An anti-LGBTQ march in Toronto. Image: Mary Crandall/Flickr

How should the news media identify and report on hate and extremist groups in Canada? Should they report on them at all?

Across North America and Europe, there is no doubt that extremism — especially by right-wing groups like white supremacists and anti-Muslims — is on the rise. In Canada, the number of reported hate crimes skyrocketed 47 per cent in 2017, according to the latest figures available from Statistics Canada. It marked the fourth consecutive year that they have gone up. The increase was fueled by incidents primarily taking place in Ontario and Quebec targeting Canada’s Jewish, Muslim and Black populations. But issues like abortion and sexual orientation have also attracted extremist opposition.

This is clearly news worth covering.

But how it should be covered is a problem that our news media are still wrestling with.

A good example is how last Saturday’s provocative march by a fringe group of anti-LGBTQ activists was covered in the Toronto media. Police kept the rally from reaching its destination in the Gay Village but the commotion caused downtown streets to be blocked to traffic for several hours.

On a slow news day, the Toronto Star devoted two-thirds of page 3 in its Sunday edition to the story. Its headline — “Christian Rally in Village Sparks Tense Showdown” — inaccurately said the protesters reached their destination. It described the organizers as “a Christian group” led by an “evangelist preacher” whose “ministry” espouses “radical” preaching — more or less how the group describes itself on its website. 

A counter demonstration was held by several hundred supporters of the LGBTQ community, fresh from a “Unite for Love” rally addressed by Toronto’s mayor and mainstream faith leaders. Details about that appeared seven paragraphs into the story. However, to its credit, the newspaper covered the rally extensively, devoting 17 of the story’s 32 paragraphs to it, and quoting Mayor John Tory as saying that he stands firmly against the “haters” — those who he said are about division, polarization, stigmatization and discrimination.

Wait a minute. I thought it was a rally mounted by “Christians,” not haters?

The Star was careful to provide background information on the organizer, David Lynn, who was described as an “evangelical preacher” and a founding member of something called Christ’s Forgiveness Ministries. It noted that he was arrested in June for causing a disturbance while attempting to preach in the Gay Village, and “is widely viewed by the community as a threat.” 

It described his followers as carrying Maxime Bernier signs and ones that read “Civil rights are for Christians too.” A supporter was quoted as saying the gay community has too many rights and this was a rally about freedom of speech, not hate. 

The Star story and cutline described Lynn as an “evangelist preacher” and his followers as a “Christian group” — perhaps giving them a certain religious legitimacy they did not deserve. Their only known church is the street corner at Yonge and Dundas. 

The Toronto Sun, on the other hand, covered the rally not as a news story but in a 13-paragraph column by Liz Braun, headlined “Christians March; LGBTQ2 Community Turns Other Cheek.” It focused on the community’s demonstration against what Braun called “a Christian group known for anti-LGBTQ2 and anti-muslim (sic) rhetoric.”

She said “It was peace, love and understanding in Barbara Hall Park, as Unite For Love brought out religious and political leaders to speak passionately about unity, equality, and conquering hate.” She contrasted that to a “controversial” rally organized “ostensibly to defend the rights and freedoms of Christians.”

In contrast to the Star‘s description of a tense showdown, Braun wrote: “A line of police on foot and on bicycles separated the two factions, ensuring a potentially volatile situation remained peaceful. It was a good day to be a Torontonian.”

The rally was also downplayed by The Canadian Press. The agency filed a 9-paragraph news story that it sent out by wire to other news outlets across the country. It did not quote Lynn or describe any of his group’s rhetoric. The story began: “Umbrella-toting crowds rallied for unity in rainy Toronto on Saturday in response to an anti-LGBTQ group’s planned march through the city’s gay village.”

It said only that the protesters “call themselves Christian free-speech advocates.”

So three different news outlets, three different standards for coverage. Which way served society best?

Most news organizations have written standards of practice, covering how their journalists should ensure accuracy, and what they should do to verify facts, maintain their independence and be accountable to the public. None that I know of have developed standards for covering extremist groups, but these standards are clearly needed.

Here are some questions news organizations should think about asking themselves, in my opinion:

What constitutes extremism? Most experts define it as beliefs, attitudes, feelings, actions or strategies that target someone or something else and go beyond the norm. In conflicts involving race, religion, gender and sexual orientation, extremism manifests itself in groups that espouse hatred, violence, confrontation, open demonstrations or disruption to make their point.

Extremism can come from both the right and the left. Right-wing extremists generally criticize the democratic state for its liberal social welfare policies and tolerance of diverse opinion. White supremacists and anti-immigration activists can fall in this category. Left-wing extremism, on the other hand, refers to the use or threat of violence by groups that oppose capitalism, imperialism and colonialism. Some environmental or animal rights groups can fall into this category, as can anarchists.

Why should extremist groups be covered at all? Because it’s important to know they’re out there and on the rise. Barbara Perry, a professor and expert on hate crime, claims there are at least 130 active far-right extremist groups in Canada — a 30 per cent increase, she says, from 2015. She is co-author of Uneasy Alliances: A Look at the Right-Wing Extremist Movement in Canada, a three-year study involving interviews with Canadian law enforcement officials, community organizations and right-wing activists.

Most of these groups are organized around ideologies against certain religions and races, with anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish sentiments being the most common, followed by hatred for immigrants, Indigenous people, women, LGBTQ communities and other minority groups.

How should extremist groups be described? In the case of Saturday’s demonstration, “Christian” is clearly a misnomer. There was nothing “Christian” about their intent, nor was the rally about free speech. Media should be wary about letting these groups characterize themselves. Lynn and his followers were clearly acting as anti-LGBTQ activists and provocateurs.

Cloaking extremist groups in respectability is misleading. Avoid terms like “alt-right” and “white nationalists.” Research their activities and characterize them accordingly, perhaps as “white supremacists” or “anti-Muslim,” if those terms fit. “Free speech” is often a false banner of respectability too. We all have freedom of speech guaranteed in the Canadian Constitution, so it doesn’t need to be claimed in the streets, disrupting civil society.

How should stories about extremism be framed? Responsible reporters should not gratuitously spread the messages that hate groups want to spread. On Saturday, was the news about a hundred or so extremists disrupting traffic, or was it about hundreds of citizens, the mayor, church leaders and the LGBTQ community turning the tables and celebrating and defending their hard-won rights? Lead with the more responsible news angle.

What should we do and not do? Don’t link to their websites, as I might have done when I mentioned how Lynn’s group described itself. Be careful about quoting incendiary and hateful rhetoric; paraphrase it when you can. Do know sources you can contact to counter hateful, extreme or misleading opinion. Investigate the actions, background, views and funding of extreme groups so you can accurately describe them for readers.

Be cautious and skeptical, and remember: What we consider extremism today can mean something else tomorrow.

Civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. criticized use of that descriptor by the mainstream media in his Letter from Burmingham Jail. “But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love…Was not Amos an extremist for justice…Was not Martin Luther an extremist…So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

Here, good people, endeth the lesson.

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn’t like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy managing editor of the Toronto Star, and 10 years as chairman of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. His 1998 book Yesterday’s News documented how newspapers were forfeiting their role as our primary information source. This column originally appeared on John’s blog.

Image: Mary Crandall/Flickr

John Miller

From media executive to media critic, John Miller has seen journalism from all sides (and he often doesn’t like what he sees). He draws on his 40 years in news, including five years as deputy...