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

4. Conclusion and Discussion

In general, the findings reported here suggest that codification of the aggravating sentencing circumstance was recognised by print journalists as an important reform. Reported primarily through the accounts of government/ institutional spokespersons (e.g., the Crown prosecutor) and newspaper journalists, four-fifths (61%) of the 62 newspaper items refer to subsection 718.2(a)(i), either directly or in the context of discussing the sentencing decision.

Most stories supported the application of subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) in the Miloszewski sentencing decision. In addition to a strong educational component, the stories emphasised the landmark nature of the case in terms of the aggravating sentencing circumstance. Unfortunately, there was little discussion about the limits of the law in combating hate-motivated acts. Although several items quoted the sentencing judge, who recognised that his decision would not eliminate racism within society, there was no attempt to discuss the limits of the law in addressing hate-motivated acts. It is vital for media consumers (and the general public) to understand that the law is not a panacea for complex social problems.

There was some discontent reported with aspects of the sentence lengths, but there was very little evidence of any disagreement with the application of the aggravating sentencing circumstance to this particular case.

Although the print media expressed support for the aggravating sentencing circumstance, they individualised and pathologised the case, effectively avoiding discussion of how the incident relates to the problem of racism in Canada. Therefore, while newspaper coverage of Miloszewski may have contributed to greater awareness of hate crime, it portrayed these incidents as highly individualistic and pathological acts with little association to broader socio­cultural issues of systemic racism.

The print media portrayal of Miloszewski carries two implications for the reporting of hate-motivated incidents and the aggravating sentencing circumstance. First, by pathologising the five men the print media effectively "explained-away" the crime. It is important to recognise and denounce the seriousness of Miloszewski, however it is also instructive to understand how it represents and relates with systemic racism. In this respect, racism and racist expressions must be examined and understood as various "…in kind, in disposition, in emotive affect, in intention, and in outcome" (Goldberg, 1997: 21; as quoted in Kobayashi and Peake, 2000: 393). "This understanding of racism as an active process diffused throughout a very wide range of social actions requires, therefore, a way of viewing the wider processes that influence the microenvironment for those expressions"(Kobayashi and Peake, 2000: 393).

Instead of making sense of Miloszewski within a racist society, the majority of newspaper items suggest that something “went wrong” within the individuals. The media individualised the crime by linking the behaviour of the five men to their fringe group (white supremacist) affiliation, as well as to their individual pathologies. To help make sense of the crime the print media portrayed the five men as "evil, vicious, and barely human" (cf. Cavender, 1981: 431). There was some evidence of newspaper items that drew attention to issues of racism, although these discussions were rare and contained limited analyses of the issues. In his analysis of violent racism, Benjamin Bowling (1999: 230) reminds us that,

…the experience of violent racism is not reducible to an isolated incident, or even a collection of incidents. Victimization and racialization -the process by which a person becomes a victim of this form of crime are cumulative, comprised of various encounters with racism, some of which may be physically violent, some lying only at the fringes of what most people would define as violent or aggressive. Some of these experiences are subtle and amount to no more than becoming aware that someone is annoyed or disgusted by the presence of black people or fleeting instances such as the half-hearted racist joke or epithet. At the other end of this continuum are the more easily remembered instances when racism is coupled with physical aggression or violence.

Pathologising and individualising incidents such as Miloszewski perpetuates an erroneous belief that the only thing preventing an equal, diverse and just society is the activities of a perverse few. Therefore, the findings suggest that criminal justice officials (shown to be the main sources of information in this analysis) and journalists must work together to understand the links between hate motivated crimes (however extreme they may be) and systemic racism. The media and their information sources represent "…tremendous potential for overcoming racism through improved knowledge and communication…" (cf. Kobayashi and Peake, 2000: 398).

The second implication of the print media portrayal of Miloszewski relates to reporting of the aggravating sentencing circumstance. People who read about subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) in the print media coverage of Miloszewski did so within a context of explaining-away the crime as a pathological aberration. By portraying this incident as an extreme act, the media -and the official sources that helped construct the story -made softer versions of racism (i.e., institutional racism) "more palatable and so natural"(cf. Li, 2001). However, as Li (1995: 7) suggests, "in reality, racism is most forcibly articulated as an ideology and practice embedded in social institutions."In this case, there appears to be minimal "symbolic value"in the reporting of Miloszewski and subparagraph 718.2(a)(i). The message is the society will not tolerate extreme forms of racism, but what about the everyday realities of racism in Canadian society?

Overall, the media coverage of Miloszewski begs the question of whether the public will associate the aggravating sentencing circumstance with sensational and individual acts of racial violence, as opposed to the general problem of hate-motivated acts. Moreover, how do (will) the media report about less sensational hate-motivated crimes, if at all? How do (will) the media report on hate-motivated acts that are related to issues of gender or sexual orientation? In either case, newspaper consumers of Miloszewski received their information through a sensationalistic and one-dimensional account of the crime. This suggests that future research should monitor media coverage of the aggravating sentencing circumstance -and hate motivated incidents -to explore how the media characterise this legislation and whether they continue to report about hate-motivated acts in a one-dimensional manner.

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