After Sikh temple shooting, some predictably react

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.

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  • Ben

    It looks like GR is having a little bit of trouble coming up with some angles on this Wisconsin shooting. Here’s a few press criticisms that have emerged:

    A key controversy is whether media outlets should do a more careful job explaining the possibility that the shooter thought he was targeting Muslims. Phrases like “misplaced hatred” and “Sikhs unfairly targeted” could leave the impression that there might be a legitimate reason to hate or target Muslims. I thought Spencer Ackerman over at Wired avoided that problem quickly and deftly:

    It is not yet known why Page, who did not survive the assault, attacked the temple. But if it should turn out that Page was motivated by a misdirected desire for revenge on the 9/11 attackers — Sikhs are not Muslims; and a statistically insignificant number of Muslims are terrorists — it would recall last year’s attacks in Oslo by the anti-Islam extremist Anders Breivik.

    A similar concern about how some of the Sikh coverage portrays Muslims came when the Seattle Times and the Chicago RedEye printed a turban primer. A couple tweets along those lines:

    Ghazala Irshad ?@ghazalairshad @redeyechicago paper runs helpful turban primer for racist killers to distinguish targets. NOT the coverage US needs

    Shireen ?@_shreenahmed_… Whaaaaa? A visual Turban primer? So wrong person doesn’t get shot?

    Other critics pointed out that the image for a Pashtun wearing a turban was labeled Taliban Member. The pushback prompted RedEye to apologize over twitter:

    Redeye Chicago ?@redeyechicago
    Thanks to all for your tweets on the “Turban primer” in today’s paper. Sincerest apologies to any we have offended, not our intention. (1/2)

    And while it was widely reported that authorities were viewing the incident as “domestic terrorism,” almost no publication put the “suspected terrorist” label on the shooter. You could argue that’s just good, cautious journalism. You could also argue such caution is often lacking in early reporting on Muslim shooters.

  • JoFro

    I do not think a neo-Nazi officially cares wether his victims are Sikhs or Muslims or Christians. It seems he wanted to start a race war. Religion is mostly irrelevant unless he is part of a racial based neo-Nazi church, which does exist, though the name escapes me at the moment.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Ben, thanks for pointing these links out. While I read quite a number of mainstream outlet stories and several reports, I couldn’t get to everything. Perhaps we’ll continue to examine some further reporting in the coming days.

  • Ben

    It’s the world’s fifth largest religion. It’s one Americans are trying to learn more about now. There’s some interesting media controversies surrounding the coverage so far. I guess I hoped GetReligion would have more to say. This post’s media roundup and the riff on a CNN com-box were both interesting, but in totality felt a bit standoffish for the story at hand. I realize GR is more of a labor of love for folks who have day jobs, and I don’t contribute a dime for the privilege of reading it, but to the extent there’s energy to spare, here’s to hoping that, as you said, perhaps you will continue to examine some further reporting in the coming days.