When I received a one-line e-mail that there had been a mass shooting at a Sikh temple, I had a .5 second heart attack. We have family who live across the street from such a temple in Wisconsin, and the line didn’t include information about location or whether the shooter was on the loose.
Within 5 minutes, though, I read the initial update from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel with the basic facts. Yes, Twitter can be a terrific resource for readers and reporters, but sometimes reporters just need a few minutes to get the facts from the police to straighten things out. I was particularly impressed with how the Journal-Sentinel immediately sent several reporters, no small thing for struggling papers who have to pay reporters overtime on a Sunday. You can find many, many stories, photos and infographics under “related coverage.”
Shootings in religious buildings are particularly heart-stopping for many people, even if you aren’t a member of a Sikh religion. Like a movie theater, you expect it to be a safe place to take your family, but unlike a movie theater, many expect it to be a trustworthy place of peace. The following paragraph from a New York Times account is pretty chilling:
People begin gathering at the temple as early as 6:30 a.m. on Sundays, but most arrive around 10:30 or 11 for services, Mr. Singh said. He believed about 30 to 35 people were inside when the shooting began, but had the gunman arrived just 15 minutes later, Mr. Singh said, 100 to 150 people would have been inside. By 1:30 p.m., there would have been more than 300.
The Associated Press has a pretty interesting dynamic infographic to explain the timeline of events. I wish I could embed it here, but if you go to the bottom of this article, you can find several pieces of information that give context to the initial story. Even with the AP’s limited space, it manages to give important contextual clues to help readers understand the scope of Sikhism in the United States.
Sikhism is a monotheistic faith founded more than 500 years ago in South Asia. It has roughly 27 million followers worldwide. Observant Sikhs do not cut their hair; male followers often cover their heads with turbans — which are considered sacred — and refrain from shaving their beards. There are roughly 500,000 Sikhs in the U.S., according to estimates. The majority worldwide live in India.
The Sikh Temple of Wisconsin started in 1997 with about 25 families who gathered in community halls in Milwaukee. Construction on the current temple in Oak Creek began in 2006, according to the temple’s website.
Of course, one of the biggest questions was whether the shooter was religiously motivated. The Christian Science Monitor reported that Wade Michael Page was a “frustrated neo-Nazi” who led a racist white supremacist band. There is a strange line from a report from the Washington Post
Although there is no evidence that Page harbored specific resentment toward Sikhs, watchdog groups and Sikhs say it is likely that he confused the religion with Islam, because Sikh men wear beards and turbans.
While this might be true, it seems like it assumes a little too much. Is there anything in his writings to assume that he might have had anti-Islamic sentiments? Otherwise, assuming he would have thought Sikhs were specific Islamic might be projecting with little proof, even if it might make sense on the surface. It seems best to search for more information from the suspect before making the connection.
Sometimes if you aren’t able to send reporters to the scene, you might be tempted to write stories that traffic well but actually aren’t news. Listen, I don’t have a crystal ball, but if I can predict pretty easily that people like Pat Robertson or those in Westboro Baptist will promptly jump on the story for their own purposes, it’s not news. It might seem crazy, but it’s not news, because you can predict you predict weather patterns.
Read about the slain temple leader, how he died trying to ward off the gunman, Sikhs who have been on high alert, or how the community has been misunderstood. There really are interesting follow up stories that don’t have to include predictable ones.