian, as Mr. Macdonald had stated “judging by his name.” Others echoed that sentiment, labelling it a “scandalous slander against an entire community of faith." Others stated that an entire faith community was being blamed, and they also pointed out that there is no evidence that Bissonnette or the other murderers mentioned were practicing Christians.

There were also some objections to the initial headline on the story which was "Inconvenient Truth is That White Christian Men are Canada's Mass Shooters.”

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

Steve Ladurantaye, Managing Editor @cbcnews, replied to your concerns. He told you he regretted that you found the column offensive and that this was in no way the intent. He reminded you of the context of the article and the events unfolding at that time, which informed it. He reminded you that right after the massacre there were reports and speculation that one of the shooters was Muslim, because someone had reported hearing a man yell “Allahu Akbar” as the shooting took place. He said that Mr. Macdonald pointed out that in light of reports that one of two men arrested had a Muslim-sounding name, the event was labelled terrorism. However, the accused actually had a Francophone name, and Mr. Macdonald pointed out this changed the way people were talking and thinking about the massacre, especially on social media.

He told you that Mr. Macdonald did not say or imply that the motivation for the killing was in the name of Christianity. He was not saying that an entire faith community was culpable, “nor a suggestion all Christians are violent.” That was precisely the point, he said - that inference would be as wrong and offensive as the “frequent association of Muslims with terrorism.”

And that, too, is a point Mr. Macdonald makes. As ready as we are to assume automatically that if the shooter has a Muslim name or comes from a Muslim country, he is a terrorist operating out of hate, if the shooter is white, media reports rarely mention religion and don’t even seek out information about it. The implied point is not that we should treat Christians in the same racist fashion, but that we stop treating Muslims that way.

Mr. Ladurantaye shared some observations about the column that were critical of it. He told you that it would have been better if the thesis put forward would have been stronger and clearer if it had been explained and developed more fully.

He stated that the reference to being Christian and how it was being used in this context should have been better defined, and that its conclusions could have been more nuanced:

Specifically, should we have said Mr. Bissonnette is “probably a Christian, judging from his name”? I appreciate that this could be understood as suggesting Christianity will in some manner help explain the man’s motive. But that’s not the point of the column and when the sentence is read in context, it takes on a different meaning.

The columnist is not suggesting the shooter was an active Christian who regularly attended mass and read the Bible each day. His point is the alleged shooter will not be called a terrorist because he comes from a province where 91 per cent of the population self-identifies as Christian. The author’s reference was to Mr. Bissonnette’s cultural background, not his faith. I think the sentence would have better conveyed that meaning had it been written, “Maybe even a Christian, judging from his name.”

He identified one other phrase he thought might have been better expressed, and that was the reference at the end to the background of mass killers:

“Just about every single one,” he wrote, “…has been a Canadian-born, Canadian citizen, and usually white and Christian”. We might better have said “often” here instead of “usually”. As you have pointed out at some length, only three of the nine mass murderers cited in the column could be described as “active” Christians. But again, the intent was to highlight that the majority of Canadian attackers were not Muslim and didn’t fit the narrative that some tried to push in the early stages of the Quebec City story.

REVIEW

CBC Journalistic Policy provides some guidance for consideration. First of all, a reminder that this was published in the website’s Opinion section. While there are limits, opinion writers are almost by definition engaged in an exercise that is provocative, and there will be those who might find it objectionable and offensive to their sensibilities. That should never be the goal, but if it is a by-product, it is not in and of itself a violation of the policy. Mr. Macdonald laid out a framework and explained he was writing this piece in reaction to the erroneous belief that this might have been perpetrated by a Muslim. It wasn’t the error itself, which was understandable in the confusing first hours after the attack, but the reaction it received on social media that led him to write about descriptors and how they are used. Given the divisive and intense discussion around questions of race and religion in light of the Trump administration’s actions, and some of the statements by Canadian politicians, there is a broader context. He began:

For a short, hopeful moment Monday, Trumpian conservatives were clucking and warbling triumphant tweets at one another.

Rumours swirling about the slaughter at the mosque in Quebec City had the shooter yelling "Allahu Akbar," albeit in a strong ​Québécois accent, as he killed and reloaded.

So why wasn't the fake-news liberal mainstream media concentrating on that instead of portraying it as an anti-Muslim hate crime encouraged by President Trump's crackdown on Muslim immigrants? Maybe it was a Shia/Sunni thing: the sort of atrocity that takes place all the time in countries where ISIS operates. Maybe it was Muslim-on-Muslim terror.

Names of arrested

Then came confirmation of the names of the two men arrested shortly after the shooting. One was Alexandre Bissonnette. But the other! The other had a Moroccan name! Mohamed Belkhadir.

Hah! HAH! See, liberals? President Trump was right. He's keeping America safe. Maybe Justin Trudeau could just shut up and stop yammering about diversity and welcoming refugees and learn a thing or two from the new president. Turns out we aren't so safe from foreign terrorists after all, are we?

Maybe we should be barring immigrants from Muslim countries or at least interrogating them before we let them in to ensure they share our Canadian values.

But then the story changed, as stories tend to do when facts begin to emerge.

Mr. Ladurantaye identified the weaknesses of this column quite effectively. Certainly, the first headline, without context, overstated and could possibly mislead. It is unlikely any other religious group would have been identified in a headline in this way, and it was the right decision to change it. It would have been more effective to develop the thesis more fully, as he says, and to define the terms. In the context of the piece, the term “Christian” is being used in a broad, cultural sense. The dominant culture in this country still remains one that has been influenced and shaped by Christian traditions and customs; that is not a value judgment, it is an observation. Mr. Macdonald does not say anywhere in his column that being Christian is a determinant for violence, nor that observant Christians are to blame. In fact, he reviewed the background and possible motivation of many mass murderers going back to the 70s. While he focused on the fact that most of these men came from a Christian background, he also pointed out they had very different world views and possible motivations. He was challenging the assumption that if a perpetrator has a foreign-sounding name it must be a terrorist act and religiously motivated. This descriptor was in the context of the events that were unfolding at the time. Mr. Macdonald correctly states that when a crime like this one is committed by someone who might be Muslim, that the person is automatically labelled and assumed to be fuelled and motivated by Islam. This office receives more than a few letters from those who assert that the problem lies with Islam itself, and some of the coverage of violent events does nothing to dispel that false belief. That is the idea Mr. Macdonald was exploring. In this context, it would have helped a great deal to have defined the way he was using the word “Christian.”

The other policy to be applied here is one on language. The policy labelled “Respect and absence of prejudice” in part says this:

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.

It notes that descriptors of ethnic origin or religious affiliation are used when it is important to the understanding of the matter at hand. This work was commentary and it was addressing a difficult and contentious subject. The writer’s point of view is that generally speaking there is a double standard about when those labels can and should be used. Mr. Ladurantaye was right that it would have been better to develop the idea more carefully. I do not agree with your contention that this tarred all Christians or unfairly singled them out. I hope Mr. Ladurantaye also reviews with his editors that while headlines and tweets are designed to capture interest, there should be more care not to overstate or oversell what is actually being said. Framing the column the way this headline did contributed to the danger of misunderstanding.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman