By Stefanie Phillips, RSJ ’18
Canadian newsrooms should create beats on specific extremist groups so reporters can better understand the stories they are covering and get the facts right, advises a Dalhousie researcher who studies media coverage of terrorism.
Speaking at a Ryerson Journalism Research Centre event entitled “Reporting News Versus Being Used,” Amarnath Amarasingam, a postdoctoral fellow at Dalhousie’s Resilience Research Centre shared his research on radicalization, terrorism and media coverage. The event took place days after the Las Vegas shootings, which left 58 people dead and 500 injured, providing a timely case study for dissection.
In his conversation with Ryerson journalism professor Joyce Smith, Amarasingam talked about the need for journalists to have background knowledge before they write about radical terrorism in Canada.
“You kind of have to know the background, not only the background of the movement but the background of Islam in Canada, immigration in Canada, what it means to be an ethnic minority in Canada,” he said. “If you don’t have that you can slip into very sloppy reporting.”
Amarasingam said the best thing journalists can do to ensure they’re reporting accurately is to immerse themselves in the communities they’re writing about.
“This is my case for more beats. I think it’s because it actually is not just: go read a book. It’s about go, spend time with people for a long period of time,” he said. “Then you start to report on the issues of a community and of how this community interacts with international events.”
Smith asked Amarasingam how journalists should cover these issues, assuming they don’t know everything about them.
Amarasingam had several suggestions, which include learning how to separate ISIS propaganda from newsworthy stories and questioning whether content from ISIS’s propaganda machine is in the public interest.
“We’re kind of taught to think that anything said by these clandestine militant secretive organizations must be news because we get so little of it and because we have really no access to their internal workings and how they think and how they work,” Amarasingam said.
He said propaganda can easily be confused for news because of a recent shift in the nature of terrorism and extremism in the world, a shift he says has been driven by the growing use of social media.
“Before, we did have to wait for a grainy video from Bin Laden to slowly make its way down the mountain and into our news. Now, it’s that there is an overabundance of extremist content.”
To explain the abundance he refers to, Amarasingam gave the example of the monthly magazine published by ISIS and the presence of ISIS fighters and supporters on Twitter and Facebook.
Amarasingam said that most of the content put out by ISIS is directed toward the media and put together by trained professionals working for the militant group, giving the example of a young communications graduate who joined ISIS’s ranks in Syria to help execute its PR strategy.
When ISIS claimed responsibility for the devastating shooting in Las Vegas, Amarasingam said one of the things the group did to claim responsibility for the event was to put out a two-and-a-half minute video about how they organized it. “It was all media reports cut and spun,” he said.
ISIS was not the only extremist group brought up by Amarasingam and Smith. Different alt-right groups, like the Skinheads, were also mentioned. Smith asked what weight a group’s name carries for its members.
“The [name] ‘alt-right’ was used quite a bit and then after Charlottesville there was a pushback and people said let’s just call them neo-Nazis or fascists,” she said.
Amarasingam admits it’s a “tricky” one because there are many groups with different names and movements in the alt-right space.
“Whatever you use you’re going to be hated by someone,” he admitted. “Particularly in the alt-right space, but also in the Jihadist space.”