When reporting competes with fake news, journalism is the first victim

Paperboy holds a newspaper with fake news. Photo: The People Speak!/Flickr

The recent van attack in Toronto has left 10 people dead and 14 injured. It is deeply shocking, and as with all the other attacks around the world in recent years, very troubling.

Beyond the human tragedy, this attack has convinced me that journalism, as I have understood and read it since I started paying attention to the news (about 30 years ago), is on the way to becoming extinct. In the last decade, many newspapers have gone bankrupt and several newsrooms closed. Analysts blamed the situation, rightly so, on the internet or digital media and social media, as well as the lack of a viable business model that would allow journalism to survive. But the social media and the polarization that is turning these virtual places into warzones between "supporters" and "enemies" are not the only factors to blame.

Mainstream journalism and some journalists are increasingly reproducing the quick, biased reporting widespread in social media. What we publicly despise in others seems to be a reflection of our own mistakes. The result is a slowly erosion of what makes journalism a strong pillar of democracy, intended to keep the public informed in an objective and accurate manner.

Here, I use examples to show how some "mainstream" journalists are falling into the trap of sensationalism and quick scoops, thus following in the footsteps of what their competitors are already doing.

Each time a tragic event takes place, a new narrative is quickly shaped and spread, and many journalists run to embrace it, without realizing that each time they are digging a bigger hole in the "seeker of truth and objectivity" grave.

When in 2015, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau killed a soldier at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, journalists reported that there were snipers on building roofs and that the suspect had accomplices. That created a tremendous climate of fear. The "terrorist" label was quickly attributed to the perpetrator and a "hero" was made of Kevin Vickers, who was later appointed as an Ambassador to Ireland by then prime minister Stephen Harper. All these news stories, comments and decisions were made within a matter of days, giving the impression that there were no other versions of events and no other plausible explanations.

Zehaf-Bibeau was portrayed as a monster to the point that, fearing the backlash of being considered guilty by association, not a single Muslim place of worship was willing to bury him in Ottawa and his father had to take his body for burial in Libya. His mental health and drug addiction struggles, as described by his mother in a letter to the media, weren't taken seriously in his public representation. A mug shot of him with either unkempt hair or harbouring a Palestinian keffiyeh to cover his face made the headlines. Despite all the questions about his real motives, the RCMP Commissioner concluded that Zehaf-Bibeau was a "Mujaheed," a terrorist affiliated with "international" terrorism, a newly introduced term to describe what I guess should frankly be labelled "Muslim terrorism."

On June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, an American security guard, attacked the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people. The narrative that came out immediately was that Muslims (Omar Mateen's faith) are haters of LGBTQ communities and that Mateen went on a rampage as an attack on the sexual orientation of nightclub visitors. Another narrative, widely circulated, went on to describe Omar Mateen as a self-hating closeted homosexual. It took only a few hours and days for these narratives to be circulated in social media and endorsed by "mainstream" journalists. It took more than two years of investigation, legal procedures and thorough journalism to quash these erroneous stories. Last month, Glen Greenwald from the Intercept wrote an investigative piece exposing that the real motives of the perpetrator were related to the U.S. wars and killings of Muslims in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

In 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette, a young Canadian man, killed six Muslim men in a Quebec City mosque. Some media outlets, quickly followed by a number of national columnists on social media, reported that Bissonnette had accomplices and that his accomplice was a Muslim man of Moroccan descent. Bissonnette's motives were not rapidly disclosed. A general unease made some journalists less eloquent about the linking of this man to white supremacy movements. Bullying and mental health kept emerging as the main "known" motive of the cold-blooded murders. A clean-shaved picture of him was also shown in the media and his history of anxiety and depression history was repeatedly mentioned. A hero was even found in the actions of Azzeddine Sofiane who was killed in the course of trying to save some of the other worshipers. A heroic act, indeed, but in my opinion, another attempt to positively distract us from the narrative of the horrible actions of the perpetrator.

Alek Minassian, the man arrested and charged with killing 10 people this week by driving a van onto the sidewalks of Toronto, also "benefited" from a narrative quickly shaped by social media, and endorsed by journalists looking for sensationalism and a bit of "market share" in this new model of news.

A reporter from CBC declared on Twitter that the perpetrator was "wide-eyed, angry and Middle Eastern," trying to associate the attacker with the now classic narrative of "another Muslim or Middle Eastern violent guy." Later, after this narrative made its way into many news outlet and websites, some journalists quickly jumped and kept asking -- was this case not related to "international terrorism"? How did they know? Is it the mere religious affiliation of the perpetrator that makes you a terrorist? Or rather, through negation, "if you are not a Muslim, a.k.a. a terrorist, then you can be anything else."

Soon after, another narrative came to be built by reports (once again gleaned from social media) indicating that the attacker was a misogynist belonging to an "incel" group -- men who are angry about their involuntary sexual inaccessibility to women. As quick as the police and journalists were to "clean" the attacker of accusations of terrorism, they were not as quick to corroborate this troubling news. Maintaining fuzziness in this case makes all explanations plausible and none true. What is supposed to be a rule of objectivity is becoming a fluid argument that some journalists use when it suits them, to refute some claims and accept others.

And once more, a hero is instantaneously found -- in this case, the police officer who didn't shoot at the killer. It's a gesture that we have seen many times in other situations, especially when the suspect is clearly identified as a person of colour. What should be a rule is unfortunately portrayed and accepted as the exception. A heroic gesture that we cheer despite the real tragedy being lived by people, and the human and social damage created by the attacker in the community.

These examples illustrate how both social media and mainstream reporting are shaping dangerous and misleading narratives that, in the long run, are slowly causing the erosion of the real work of journalism.

Monia Mazigh was born and raised in Tunisia and immigrated to Canada in 1991. Mazigh was catapulted onto the public stage in 2002 when her husband, Maher Arar, was deported to Syria where he was tortured and held without charge for over a year. She campaigned tirelessly for his release. Mazigh holds a PhD in finance from McGill University. In 2008, she published a memoir, Hope and Despair, about her pursuit of justice, and recently, a novel about Muslim women, Mirrors and Mirages. You can follow her on Twitter @MoniaMazigh or on her blog www.moniamazigh.com

Photo: The People Speak!/Flickr

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