Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Enoch Burke wants to be a martyr — and some of the media is trying its best to help him (Op-Ed)

 Enoch Burke spent night in isolation at ahead of transfer to main prison -  Independent.ie

In recent days, the high-profile High Court case surrounding Enoch Burke has hit headlines nationally and internationally.

Legal representatives for the Westmeath school at the heart of the case told the court this week that there had been attempts by the suspended teacher to say the case was about his refusal to call a boy a girl but, they clarified, this case was not about Mr Burke’s views towards transgender people.

Likewise, this article is not about Mr Burke’s views but instead how some media reporting around the incident has been at best misinformed.

Much has been written, tweeted, vlogged, blogged, and opined about on the airwaves over this case.

One important point remains missing in much of the commentary. Many news outlets have demonstrated a failure to understand how their choices in headlines, framing, and coverage can drive misinformation online, feed cycles of outrage, and elevate media manipulators to positions of influence.

In short, much reporting approaches news in the digital age with yesterday’s tools, so it is worth joining the dots to explore how this is happening in relation to the Enoch Burke case.

Mr Burke

Let’s start with the facts. This issue began in May when the school’s then principal asked, following a meeting with a student and their parents, that teachers address a transgender student by a new name and with the pronoun “they”. 

Mr Burke refused and claimed, in an email, that students were being “forced” to accept this position and later said it amounted to an “abuse of children”. The principal informed Mr Burke that the ethos of the school was inclusive, and said the right of persons to be called by a name of their choosing and in accordance with their preferred gender was a recognised right set out in the Equal Status Act. 

The school claimed that, in June, Mr Burke interrupted a school anniversary chapel service, saying the principal should withdraw her instruction regarding how to address the student. The school further claimed that, at a dinner later that day, he approached the principal and again asked her to withdraw the request.

The school stated that the principal told Mr Burke that she would speak to him at an appropriate time and walked away but that Mr Burke followed her and continued to question her loudly, and that other people in attendance stood between them to bring an end to the confrontation.

Countering this, Mr Burke says he only approached the principal once after the meal and then left. The principal filed a report to the school’s board of management expressing “serious concerns” over his conduct and how he might act in the future, and Mr Burke was suspended pending the outcome of a disciplinary meeting in September.

During court proceedings this week, Mr Burke revealed that he doesn’t even teach the student involved. Despite being on paid administrative leave, in late August Mr Burke continued to show up and sit in an empty classroom before he was eventually arrested at the school and jailed for contempt of court leading to the High Court case on Wednesday.

In court, lawyers for Wilson’s Hospital School have said this was not about Mr Burke’s beliefs but his alleged conduct. Mr Justice Max Barrett agreed. Enoch Burke could be released from prison if he purges his contempt, complies with the injunction, and agrees to stay away from the school pending the outcome of the disciplinary process. He has refused to do this.

Mr Burke has said he cannot comply with the injunction as it violates his conscience and religious beliefs.

Mr Burke is of course entitled to his own beliefs. He is not entitled to his own laws.

It is his refusal to comply with the court orders barring him from his workplace that has resulted in this arrest and this court case, as well as his present residency in Mountjoy prison.

The media

This only tells half the story. Much of the reporting around Enoch Burke’s antics fails to focus on the actions that led to his arrest and the injunction, instead irresponsibly implying the court case and his imprisonment are direct consequences of his refusal to use “they/them” pronouns.

Some outlets have crafted headlines about the case that are sensational and which portray this as the latest conflict in a culture war that so often targets transgender people. Rather than inform and educate the public about this issue, these outlets have misinformed their audience.

In some outlets, Mr Burke has been framed as a martyr, his refusal to follow the principal’s request has been championed as righteous, and his quotes have been front and centre on many pieces.

Let’s look at one example. One online news website published an article which included the headline “Teacher jailed following refusal to use gender-neutral pronouns”. This is, at best, misleading as Mr Burke was jailed for contempt of court.

Misleading framing can be found in many reports about this incident.

The coverage by some outlets has been disappointing and revealing of a wider problem in today’s media outlets. Many newsrooms today simply do not understand how they unwittingly contribute to online propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation.

Headlines get shared, without the full context of the article; quotes, portraying just one aspect of an issue, are isolated and spread online as memes; and media-savvy antagonists, manipulators, and extremists successfully game the media into providing them with coverage when they are seeking free means of broadcasting their radical, bigoted, or exclusionary political or social beliefs.

Manipulation

Some individuals and groups, often operating on the fringes of society, try to mainstream their beliefs and ideologies. They attempt to shape and distort media coverage, manipulate news outlets, and trick others into boosting their message for them. They do this by identifying divisive issues and capitalising on their polarising potential by inserting themselves into the debate.

The short-term aim is usually to garner attention, often by causing offence and thereby catalysing media coverage. The objective is to publicise their ideology and beliefs with a view to gaining influence and potential supporters.

Research by my colleagues and I at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a non-profit that researches disinformation, hate, and extremism online, has found that mainstream amplification helps such groups or figures to reach far greater audiences than they could ever have achieved organically.

Extremists have a long history of attempting to manipulate the media for their own ends.

To take one example, Islamic State used social and digital media to spread propaganda and garner international coverage of their gruesome acts.

And, in 2018, white nationalists fooled researchers and the media by spreading a false claim that the mass shooter Nikolas Cruz was a member of a white supremacist group in Florida. In 2017, users on the extremist forum 4chan launched a campaign to falsely present the ‘OK’ hand gesture as a white power symbol and tricked media into covering and describing it as a genuine hate symbol. The hoax paid off and the gesture was even adopted by many right-wing extremists too, meaning it was effectively memed into existence.

Lessons the media must learn

So how can newsrooms combat media manipulation? 

Researcher Whitney Phillips studied this dynamic in depth in her report, The Oxygen of Amplification, and included detailed tips and procedures for organisations and journalists to follow to avoid these pitfalls.

The report poses a number of questions that media outlets ought to consider, including the following:

  • Does your reporting serve the public interest or your organisation’s commercial interest?
  • Does your reporting provide credence or legitimacy to false or harmful narratives or provide amplification they would never achieve by themselves?
  • Does your reporting directly cite or quote material produced by extremists and designed for public dissemination?

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