Covering the terrorism beat a challenging assignment: Ryerson prof



Terrorism became a top concern for news organizations after 9/11, but that doesn’t mean it’s an easy beat to cover.

“Nobody wants to talk to you,” journalism professor Joyce Smith said Wednesday, Jan. 25 during a luncheon presentation at Ryerson University. Radicalized religious groups who pose a threat are often unwilling to speak to journalists, or access to them may be limited by court-ordered publication bans. Intelligence personnel within the government may spin reporters and refuse to share much information.

“The necessary outcome is that you only have the official voices,” said Smith. The result: stories that, according to Toronto Star reporter Michelle Shephard’s book Decade of Fear, are often “heavy on drama and outrage, and light on analysis.”

Professor Joyce Smith at a luncheon presentation on radicalization and securitization through the media

In her presentation, “Religion, reporting and radicalization: How Canadian journalists influence securitization,” Smith outlined her role in a project funded by Public Safety Canada that examines the issues of radicalization as it related to religion and securitization in Canada.

Smith, the graduate program director at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, defined radicalization as “moving from a very passive point of view to something which is active, sometimes which goes so far as being violent.”

Securitization, meanwhile, is “a process by which the state or other major body says there is a serious, serious threat that supersedes anything we’ve seen before.” It asserts that existing security initiatives are not enough to combat such a threat and that more needs to be done. This narrative helps justify the government’s response to the perceived threat.

As the media expert on the project, Smith is studying the effects of securitization on the media, both as a form and a result of reporting. The creation of a security beat itself contributes to the securitization narrative by implying that “these are the kind of stories that our crime reporters can’t keep on top of,” Smith said. Journalists’ reliance on official sources also results in securitized news stories, with only the government’s warnings included.

“In some ways, it’s despite the best efforts of journalists,” Smith said later in an interview. “But when you are missing an entire side, you’re denying the public the actual opportunity to decide for themselves.” Readers may become cynical and distrustful of journalism if they’re hearing from only one side of the issue, she warned.

The effect of securitization on readers goes beyond just cynicism: Smith used the concept of floating frames to illustrate how one news story can have both securitizing and radicalizing effects depending on the reader’s stance coming in.

“The same narrative is being read by people who are potentially being securitized as well as people who are going, ‘It’s time for me to get off my duff and actually get serious about these issues,’” she said. Shifting slightly from the notion that the journalist alone determines a story should be framed, Smith believes more credit should be given to readers and the lens through which they consume media. “Those people who are already prone to thinking there’s a threat, it amps that up.”

Smith said journalists’ inability to “speak religion” also causes them to miss vital information. Most reporters are not well-informed about different religions and, with the decline of the religion beat, there is no in-house expert for them to turn to.

“I think for people who aren’t religious or haven’t been religious, it doesn’t even occur to them that there might be something else (that is inspired by religious belief) that’s going on,” said Smith. A national security story involving religion requires the journalist to have some background knowledge about world religions, the same way that a sports reporter needs to understand the economics behind major league sports. Without this knowledge, Smith said reporters risk missing out on a large chunk of the story.

“It mainly comes down to education,” she said. “A lot of journalists are afraid to do anything about religion because they’re sure they’re going to offend someone or get it wrong.”

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