Diversity, Bias, and Workflow

Last Friday, the website of the Vancouver Sun newspaper posted an op-ed article titled Can Social Trust and Diversity Co-Exist? The opinion piece, submitted by Mount Royal University instructor Mark Hecht, argued that “a not insignificant proportion of Muslim immigrants have no intention of assimilating into any western society” and concluded that “the minimum requirement is that we say goodbye to diversity, tolerance and inclusion if we wish to be a society that can rebuild the trust we used to have in one another, and start accepting a new norm for immigration policy”.

As you might imagine, the article caused a firestorm of criticism, and it was pulled from the newspaper’s website – although it still appeared in the Sun’s Saturday print edition, which had already gone to press. Many commentators were asking why anyone at the Sun would have approved this article for publication, with its shoddy argumentation, lack of solid evidence, and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim bias. (The article is still available on several other Internet sites; I don’t want to give it any more attention by linking to it, but you can find those sites by Googling the article title.)

The Sun’s editor, Harold Munro, posted an apology to readers that included a commitment to a “[review of] our local workflow and editorial processes to ensure greater oversight and accountability”. Since then, he met with Sun staff in person and promised further changes, although it appears there’s still a great deal of internal dissent and dissatisfaction around the matter.

As a former Sun employee, I was deeply upset that this article made it into print and online. I was also very impressed that many current Sun staff members publicly expressed their opposition to the article. But when I read Munro’s apology, I suspected that the “workflow” issue relates to the ongoing extensive staff cutbacks throughout Postmedia, the company that owns the Sun. It may be difficult for Sun editors to identify potentially problematic content if they’re overworked and on deadline, and have a space on a page that needs to be filled right away.

But then I wondered: how difficult is it to tell that Hecht’s article is problematic? So I sat down with my laptop and a watch, and started looking things up online.

  • Hecht’s biography at the end of the article claims that he has “written extensively on issues of national identity and resource conflict”. I don’t know if he wrote that biography or if Sun or Postmedia staff wrote it. Hecht’s personal website indicates that he’s a geographer who teaches, among other subjects, human geography and urban geography. So he presumably has some expertise in issues around migration and urban societies. But the only writings shown on his website are two books, one of which is self-published. This isn’t “extensive”.
  • The first source of information cited in the article is the Gatestone Institute. Wikipedia says, “Multiple viral anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim falsehoods originate from Gatestone”, and there’s many other links to similar information and reporting. This should have immediately raised concerns about the reliability of information from that source.
  • “Diversity” and “social trust” are complex ideas – you don’t have to look that up to know that. And because each one contains multiple components, the effect that they have on each other could vary quite widely across different situations and different societies. But the article only cites four research studies (in addition to the Gatestone “data”). Four research studies are not even close to being enough support for the article’s very broad assertions about the societal effects of immigration.
  • The article uses the example of immigration to Denmark to demonstrate the alleged reduction of social trust caused by “a lot of arrogant people….with no intention of letting go of their previous cultures, animosities, preferences and pretensions”. The article specifically mentions Muslim immigrants. Wikipedia’s entry on “immigration to Denmark” states that “Danish law does not allow the registration of citizens based upon religion”. The Wikipedia article mentions social tensions between Muslim and non-Muslim residents of Denmark, but blaming declining social trust in Denmark on Muslim immigration, as Hecht does, is dubious at best if the Danish Muslim population cannot even be accurately measured.
  • The article is peppered with dog whistle terms that often occur in conservative analyses, such as “political correctness”, “inequalities real and otherwise”, and “dogma”. This should raise concerns about the author’s objectivity or perspective on the issues the article addresses. The article also mentions “affirmative action”, which doesn’t exist in Canada (the closest to it is employment equity).

This superficial investigation took me just under eight minutes.

In a functioning editorial system, any one of these easily identified problems would be enough of a red flag to stop the article from going any further. Collectively, these problems are reason enough to either send the article back to the author for revision, or to reject it entirely. (Hecht told a reporter that he sent the piece to the Sun, received a reply that it was “interesting”, and then heard nothing further.) This isn’t stifling Hecht’s right to free speech, or rejecting “controversial” ideas; he’s free to express his opinions, but media organizations aren’t obliged to give him an outlet for those opinions, or to publish opinions that are poorly reasoned and not factually supported.

But instead, it looks like someone somewhere in the Sun or Postmedia “workflow” didn’t have the time or the inclination to spend less than 10 minutes checking very basic information in Hecht’s article. That reflects terribly on the Sun and its owners, and it indicates either a highly dysfunctional organizational culture or a desperate lack of resources – or maybe both. It’s been alleged that Postmedia’s editorial direction is going to become more politically conservative. That could put the Sun in the unenviable position of trying to rebuild its reputation with a multicultural, progressive readership while being editorially pressured to reflect more right-wing perspectives. We shall see what happens.

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