One thing evident about the coverage of the Sikh Temple shooting in Wisconsin on Sunday that left seven dead, including a gunman with a white supremacist history, was that American journalists know very little about the Sikh religion.
In the hours after the shooting, the media was waiting for the basic information of the case, including the gunman’s identity, how many people died, and whether the violence was over. While waiting, many outlets focused on speculation about who Sikhs are. Much of it was superficial—turbans got several mentions, especially how men wearing them are often confused with Muslims—or inaccurate, like CNN’s speculation that there were “Hindu Sikhs” at the temple. The ignorance of the 24-hour news networks were exposed, as seen in the following Twitter status:
actual CNN comments: “Sikh people are not Muslim, but Hindu. They can be easily mistaken for Muslim or Taliban.”— danish (@danishism) August 5, 2012
To be clear, Sikhism is a distinct religion from Hinduism, Islam, and every other faith. But the fact that that’s the initial starting point for providing cultural context for this breaking news is troubling.
There are many times that journalists can feature minority communities in their coverage. Namely, anytime. But breaking news situations such as the Wisconsin shooting show that media is often reactive in its coverage of smaller minority communities and usually in problematic ways. Rather than helping audiences understand the demographic makeup of the United States, the coverage often depicts communities like the Sikhs as a separate entity from American society. This is something that needs to change, according to Rajdeep Singh, director of law and policy at the Sikh Coalition.
“The media has a responsibility to be proactive in covering minorities,” Singh said. “Typically their coverage is reactive. Sikhs tend to get attention only when tragedy occurs. This is true of many minority communities. There is so much that we could learn about one another that is interesting and newsworthy.”
Or, in the words of Aasif Mandvi, an Indian-American comedian who often serves as The Daily Show’s “senior Muslim correspondent”:
it is thru acts of terrorism and war that American’s learn about other cultures and religions.— aasif mandvi (@aasif) August 5, 2012
“People will use racial identifiers where in many instances they wouldn’t use them to identify other (more prevalent) ethnic groups,” said Doris Truong, national president of the Asian American Journalists Association. Following Sunday’s violence, AAJA released a media advisory explaining the absolute basics of the Sikh religion and its presence in the US. The intent was to head off unresearched speculation and keep coverage focused on the facts.
“When you are on deadline, think about how you would cover a majority community,” Truong said. She added journalists should have a standard to determine what information is relevant: If it is relevant when reporting on a majority community, it’s likely relevant regarding minorities.
Sometimes cultural explanations are needed to fully understand the news. The fact that the shooting occurred in a gurdwara, a Sikh religious structure, is relevant because there is a universal understanding of what such buildings mean, Singh said. “A gurdwara, as any other place of worship, is supposed to be sanctuary,” he said. “This is in some sense an attack on people’s freedom of religion. A place of worship is strictly a place of peace.”
Singh also drew connections with incidents such as the 1963 bombing of an African American church in Birmingham, AL. “If you think about American history, some of the most egregious attacks on minorities have come in places of worship,” he said.
Despite the universal implications of Sunday’s violence, distinguishing the Sikh faith continued as the major media focus. Hours after the shooting and to the credit of news organizations, inaccuracies such as CNN airing the claim that Sikhs were Hindu were corrected and cultural explanations did improve. Singh said that the improvement largely came because of organizations like his reaching out to the media.