Ryerson professor explores Canadian coverage of radicalization


Staff Reporter

The issue of religious radicalization re-entered the Canadian consciousness after the Oct. 22 Parliament Hill shootings when it was later revealed that the gunman, 32-year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, had been showing signs of extremist belief prior to the incident.

Sifting through the motivations of such a violent act is always difficult, but when religion is involved, reporters often find it particularly challenging because many are not experts in religion, writes Ryerson journalism professor Joyce Smith in a chapter for a new book about homegrown radicalization and national security.

“I continue to feel really strongly that in a place that’s very diverse, like Canada, the way in which religion gets reported in news is one of the few ways that we actually can learn about each other,” said Smith in an interview.

Radicalization has become a frequent subject in post-9/11 security reporting, but Smith writes that in Canada it can be traced back to the coverage of the Air India Flight 182 bombing in 1985, which was perpetrated by members of the Sikh militant group Babbar Khalsa. Among the 329 victims were 268 Canadian citizens, and coverage of the bombing arguably influenced Canadian perception of the links between terrorism and religion.

“Why is it that some people are attracted to this kind of violence that seems to have, at least in their mind, religious motivation?” said Smith. “Obviously, it’s very newsworthy, and it’s something that journalists who don’t cover religion end up asking questions about. Why do some people get attracted to this and others don’t?”

Smith’s chapter, entitled “Religion, Reporting and Radicalization: The Role of News Media in Securitized Discourses,” appears in Religious Radicalization and Securitization in Canada and Beyond, published by the University of Toronto Press this year. It examines various facets of Canadian news reporting in a post-9/11 world, as well as how coverage is presented to and understood by audiences and its effects.

The book’s co-editor, Paul Bramadat, who is also director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Society at the University of Victoria in B.C., invited Smith to contribute the chapter. The project brought together academics from various specialties in terms of religion and securitization. Smith had been working on her contribution for almost two years.

The chapter highlights Canadian news coverage, and how reporting may be important in decreasing the risk of radicalization among young people. Pro-terrorist propaganda often features unclear or biased reporting involving Muslims and non-Muslims.

One example Smith explores is the Mohamed Hersi case. On Mar. 29, 2011, police arrested Hersi at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport. While he had a boarding pass to Cairo, Egypt, prosecutors asserted that Hersi actually had plans to go to Somalia and join al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda linked militant group known for suicide bombings and assassination campaigns. Hersi, however, denied these allegations, saying instead that he was traveling abroad to study Arabic.

In July of this year, Hersi, now 28 years old, was sentenced to 10 years in prison, and is the first Canadian to be tried and convicted in relation to the Criminal Code’s Section 83.18, which punishes those who “knowingly participate” or “knowingly contribute” to terrorist activities.

The Hersi case, which Smith describes as “an opportunity to report on a person in the process of being radicalized,” featured distinct patterns in how it was covered. For instance, some stories focused on al-Qaeda and “nothing more,” while many reports only featured quotations by authority figures and not members of the Somali community. Online discussion threads often jumped to anti-immigration assumptions that had little to do with the facts of the case.

“It was just another example of how the immediate arrest got so much attention, even from the Americans,” said Smith. “And then, because of the slow movement of the case itself, you hear nothing for such a long time. And then suddenly, you hear something right at the end.” Publication bans, tight-lipped security officials and the difficulty with getting extremist groups to talk all make reporting on such cases a huge challenge for reporters, says Smith.

Smith concludes her chapter with her “floating frame” theory. An expansion of framing theories used in mass communications, which propose that the meaning of an event or story can be altered by how it is presented or “framed,” Smith’s “floating frame” theory suggests that in the digital age there are multiple and concurrent ways in which stories are framed.

For some audiences, a story like the Hersi arrest and conviction is a warning about the risks of religious radicalization and the need for special security investigations. For others, it will read like a tale of a freedom fighter, or someone being unfairly charged.

“You could have the same (Toronto Star) story and content being looked at simultaneously by someone in Somalia. And for them, if it’s a story about Somalia, it’s not foreign news. It’s domestic news,” said Smith. “It’s operating in multiple ways at the same time.”