Print Media Treatment of Hate as an Aggravating Circumstance for Sentencing: A Case Study

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Ab Currie, Peter Li, Tina Hattem, Julian Roberts, Ivan Zinger, Jacqueline Nelson and Jodie van Dieen for their helpful comments on this paper. A version of this paper was presented at the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association Conference, University of Laval, May 2001.

The Context of Hate

  • Hate and bias crimes represent a serious affront to individuals and groups who experience their deleterious affects. In addition to the harm they inflict upon the individual, hate-motivated activities undermine the societal goals of promoting a just, fair, equitable and socially cohesive society.
  • Since the early 1990s, the federal government, in consultation with community and non-governmental organisations, has struggled to find appropriate methods for combating hate-motivated activities. In 1995, Parliament introduced sentencing reforms to assist judges with sentencing decisions. Included in these reforms was a statutory provision requiring that judges consider “bias or hate motivation” as an aggravating sentencing circumstance.
  • Subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) of the Criminal Code, which came into force in September 1996, states that evidence that the offence was motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on race, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation or any other similar factor” shall be deemed an aggravating circumstance.
  • To date, the most important case relevant to subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) has been R. v. Miloszewski, [1999] B.C.J. No. 2710 (B.C. Prov. Ct.). In January 1998, Nirmal Singh Gill died following an attack in the parking lot of the Guru Nanak Temple in Surrey, British Columbia. Five men, described as having links to White Power – a white supremacist skinhead group – were arrested, and subsequently convicted of manslaughter. Many observers suggest the decision in this case was precedent setting and will impact future decisions concerning hate motivated crimes.

Purpose of Paper

The purpose of this paper is to conduct a case study analysis of the newspaper coverage of Miloszewski. The paper explores the print media portrayal of subparagraph 718.2(a)(i), focusing on whether codification of the aggravating sentencing circumstance influenced newspaper reporting. The paper also explores how the print media interpreted the Miloszewski case, and represented the decision to the readers.

Findings

  • A total of 62 newspaper items[1] were found that related to the Miloszewski case. The principal information sources contained in these news items were government/institutional spokespersons (e.g., police officials and the Crown prosecutor) and the journalists who reported the story.
  • Of the newspaper items referring to Miloszewski, 38 (61%) refer to subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) of the Criminal Code. Twenty-three items appeared during the pre-sentence stage and 15 appeared post-sentence. The number of articles referring to the aggravating sentencing circumstance suggests that codification of this legislation had some impact on the print media coverage of Miloszewski.
  • In addition to expressing strong support for subparagraph 718.2(a)(i), the various newspaper items contained a strong educational component about the new legislation, emphasized the landmark nature of the case, and recognised the ic message of the sentence.
  • Although several newspaper items quoted the judgement, which stated that the sentence would not “eliminate racism from society,” there was very little discussion of the limits of the law in addressing hate-motivated acts.
  • The analysis also reveals that the print media pathologised and individualised the offenders in Miloszewski. Instead of understanding and reporting about the crime within its broader socio-cultural context, the media “explained-away” the incident by suggesting the crime was linked to the pathological behaviour of aberrant “skinheads”.
  • In the process of pathologising Miloszewski, the print media avoided the issue of systemic racism. By focusing on the more extreme aspects of the case, the media helped make “softer” (day-to-day) forms of racism “more palatable and so natural” (Li, 2001). This one-dimensional account of the crime suggests that consumers of newspaper coverage of Miloszewski received their information about subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) through a limited perspective that ignored issues of racism.

Discussion

The findings suggest that criminal justice officials need to educate themselves and journalists to understand the socio­cultural context of hate motivated incidents in Canada, as well as the limitations of the law in combating this complex social issue. Future research should monitor media coverage of the aggravating sentencing circumstance – and hate motivated acts – to explore how the media characterises this legislation, and whether they continue to report about hate-motivated acts in a one-dimensional manner.


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