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Halifax Chronicle Herald retracts refugee story after public outcry

A sign for the Halifax Chronicle Herald is seen as members of the newsroom union picket outside the newspaper's office after walking off the job in Halifax on Saturday, January 23, 2016.

Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The publisher of Nova Scotia's largest newspaper apologized on Monday after one of its stories ignited a firestorm with unverified allegations that young Syrian refugees had attacked fellow students at a Halifax elementary school.

The Halifax Chronicle Herald story, which alleged numerous acts of playground abuse at Chebucto Heights Elementary School – including an incident in which one "refugee boy" choked a girl in Grade 3 with a chain while yelling "Muslims rule the world," and another in which "refugee students" threatened others on the soccer field – was published online late Friday and in the paper's Saturday edition. It suggested school administrators had responded weakly to the alleged abuse.

After criticism on social media, editors removed some details from the online story, including the religious reference and the mention of the chain, and softened the original headline, prompting some critics to complain the paper was bowing to "political correctness." But on Monday the entire article was removed from the site and replaced with a lengthy editor's note, which also ran in the paper, saying the piece had "needed more work."

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"Bullying is a sensitive subject. So is the integration of newcomers, particularly those who have faced challenges, even trauma, on their way here," the note read.

"Our story was incomplete and insufficiently corroborated, given the serious nature of the allegations."

It added: "Reaction to the story was all over the map, from thoughtful to downright scary."

The paper's publisher, Sarah Dennis, apologized to Elwin LeRoux, the superintendent of the Halifax Regional School Board.

Insiders at the Chronicle Herald noted the paper's staff has been on strike for 12 weeks, with many inexperienced reporters taking their place. They suggested managers may have missed the holes in the story's reporting because of overwork and exhaustion. In a Facebook post, Martin O'Hanlon, the president of CWA Canada, the union representing the paper's staff, said, "This would never have happened if real journalists were on the job instead of scabs."

In an e-mail to The Globe and Mail, Ms. Dennis played down the role of the strike in the retracted story. "Humans make mistakes. There have been errors before the union walked off the job and unfortunately there have been errors during the labour disruption."

The story's heady cocktail of refugee politics, ineffectual bureaucrats, and whiffs of schoolyard jihad and religious imperialism proved irresistible to websites that traffic in anti-Muslim sentiment – such as those belonging to commentator Ezra Levant, whose upstart Rebel Media outlet has been one of the most persistent critics of the federal government's Syrian refugee policy, and Pamela Geller, the New York-based activist whose star rose with her successful campaign against the so-called Ground Zero Mosque.

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The story was also picked up by an Australian news site, which teased the article from its front page with a photo of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In an interview, Mr. LeRoux said school board staff had investigated the allegations and, though they had not conducted an exhaustive review, had so far come up empty-handed. "They reported there was nothing they could connect from an incident that happened at school that was related to what was in the paper," he said. "They were quite shocked at the details of what was in there. Some of it was quite sensational."

Mr. LeRoux estimated that "upwards of 35 to 40 students, and maybe even 50" newcomers have joined the student population, which numbered 299 last September, and he cautioned that sensational or flawed reporting can damage and stereotype a school community.

"Even if there's conflict in our schools, what we're talking about … are young kids, kids who are between the ages of five and 12. We're talking about kids who are learning what it means to get along with other members of society, no matter how they came to be in the classroom."

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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