Truth is a fragile commodity, especially when our perceptions get clouded by strong emotions.
A good example is the fear and anger that most Torontonians felt last Sunday night when we learned that a lone gunman had shot his way along the bustling Danforth, killing two and critically injuring more than a dozen others.
Many of us traditionally turn to journalism to sort out the truth of important events like this. Professional journalists, after all, are supposed to verify information and put it in the proper context. We depend on them to separate facts from stereotypes, to tell us what is known and what is not, to cite the most reliable sources for what really went down.
But what happens if they choose not to?
Consider the deplorable performance of the Toronto Sun. This week since the Danforth tragedy, it has set aside responsible reporting and engaged in innuendo and commentary that frame this as a Jihadist attack, not one carried out by a mentally disturbed young man (as his family and most other sources say).
Even before police named the slain shooter as Faisal Hussain, Sun columnist Sue-Ann Levy was on Twitter repeatedly speculating that, guess what, he was probably going to be one of the following: “Gang member? Refugee? Terrorist?”
No facts. Just dog whistle speculation.
Although much is still unknown about Hussain’s motive, police by the end of the week had either ruled out or found no evidence to support any of those claims.
Then fellow columnist Joe Warmington weighed in, writing that “it was terror on the Danforth no question. But was it terrorism?” He wrote that police are investigating the possibility that this was a “Jihad-inspired mission.” Hussain, he said, had supposedly lived in Pakistan and Afghanistan, supported a pro-ISIS website, and was “well known to Toronto police.” And who did he cite for providing this information, which to date has appeared in no other media? Unnamed “law enforcement sources.” He didn’t say how many. He didn’t say if any were connected to the investigation. He didn’t say whether they were Toronto police, RCMP, CSIS or security consultants.
This violated every journalistic rule I know about using anonymous sources. Reporters are supposed to use them only as a last resort, explaining why the person’s identity needs to be protected, and indicating how they are in a position to know. Usually, an attempt is made to corroborate their information with a responsible official on the record.
Yet Warmington’s story was immediately hailed on Twitter as “good reporting on the possible motives of the Danforth shooter” by Lorrie Goldstein, the former editor of the Sun.
It quickly got crazier.
Writing the next day, Warmington dropped the pretense of attribution and stated as a fact that “Hussain, 29, was visited by law enforcement over concerns of visiting pro-ISIL websites.” He called the attack “a tactical-style mission that mirrored radical Islamic terror events in other parts of the world.” His column made no mention of the fact that Ralph Goodale, the federal minister in charge of national security, said Hussain was not on any CSIS watch-list.
Tarek Fatah, another Sun columnist, amplified Warmington’s story by using it as proof that the Danforth shooting was “a Muslim hate crime.” He praised his colleague for “digging for the truth as in facts, not a discourse in gender studies that would diminish Bin Laden, ISIS, al-Qaida and the Taliban responsibility for crimes against humanity.”
Sue-Ann Levy appeared in print accusing Mayor John Tory of “insanity,” seeming to “care more about the drug-addicted and transients than law-abiding taxpaying citizens suffering from the lawlessness that has resulted from NDP hug-a-thug policies.” She made the outrageous statement that Danforth-style shootings do not happen in Florida, where she sometimes visits. So it’s irresponsible for Tory and the police chief to press for more gun control and assure Torontonians that they are safe from U.S.-style urban violence.
She was challenged on Twitter by other journalists, one of whom pointed out that Florida has seen over 50 mass shootings in the last two years, including the high-profile school shooting in Parkland.
The Sun quietly edited that out of her column when it appeared on the web and didn’t explain that it had been corrected — another no-no in journalistic protocol. No correction appeared in the newspaper either.
That prompted an unusual quarrel among journalists on Twitter, where Levy responded with thin-skinned fury and resorted to name-calling. Here’s a brief look at how nuts that got:
Star sports columnist Bruce Arthur, who formerly wrote for Postmedia, asked Levy if the Sun actually has editors, and said the whole Postmedia organization should be ashamed of making such a mistake and cover-up.
Levy tweeted back that Arthur was “lazy” and a “pathetic nobody.” She suggested: “Come out on the streets with me little boy and let’s see how you do it.”
@Bruce Arthur: “Oh, Sue-Ann. Never change. Or actually, on second thought, you really should.”
@Sue-Ann Levy: “Perhaps you should just focus on being a good journalist yourself … if we can call a lazy armchair sports hack a journalist.”
When Olympian Adam van Koeverden tried to vouch for how much respect Arthur has among athletes he writes about, Levy replied: “Oh Adam you may be a great kayaker and for that I respect you but perhaps it’s better not to comment on who’s lazy and who’s not in the news game of which you know nothing about.”
Another Sun columnist, Candace Malcolm, accused other media of deliberately misleading people by focusing on Hussain’s mental condition. “Journalists in this country are deliberately spinning the news. They have their own agenda and don’t want Canadians to know the truth.”
Of course, the Sun‘s conspiracy theories were quickly picked up by Islamophobes on the internet and the right-wing Rebel Media, where Ezra Levant actually accused the mainstream media of hiding Hussain’s links to terrorism.
There is much we still need to know about Hussain and what he did. He was certainly proficient with weaponry. Where did he learn that? Where was he able to obtain his weapon and several clips of ammunition? Was this an act of self-destruction, born of mental instability? Or was he acting for some sinister cause, inspired by hatred?
When journalists we trust find out the answers, they will tell us.
We are ill-served in the meantime by those who are guilty of “confirmation bias.” That is the tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities. Untrained or beginner journalists are prone to this, and so are those with political agendas.
The purpose of terrorism is to spread fear and terror. This week, its biggest collaborator was the Toronto Sun.
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to “Janice Malcolm” as a Toronto Sun columnist. The columnists name is Candice Malcolm.