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Structural racism in media is deeply embedded, and resolving it will require frank discussions. (Shutterstock)

Implicit bias within Canadian media often means providing excuses for white accused

Canada celebrates itself as a multicultural and inclusive nation, yet when it comes to media representation, the different portrayals of Muslims and white people disguise a culture of implicit bias and racism.

Take, for example, two high profile crimes in which vehicles were used to kill people.

On Dec. 31, 2020, a police officer in Calgary was killed when struck by a vehicle trying to flee a traffic stop. On June 6, four members of a Muslim-Canadian family in were killed when they were out for an evening stroll in London, Ont.

In the Calgary incident, those arrested and charged with first-degree murder were two Muslim teenagers. The suspect in the London attack is a 20-year-old white man.

Read more: A child psychiatrist who knew those killed in the London terror attack offers advice on helping kids deal with trauma

Canadian news outlets captured these two crimes in very different ways.

In the incident about the killing of the Muslim family members, some news outlets illustrated a story about the accused by using a photo of him from a recent fishing trip.

While the Crown would add a charge of terrorism in addition to the murder charges, news outlets became a channel for the accused’s family and friends to send out their positive thoughts about him, praise him and deny his Islamophobia and racism.

Friends spoke about a recent fishing trip and how the accused was “happy as ever,” how he had “trouble with the steering of his truck” and was distraught over a death in the family.

Eventually, news outlets cited the accused’s mental illness, anger management and parent’s separation.

In the Calgary incident, no friends or family of the accused were quoted by the media. No one spoke of their character or offered any other personal information about them. Photos used in media stories were police mug shots.

Snow covers the ground as a hearse drives past cops saluting
Officers salute as the hearse and honour guard pass at the funeral service for Calgary Police Service Sgt. Andrew Harnett. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

Delegating responsibility

Research has shown that in cases of mass killings where the accused is white, the media often cite mental illnesses as a possible explanation for the crime.

The media’s delegation of responsibility of the crime to mental illness reduces moral panic. It provides peace of mind for readers that “normal” white people would not commit such crimes.

At the same time, the sympathetic image of a mentally ill individual becomes an asset for the defence during the trial and sentencing.

Nancy Heitzeg, a professor of sociology and critical studies of race and ethnicity at Saint Catherine University in Minnesota, notes there is a “double standard” when it comes to the white people versus people of colour when they commit the same crime.

When a white individual is committing a crime, she explains, there is always a life story that gives characteristics to the accused. However, when a minority individual is committing the crime, there are no backgrounds, no excuses and no side stories.

Read more: Muslim family killed in terror attack in London, Ontario: Islamophobic violence surfaces once again in Canada

Journalists are influenced by their own perceptions of race when creating content. They are embedded within societies that are impacted by racial tensions and misperceptions. This can translate into stories that reinforce stereotyping.

Police officers salute as a hearse drives by, muslim community members and supporters stand in the background
Police officers salute as hearses pass during the funeral for the four Muslim family members killed in a deadly vehicle attack, in London, Ont., on June 12, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

While news outlets should be a neutral source of information, research has indicated that Canadian media shows implicit biases and racism. In particular, articles describe crimes against white victims with significantly more fearful language.

Implicit bias is often in the details left out. Structural racism in media is deeply embedded, and resolving it will require frank discussions, diverse workforces and a confrontation of racism’s roots.

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