The180·THE 180

Media need to reflect on their role in the Quebec killings

Almost as soon as news began to break about the shootings at a Quebec City mosque, people asked "is this an act of terror?" Jennifer Mustapha, political scientist and security researcher, says the words we use to tell the stories of violence are critically important.
People attend a vigil for victims of the mosque shooting in Quebec City Monday, Jan. 30, 2017 in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

The alleged killer in the Quebec City mosque shooting will likely not be charged with terrorism.

The incident itself, however, is widely described in the media as a terrorist attack.

There are, of course, two definitions at play. One is the legal: whether the act was terrorism under the criminal code, the other is political: is this the kind of act designed to inspire terror, and similar to other incidents we've called terrorism in the past.

While this may seem like a trivial distinction, Jennifer Mustapha, a political scientist and security researcher, says the words media use to tell the stories of violence are critically important. When politicians come up with responses to terror, those responses aren't just shaped by independent analysis of facts, but by the stories created by the media. 

The ways we talk about terrorism actually help to construct the social and political context in which both terrorism itself, and counter-terrorism policies occur. And they shape our perception of the actual risks posed by terrorism.- Jennifer Mustapha, Huron University College

Mustapha is an Assistant Professor in Political Science at Huron University College, at Western University. The following interview has been edited for length. 

Why are the words we use to describe these events so important?

If we look at the relationship between how the media talks about terrorism, and what politicians end up doing about terrorism, I would say that security policy is developed and implemented within the context of how we talk about terrorism. So the ways we talk about terrorism actually help to construct the social and political context in which both terrorism itself, and counter-terrorism policies occur. And they shape our perception of the actual risks posed by terrorism. So we've all seen those charts that show the actual statistical probability of dying in a terrorist attack, versus say, fatal injuries from falling out of bed. But you know, we do willingly take our shoes off at the airport and we submit to these invasive security measures that we wouldn't ordinarily, because no one wants a terrorist on an airplane. Despite it being statistically an infinitesimally small risk. But I'm sure most of us don't think twice about climbing into bed at night. So, because these security policies occur within a social and political context, fear and the perception of heightened danger can have very real effects on real people. 
An ambulance and reporters at the scene of a fatal shooting at the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre on Jan. 29, 2017. (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)

How easy is it for the media, intentionally or not, to create a narrative that doesn't necessarily represent reality?

Well there're two things I'd say about that just off the hop, which is "reality" includes how we talk about it. So, I hesitate to say that there are narratives that are completely disconnected from reality because narratives become part of the reality. But I do think that a few things happened in the immediate coverage of the Quebec mosque attack in particular that highlight some of these issues. On the one hand, we did see some restraint on the part of news outlets to resist this sort of urge to do that CNN-style rolling 24/7 media coverage that has no actual substance, and it frustrated a lot of people... but there's definitely pros and cons to that, but I actually think that restraint might be more appropriate than the other tendency. 

On the other hand, this sort of relative restraint was potentially offset by what we did see, which is some hasty and careless reporting especially on social media and in the online content that really set the stage for some entrenched assumptions about "what really happened" from certain elements politically right now. So one of the things that was picked up immediately was, Radio-Canada in their online reporting had specifically said that a witness had seen two gunmen and one of them may have said "Allahu Akbar" and this is a nugget that continues to be deployed by those who are now refusing to accept the facts that have been verified by police. There were also reports for a substantial period of time that there were two shooters, two masked men, and two suspects in custody. 
Jen Mustapha is an assistant professor at Huron University College, Western University. (Jen Mustapha/Twitter)

One of the things that really bothered me as an observer and researcher, is that the names of these two men that were in, what was then understood to be police custody, was leaked and reported before the police themselves said their names. And because one of them was a Muslim name, and this led to immediate speculation about Muslim terrorism, and tapped in to this existing script that we have about how these things are supposed to go. So the recent shooting at the Quebec mosque was, in some ways, a typical example of the folly of hasty and careless reporting around these things. 

At the end of the day, is a government's response to terrorism and crime based on careful study and consideration of the information, or is it driven by people's fears that they read in the news?

I think it's both. I think we'd like to believe that a lot of these policies are solely based on sound intelligence and what is statistically probable and what are the actual threats out there. I definitely don't want to cast aspersions against the intelligence community - I have friends that work in the intelligence community - but truthfully, as I've mentioned, these things are occurring in these political and social contexts. I want to be clear when it comes to how the media is talking about this, that I'm not suggesting any sort of media censorship, but maybe that we need to start insisting that we have a serious conversation about developing guidelines about social media use in news reporting. The established news media is a key player in constructing these narratives, and it has a significant amount of influence in how a story gets told. So in this age when news reporting is happening in real-time and on these interactive social platforms like Twitter, the stakes are especially high in making sure that anything that is put out there in the guise of legitimate news reporting is verifiable and accurate. 

We need skills in literacy, in information processing, we need to promote an education of critical thinking.- Jennifer Mustapha, Huron University College

But you know, I think this is actually part of a larger problem that seems to be emerging, in this time of this huge avalanche of information that is always coming at us with varying quality and of various origins, one the things we're seeing and I've observed it personally as an educator of young people, is there's sort of a decline in basic literacy around approaching information, and around our consumption of news. And really just being able to know the difference between a fact and an opinion. And we're seeing these powerful actors willfully exploiting and furthering this problem for their own ends.

We need skills in literacy, in information processing, we need to promote an education of critical thinking. We need to stop talking about everything in the framework of opposing viewpoints, which is also a media device and ends up giving too much credence to a side that's actually quite marginal. And I think - this is sort of strange of me to say because I'm an academic and I love knowing everything - but we need to be okay sometimes with not knowing. We need to be okay with just sitting for a bit. Being patient for actual information as opposed to these spirals of speculation that are increasingly being passed off as news.