We have a real bias problem in mainstream media when it comes to white men who commit horrible crimes. It’s called “Exceptional White Male Syndrome.”
We have known about this problem for decades and while there has been some improvement over time, one glaring reality remains: a need for the mainstream media to paint white men who do horrific things as nice people who suddenly snapped.
The reporting around this week’s mass shooting in Nova Scotia – the largest in the country’s history – was no different, with the Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, offering in a headline that the “Nova Scotia mass shooter was a denturist with a passion for policing.” You would never know that the gunman brutally killed 17 innocent people, including an RCMP officer, and left a number of homes on fire in his wake.
Not only is this headline tone-deaf to the trauma experienced by the families of the victims, but it’s irresponsible journalism.
We should be focused on what happened and how to prevent these kinds of mass killings in the future, not writing a heartfelt biography of the killer. Whether or not he was a nice man is irrelevant.
The Globe and Mail is not the only outlet guilty of this. In fact, we are so used to this kind of treatment from mainstream media, that we knew it was only a matter of time before we would start to read that the shooter must have been troubled or pushed to his limits by outside forces.
This gives the public a false sense of security that this must just be an exceptional situation or an anomaly. When in fact, the majority of mass shootings in Canada and the United States are carried out by white men.
We have a real crisis of violence in Canada.
According to statistics, firearm-related violent crimes have increased by 42 per cent since 2013 and 60 per cent of homicides involve firearms. Toronto just experienced its worst year yet with 771 shooting incidents in 2019.
We also know that most of the victims of violent crime are women and they’re mostly killed by men and about half are killed by their spouse or intimate partner. In fact, a woman is killed every 2.5 days in Canada.
At the same time as white men receive sympathetic treatment, the media has an obvious counter-bias for Black and Indigenous peoples – even when they are the victims. Racialized people are often described by their perceived faults – as a runaway, homeless or suffering from addictions.
Take, for example, the violent death of young Indigenous girl Tina Fontaine in 2014. The Globe’s reporting back then focused on the fact that Fontaine had drugs and alcohol in her system – instead of the fact that she was brutally killed and her body thrown in the river.
These kinds of headlines not only perpetuate stereotypes but also invite readers to, at least subconsciously, blame the victim.
The research also tells us that gun violence is linked to hate crimes against women. And that the rise of right-wing, white nationalist groups with access to handguns and military-style assault rifles presents a clear threat to Canadians.
It’ll be weeks or months before the public knows all the facts surrounding what happened in Nova Scotia. Until then, mainstream media should take a closer look at how they present white male perpetrators of crime. Let’s put the focus back on the victims who had their lives taken away so soon. They deserve better.
Pamela Palmater is a Mi’kmaw citizen member of Eel River Bar First Nation and the Chair in Indigenous Governance at Ryerson University.