The murder of Shaima Alawadi and media credulousness

I mentioned the story of Shaima Al Awadhi the other day. (Previous coverage here, here and here.) I became mildly obsessed with her after news of her unbelievably brutal killing broke in March. Al Awadhi was only 32 years old when she died and was a mother of five. She was attacked in her home, succumbing to her injuries a few days later.

Within days there were thousands of stories about her death, focused on the family’s claim that she was the victim of a hate crime. A minor movement sprung up, seeing parallels between the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Al Awadhi. Activists began to encourage people to wear hijabs in honor of Al Awadhi and as a statement against racist hate crimes.

A local CBS affiliate has the latest:

An Iraqi man whose wife was fatally beaten in their East County home last spring in what initially appeared to be a hate crime pleaded not guilty to a murder charge Tuesday afternoon.

The passive voice in the lede isn’t helpful. Appeared to whom to be a hate crime? The police always claimed they were pursuing a complicated case, even if the media ran with the “hate crime” angle.

Where the previous story resulted in national and international headlines within moments, this story has received more sparing coverage. Comparing the local coverage of Al Awadhi’s death when it was being billed as a hate crime to now is even fascinating.

Media outlets can be so good at holding other industries accountable but we tend to struggle with introspection of our own industry.

While we have no idea how Kassim Al-Himidi’s trial will turn out, it’s clear that the media botched this story. If the police had botched the investigation, I’m sure we’d have stories about that. Typically when institutions perform their duties poorly, the media are at the forefront of finding out what went wrong and issuing demands for improvement.

Shouldn’t we see those same demands for improvement when it’s the media that performed its role poorly?

Instead the AP ran a story quoting Nina Burleigh, which at first I found odd on account of her 1990s comments about sexual favors, President Bill Clinton, and abortion. But the AP was actually one of the only outlets to try to find some larger meaning in the murder of Al Awadhi. The story ended:

Author Nina Burleigh, who has written extensively about the mix of Islam and Western societies, said the case highlights the sometimes dangerous clashes that can occur when female immigrants, particularly from Islamic countries, rebel against cultural restrictions and exercise choices made available in their adopted homelands.

“These things are happening all over the place,” Burleigh said. “It’s much more openly discussed in Europe where there is more integration from these societies, where in the U.S. it’s not discussed so much partly because we have a bias toward discussing the way these cultures treat women.”…

The arrest of Alhimidi came only days after the sentencing of an Iraqi mother in Phoenix who was charged with beating her daughter because she refused to go along with an arranged marriage.

The 20-year-old woman was burned on her face and chest with a hot spoon then tied to a bed. The victim’s father and sister were also sentenced to two years of probation for their involvement.

Tablet published a piece worth reading headlined “Behind the Veil of Islamophobia: The murder of Shaima Alawadi isn’t a sign of increasing prejudice, but of writers’ credulousness.” A portion:

If the above is indeed true, the killing of Shaima Alawadi isn’t a warning sign of increasing religious intolerance, but of a shocking degree of credulousness from writers and activists. Why withhold judgment when the initial assessment conformed so neatly to an existing political narrative about the rising tide of American Islamophobia? …

The Facebook group “One Million Hijabs for Shaima Alawadi,” which was a hive of activity in the weeks following her murder, has since been taken offline. Despite some posts about women’s rights and feminism, the Islamophobia angle was what the organizers were interested in pushing. She was, it now seems, killed because she was a woman who attempted to throw off the shackles of an oppressive husband. Which makes this case doubly tragic. Just because Shaima Alawadi wasn’t killed by an American racist doesn’t mean that there isn’t cause for activist outrage.

Do any of us expect that the next time a story such as this comes out that the media will handle it differently?

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  • o.h.

    There is a passive voice in the lede, but it isn’t “what appeared to be,” which is active voice. “[W]ife was … beaten” is indeed passive voice, but since the alternative is “man who fatally beat his wife,” the passive voice is surely the journalistically responsible choice.

    Google ” language log passive” for an excellent tutorial in media use of the passive voice.

  • Dave

    The core problem here, eluding everyone including journalists, is trying to stretch “hate crime” to fit violence within an ethnic group, rather than the original concept of a crime across ethnic boundaries. What’s needed is a new classification of motives for violence that leads to additional specifications in an indictment. The first editorial writer who comes out with this will win plaudits for foresignt.

  • Steve

    It appears that modern journalism has a series of narratives and/or “metanarratives” that information must conform to. Anything that does not conform to these narratives is not really “fit to print.”

  • John Pack Lambert

    I think that the biggest issue is really time. It is just more recognizable that a killing is notable right after it happens than months later.

    On the other hand, there may be some hesitancy by some in the media to run another article that protrays Muslims as killers. However if it is actually more common for Muslim men to kill their wives, than this in the long run is a form of discrimination which undervalues the deaths of Muslim women.

    I think the main problem with this whole coverage from the beginning was a desire by the media to write the “anti-Islam fuels hate” narrative. It appears that those who perpetrated this crime deliberately played into this narrative to avoid suspicion.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The conventional wisdom in the media is that all religions are the same and willing to use violence against those of other religions or those who don’t fully embrace their own religion. And the media seems determined to prove this point no matter how wrong and even if they have to misreport some stories.
    Consequently, all the stories coming from around the world about Christians being attacked and persecuted in many Moslem countries MUST be matched by stories(even if fabricated or blatantly false) of hatred directed against Moslems in the “Christian” West.

  • Julia

    Can’t find it now, but yesterday I read some analysis of reporting on the increasing attacks on Christians around the world. The writer criticized the reports as Christians wanting to adopt “victimhood”.

    Is it possible to just report facts, any more?


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