How to cover a hate crime

I’ve been mildly obsessed with the horrific beating of an Iraqi-American woman in Southern California. Shaima Al Awadhi succumbed to her injuries on Sunday. She was 32 years old and a mother of five children. Her oldest daughter is 17.

Apparently other people have been obsessed, too, as there are literally thousands of stories out there about the crime — virtually all of them centered around it being an alleged hate crime. There’s even a meta story about the story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, where we learn about the worldwide outrage sparked by news reports that the woman was killed as part of a religious and ethnic hate crime:

Woman’s beating death raises fears of anti-Muslim bigotry

The possibility that hate and bigotry were behind the weekend killing of an El Cajon Muslim rippled worldwide Monday and renewed concerns about anti-Muslim bias.

Public fallout from the incident also echoed the uproar over the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

The San Diego chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations was swamped with media inquiries from Europe, Africa and the Arab world as Muslims and non-Muslims grappled with the beating death of the 32-year-old mother of five, Shaima Alawadi.

A note was reportedly found in her Skyview Street house, near her unconscious body, telling her Iraqi immigrant family to “go back to your own country.”

El Cajon police said the note may be an indication of a hate crime but reiterated Monday that they are looking at all possibilities. They also “strongly believe” it was an isolated incident.

Remember that last line for later. The Associated Press also reported about the national and global outrage over the killing:

Her slaying was being compared to that of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer, said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“Trayvon was black wearing a hoodie. Shaima was wearing a hijab,” Walid said, referring to the Muslim headscarf. “It’s the same racist principle at play that killed both of these individuals.”

The New York Times went with the headline:

Killing of Iraqi Woman in San Diego Draws Global Condemnation Online

The blog post is framed entirely in terms of this murder being a hate crime, collecting various internet reactions including how Aghan journalist Josh Shahryar “added the sardonic warning, ‘CAUTION: Wearing a headscarf,’ to video of an emotional interview with Ms. Alawadi’s 17-year-old daughter, Fatima, who also wears the hijab.” NPR’s Andy Carvin tweeted:

Curious to hear your thoughts on this, @GeraldoRivera. Is wearing a hijab as dangerous as a hoodie? #RIPShaima

A sample of the local broadcast coverage is embedded above, one of many interviews the daughter gave local media. Another local broadcast outlet reported that “her five children and husband are left with nothing but confusion and tears.”

The Detroit Free Press has been covering the murder, noting the Detroit ties the woman’s family has. Reuters has also been covering it, including this story on the memorial service for the woman.

Now my question is whether this coverage has been appropriate. Perhaps it’s because I was recently watching the BBC drama Sherlock, but my first thought on the note was that it might not be what it seems. Seriously, Sherlock is a great modern adaptation of a great character. You must watch it. Benedict Cumberbatch is amazing in it. His name is also amazing. As is this site of otters that look like him. Anyway, I’m not terribly familiar with hate crime methodology but I found the presence of a note to be interesting. Is that a common thing to find at hate crime sites? Is there any chance it was a diversionary attempt? Should these questions in any way determine how the media reports on a grieving family? Some readers at the San Diego Union-Tribune didn’t love the “hate crime, all the time” coverage at the paper:

In response to “Potential hate crime in El Cajon has impact worldwide” (March 27): Once again public opinion is rushing to judgment in labeling the death of Shaima Alawadi a “hate crime.” It may turn out to be a hate crime, but it is also possible that this was a burglary gone wrong or a case of domestic violence. The note found at the scene could have been planted to divert suspicion.

Since the public does not have enough evidence to correctly judge this case at this time, we should let the police do their job, and let them determine the nature of this crime. Throwing accusations of “hate crime” around before the investigation is complete is reckless and irresponsible.J.W. Clark, El Cajon

This kind of headline in your paper brings nothing but lowers the standard of your reporting.

Newspapers are supposed to report news and facts but not gossip some maybe or maybe-not issues.

If there was no hate between the difference races before, I would predict there would be now.

At this point in time, all we know if that a woman is killed and a note was left. Police are investigating. Anyone could be a suspect. These are the facts. Please don’t speculate!

The U-T San Diego should not gossip, creating bad feelings against different races in order to obtain sensationalism for their newspaper. Rise to a higher level of reporting and don’t be a gossipmonger!Wai Luk, San Diego

What do you think? Should the media wait for more information before running with a hate crime story? Obviously if this is not a hate crime, the media will look horrible and irresponsible in how they handled it. But is there enough information to basically frame this as a hate crime story? What facts should the media wait for, if any, before running with the hate crime angle? Is the police claim that this is an isolated incident being ignored or downplayed too much?

We saw that rather embarrassing example last week of how the New York Times blamed right-wing nationalists for what ended up being Islamic terrorism in Toulouse, France.

I’m not sure what to say about this case. What do you think?

Print Friendly

  • Will

    What is shocking is the reference to “potential hate crime”. This means a hatecrime that has not yet been committed, but may be in the future. Otherwise, it has to mean that the act in question was not a hatecrime at the time, but at some time may somehow transform into one.

  • John M.

    I’m not buying it either, Mollie. It’s -way- too convenient. This was personal somehow. But it fits the media’s narrative about right-wing nutjobs, so what the heck, right?


  • Mollie

    John M.,

    I’m not saying I don’t buy it. Anything is possible. This could be an act of terrorism against Iraqis. It could be something else. Certainly the media have run with the terrorism/hate crime angle. I’m wondering if the evidence supports the way the media have handled this.

    Most crimes are personal, of course, and committed by people the victims know. But that doesn’t mean all victims know the perpetrators. Terrorists are out there, obviously.

    If this turns out not to be a hate crime, it’s clear that the media have done a horrible job covering this. Should they have waited for more facts or did they know enough to decide it was a hate crime? I’m open to the possibility that I’m quite wrong to be so cynical when approaching crime stories.

  • sari

    I agree, Mollie. They should have taken the sheriff’s words at face value: too early to say while the evidence was still being evaluated. This could be a crime of retribution, domestic violence, a break-in, or a hate crime. It’s bad reporting to add spin and even worse to use that spin to create discord.

  • Mr. Brown

    Hate Crime rules typically don’t effect the charges, only the punishment… a “regular” crime’s prison term can be modified by adding “hate crime” policies that add to the judge’s sentance guidelines, much in the same way that using a firearm or being involved with drugs might modify the prison term. The point here is that it’s not the police department’s job to use “hate crime” terminology… that’s the job of a prosecutor and the judge. You would think after thousands of Law and Order reruns, people would understand the basics of our criminal justice system.

  • R.S.Newark

    The press frequently assumes they know everthing and in order to support their own idealogical base is not above knowingly misrepresenting supposition as fact.

    It is, as you point out, a common occurrance. a few years back the Boston Globe pronounced a Dartmouth professor guilty of murdering his wife of many years claiming they knew of the Prof’s outside lovers. So too bad they were with a day proven lies…hey, don’t but or have anything to do with the Boston Globe, it’s a wholly owned subsidiarity of the New York Times.

  • Charlie

    Long ago when I was quite a lot younger, the media seemed to stick to reporting facts. In recent years, the media has preferred analysis and opinion, which is always sexier than mere facts. So, looking back at the Tucson shooting of Gabrielle Giffords last year, the media immediately began framing the story as a right-wing reactionary hate crime that had been stirred up by talk radio. That theory turned out to be completely false, but the media seemed unable to resist trying to fit the few facts they knew (Congresswoman shot and innocent bystanders killed) into the framework that they were itching to prove (crazy Tea Partiers are going to start shooting people they don’t like).

    I guess I’m saying that the media embrace a particular left-leaning ideology, and there are certain doctrines in that religion, among them that America is a simmering cauldron of racism. When they find a story that seems to confirm their beliefs, they put it on the front page under the headline “See, we told you so!” They can’t help themselves.

  • Suzanne

    I think this is very different from the Tucson situation in that there is clear evidence here of either a hate crime or an attempt to make it look like one. If anything, it evokes the Susan Smith story to me more than Tucson.

    I agree that it looks suspicious, particularly since she was found inside her house. I don’t think you can scrub stories of any reference to a ‘possible’ hate crime (better word than ‘potential,’ in my opinion) — if this turns out to be true, it’s clearly a hate crime.

    But you’d want to be REALLY cautious about it, particularly in the headlines.I think these stories you’ve pointed to overreach in that respect.

  • Jerry

    A friend has an expression which applies here: don’t leap to contusions. When the media concludes something before the evidence it risks further injury to its reputation. I think that if someone alleges there has been a hate crime, it’s perfectly appropriate to report it that way. But “potential” hate crime? Nope.

    We see this kind of thing all the time from the left and from the right, depending on the media bias involved. The story mentioned Trayvon Martin and that’s a classic example. Either he’s an innocent albeit imperfect boy who was murdered by a bigot who picked a fight. Or he’s an evil druggie gangbanger who wantonly attacked an innocent boy who was trying to do his civic duty. You can easily find both narratives in the media right now. Or the truth might just be a bit more complex.

    The same is true about what the Supreme Court might or might not do with the Affordable Care Act. Prejudging outcomes should be left to commentators and off of news stories.

  • SouthCoast

    “I found the presence of a note to be interesting. Is that a common thing to find at hate crime sites? Is there any chance it was a diversionary attempt?”

    Same here. Btw, FWIW, (to topload my webspeak), an enterprising member of the press actually asked the second question at the El Cajon PD’s press conference the other day. The answer,”We can’t comment on that at this time.”

  • Brendan

    If this turns out not to be a hate crime the media will not look foolish…

    Because who will report on the medias error to make them look foolish?

  • Mollie

    Time magazine is so completely convinced of the motive in this murder that it is calling for a million hijab march:

    Where Are The Protests Against the Killing of Shaima Al Awadi?
    A muslim mother of four gets beaten to death in her California home and left with the message “Go back to your country, you terrorist.” But there won’t be a million hijab march for her.

  • no one


    When you look at “hate crime,” you have to begin looking at what’s happened in Canada and Britain with hate crime legislation — and what’s culminated here with President Obama outlawing hate crime in 2009.

    This is all tied into censorship.

    We have organizations, such as the Organization of the Islamic Conference at the UN, who want to make it an international crime to say anything against Islam.

    This means muzzling the international press.

    For us, that means censoring the internet, even here in America, so that no crimes will be commited — to “prevent” hate crime from occuring.

    The more support you have to prevent hate crime, the more censorship you’ll see, maybe even legislative.

    What you’re seeing is a ginning up in support of hate crime legislation for “marginalized” groups — gays, muslims, blacks, etc.

    You’re right not to trust the media.

  • Suzanne

    Mollie it’s not Time magazine drawing that conclusion, it’s very clearly an opinion writer in Time magazine doing it.

  • Mollie

    By the way, here’s another local report with the first interview of the family since the mother’s death. Very sad.

  • Richard Mounts

    Remembering that San Diego is a city/area full of active duty and retired Navy personnel, I wonder if that has any impact on the way the U-T is covering this.

    And I wonder if the general business model of modern times-make as much $ as fast as you can-hasn’t infected the newspaper business particularly hard. In a time when newspapers across the country are cutting staff, increasing subscription rates, and doing all they can to just keep the lights on, is it surprising that many go to sensationalism whenever they can? Staff cuts often hit “non-income producing staff” (think fact checkers, researchers, etc.) harder.

    If a reporter is being pushed to churn (my bias) out stories that will attract eyeballs and so sell papers, and so justify his/her place in the organisation, that reporter learns that best practices of journalism are not valued by management. Never mind the “better” story that will eventually come, write what sells papers today.

    I don’t believe owners care if their paper might have to change the meme later. I believe that they believe that if they don’t mention it many readers won’t remember or care. Yeah, I know, I’m jaded.

  • Mollie

    Those are all good points. We must remember the pressure on reporters and editors for eyeballs on the page.

  • Dave G.

    What do you think? Should the media wait for more information before running with a hate crime story?

    Yeah. I would like to think any story fits under the ‘media should wait for more information before running with a [fill in the blank] story’ formula.

  • John M.


    I overstated my actual position, which I think is close to yours: too soon to say, but I have my doubts.

    I think the attention you are calling to the media’s reportage of some crimes is very valid: Giffords, Toulouse, Treyvon Martin and now this: the media forms a narrative about whodunit, and if (or in two out of four of those cases, when) that narrative is proven wrong, it makes the media look really, really dumb.


  • Richard Mounts

    Dave G,

    From your ink to the owners’ eyes.

    I believe that we need a way to publicly, quickly, and in large numbers call out the publishers’ on their failures and so shame them. Until then I don’t have much hope that reporting will improve. Maybe we need “GetRace,” “GetPolitics,” “GetLaw,” etc. (wink, wink, nudge, nudge)

  • John Pack Lambert

    Was the “you terrorist” involved in the quote, or was that added in for good measure by Time? If the latter why did the San Diego paper not quote that part of it?

  • John Pack Lambert

    To try to connect this report with retired military in the San Diego area has even less basis in fact than what I have seen so far. There is nothing in the story that indicates any military connection. To suggest such is just irresponsible rumor mongering.

  • John Pack Lambert

    I have seen a claim that 40,000 Iraqis live in El Cajon. If that is true than they represent 40% of the city’s population. This would also mean that non-Hispanic, non-Middle Eastern descent whites (which is at broadest what people generally mean when they say “white”) represent about 18% of the population of El Cajon. This would also mean that Iraqis are the largest ethnic group in El Cajon. The 18% figure I give assumes there are virtually no non-Iraqi middle easterners in El Cajon, something that I would be surprsed by.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Actually as you learn from this article even in El Cajon the vast majority of Iraqis are Chaldeans. This leads to another issue. El Cajon has thousands of Iraqi Christian residents who fled their homeland due to violence done in the name of Islam. Could this be a source of the attack on a hijabed Muslim? I do not know, but until we have more evidence, it is as possible as anything else.