Explaining the slight Sikh shooting coverage

Explaining the slight Sikh shooting coverage August 17, 2012

When a Neo-Nazi gunman killed and wounded worshipers at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, we looked at a few problems with the coverage. Some readers suggested additional problems. See here and here, for instance. I actually thought much of the coverage was good. This New York Times story (“For Victim in Sikh Temple Shooting, a Life of Separation“) was a keeper and the general coverage at CNN and its Belief Blog have been extensive and thoughtful.

But more than anything, what strikes me is the lack of coverage. This was a major shooting at a house of worship in the Midwest and while the media seemed interested at first, it just kind of dropped off.

A reader sent in this media analysis that ran in the New Yorker. I thought it worth discussion. Written by Naunihal Singh, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, he begins:

The media has treated the shootings in Oak Creek very differently from those that happened just two weeks earlier in Aurora. Only one network sent an anchor to report live from Oak Creek, and none of the networks gave the murders in Wisconsin the kind of extensive coverage that the Colorado shootings received. The print media also quickly lost interest, with the story slipping from the front page of the New York Times after Tuesday. If you get all your news from “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” you would have had no idea that anything had even happened on August 5th at all.

Because of the way the media and political elites handled their reaction to the shooting, Singh writes, the massacre has been viewed as a tragedy for Sikhs rather than a tragedy for all Americans. He continues:

The two incidents were obviously different in important ways: Holmes shot more people, did so at the opening of a blockbuster film, and was captured alive. There were also the Olympics. However, it is hard to escape the conclusion that Oak Creek would have similarly dominated the news cycle if the shooter had been Muslim and the victims had been white churchgoers. Both the quantity and content of the coverage has been clearly shaped by the identities of the shooter and his victims.

I’m not sure. I really am confused about the general lack of coverage of the Sikh shooting. I think the media reaction to the shooting at a socially conservative non-profit group this week is also interesting. Some have covered, some haven’t. CNN apparently took three hours to even mention it. Say what you will about their Oak Creek coverage but at the very least they were on it much more quickly. And on a Sunday no less. Why do some stories generate so much interest and others don’t? What confuses me about the Sikh shooting in particular is that it had all the elements of a story that could be pursued for a long time. Or, as Singh writes:

The murders took place at a house of worship on a Sunday. There was the heroic president of the congregation who, even though he was sixty-two, battled an armed attacker, sacrificing his own life. There were the children who sounded the alarm and joined fourteen women huddled in a tiny pantry for hours, listening to the agony of the wounded outside. There were the relatives at home, receiving texts and phone calls from loved ones. There were heroic police officers, a shootout, and the attacker’s death by self-inflicted gunshot.

Exactly! Think of how many stories we could get out of this? So why aren’t we seeing those? After the Colorado shooting, local media outlets and national media outlets were able to dig down and tell some very compelling stories about the shooting and the lives affected. Some took weeks to tell and are still being told. And obviously there are still news and features being written about Oak Creek, but the quantity of the coverage is not enough.

I wonder if this is a problem of journalists not being interested and, if so, why. But I also wonder if this is a problem of readers and viewers not being interested and, if so, why. Normally I like to have some point I’m arguing for here, but I honestly don’t understand why we haven’t seen more coverage — particularly when some news outlets have done so well with it. Any wisdom to impart?

Photo of Sikh man at a Baisakhi festival via Roberto Cerruti/Shutterstock.com

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24 responses to “Explaining the slight Sikh shooting coverage”

  1. But I also wonder if this is a problem of readers and viewers not being interested and, if so, why.

    OK, hope I used the right html coding to blockquote that. Can I wish out loud that our new commenting system made it easier to do blockquotes, italics, etc., in the comment section? But I digress …

    To your question, I’m not sure I have wisdom to impart. But I think it’s true that to some extent the media are giving the people the news they want. The biggest stories are those to which the average reader can relate. Can you relate to being in a movie theater and what it might be like if a gunman opened fire? Can you relate to being in a Sikh temple when this happens? Maybe not so much.

    I’m not saying the level of coverage is right or wrong, just theorizing on why it may be the level that it is.

  2. Bobby, I personally can relate much more to being gunned down in a house of worship on Sunday morning than at a theatre’s midnight screening of a blockbuster movie. But that’s because I go to church on Sunday mornings every week and only rarely go to movies.
    I understand that Sikhs are a small population in the United States but I think that the distant coverage of the media serves to emphasize “otherness” rather than to treat this community as fully American.

    • I agree mollie. If a tragic story feels like “it could happen to me” then it will get more coverage. Since your average MSM editor never goes to church or temple it does not have the emotional “it could happen to me” impact of a movie opening. At least to the secular because they tend to worship pop culture at the movies.

      • I’m not sure it relates to the editor going to temple or church. I think it relates more to the fact that this feels like a foreign story, and you know how much time and attention the average American devotes to international news. Mollie is exactly right that the distant coverage serves to emphasize “otherness” rather than to treat this community as fully American. Again, I’m not saying the level of coverage is right or wrong, just theorizing on why it may be the way it is.

  3. We can explore other commenting systems, but let’s get the basic functions all settled and trouble-shot.

    -Tim Dalrymple (logged in as dmwelch02)

  4. I to feel that the coverage of those that were in the Sikh temple was minimal. I understand that Olympics was going on and other stories but what if it was another denomination? I continue to pray for those that lost their lives and families that are having to deal withe the lost.

  5. Like, Mollie, I can relate more to an attack against a congregation at prayer than to moviegoers in a cinema. Partly this is because of the uptick in direct threats (by phone, by mail, by email, through social media, in conversation) made towards the local Jewish community since 9/11. I know of no local church that requires visible signs of membership for entry (car decal or other) or which requires round the clock security, including police surveillance. The cost of that security has proved to be a huge financial burden to the entire community.

    Regardless of the public’s interest in the Sikhs or their religion (which could have been covered in more depth), the media should have stressed the relevance of hate-violence towards a house of worship. It seems clear that the Colorado shooting was somewhat random, carried out by a man with severe mental illness, whereas the attack against the Sikhs was far more calculated. What kind of assurances can the government offer that such crimes will not be repeated? We’ve heard little from government agencies responsible for monitoring hate groups.

  6. The release of a new Batman movie is an event all by itself; so this particular atrocity has naturally attracted more attention. I would expect the amount and location of ink devoted to the different attacks to reflect the interest that is attributed to the readers of the newspapers. Likewise the late night programs may be a news source to their followers, but that is less important to the producers.

    I would also guess that the Sikhs and the FRC get less attention because they are not seen as victims in America. Wouldn’t there be more attention around a skinhead attack on an African Methodist Episcopal Church or an abortion clinic?

    Is anybody else getting tired of seeing the guy with orange hair on the TV screen?

    • I despise seeing the faces of these people repeatedly stuck in my face in the news coverage. I wish I could wipe the image of the Tucson shooter’s grinning mug out of my mind.
      Honestly, I think the media coverage of these people only inspires copycat acts. I know that people have studied the effects of media coverage on teen suicides: has anyone covered this? What if the media took a line with perpetrators of terrible deeds like they do with victims of sexual assault, or the underage accused and just didn’t name them?


  7. Those who point out that the Sikhs are not integral to any of the standard media scripts are probably the ones headed in the right direction. Sikhs are neither favorites nor enemies. Hence, they are almost nothing to the media. The FRC does speak out against a favored agenda item, but in this event, FRC was the victim, not the perpetrator. The script doesn’t include that scene.
    In the US we don’t have a propaganda office like the USSR used to have, but somewhere in a dark corner unseen by the general public, somebody is certainly calling the shots.

  8. I think the Sikh shooting probably would have gotten more coverage if it had happened before the Aurora shooting; I imagine that a lot of viewers (and media people) were fatigued with hearing about violence, tragedy and even heroism, and wanted to move on.

    It’s also true that Sikhism is something the average reader (or writer) is not familiar with. This makes it more difficult to find a news angle. If the gunman had attacked a mosque, you could have discussions about Islamophobia. However, there is no “real” anti-Sikh movement; crimes against them are fairly common, but generally because they’re mistaken for Muslims. It leads to a weird position where the media need to report on a bigotry that has real effect but is also kind of nebulous.

    Ironically, and conversely, this story is also more familiar than the Aurora shooting. Everyone agrees that the massacre at the gudwara is horrible, but at least it’s comprehensible: the gunman was a Neo-Nazi, the Sikhs are a religious/racial minority. The only logic for the Aurora shooting was that the gunman was mentally ill, so it drives people to figure out why he did this and what his thought process was, etc. Plus you can take steps to combat racism and generally identify a racist beforehand, while the Quiet Next-Door Neighbor Who Snaps One Day feeds into a fear that people are trying to alleviate.

    tl;dr version: If newspeople try to think outside of the box, they could probably come up with some interesting angles for reporting the Sikh case, but it’s hard, for readers and reporters, to see below the surface to find them.

  9. One possibility is that the shooter was a skinhead hater on the Southern Poverty Law Center radar for his white-power-rock group. We were still under the fallout of the Chick-fil-A story, where the previous Wednesday was the buy-in and the Friday of that weekend was the kiss-in.

    Taking a long and hard look at a real hate group would bring to light the mission-creep that the SPLC had done in naming conservative groups like the FRC hate groups; their seriously good work keeping tabs on white-supremacists would overshadow the gay-rights meme and ruin the story-line.

  10. I was quite taken by the Sikh story. It caused me to dig deep to find out who they are, how they worship, and their belief system. Probably hit close to home since in our local area (southern IL) a man walked in to a Southern Baptist church and killed the pastor during services. Three miles from my LCMS church.
    Question: I don’t remember Obama going to Wisconsin following the mass murder. Did he go and I missed it? I think only Eric Holder went. Was there a reason behind his absence?

  11. Thank you do much for raising this, Mollie. I have been surprised by the low coverage of not just Oak Creek but the FRC, which gives some credence to the earlier comment that after Aurora there was some journalist and/or reader farigue with shooters. They are both domestic terrorism however in a way that Aurora was not, and because of the effort to sway politics, more troubling. I pray we don’t go any further down this road of expressing disagreements in the US with guns.

  12. I also worry that the political nature of the FRC and Oak Creek attacks may have contributed to the low coverage. There were some after Oak Creek that wanted a conversation about not just white supremacists but the more pervasive anti-Islamic rhetoric. Journalists may have been afraid to go there, partly because it wasn’t clear if the shooter thought the Sikhs were Muslim but also for fear of kicking up a “your politicizing” firestorm a la the post-Giffords coverage. Meanwhile the FRC shooting appeared to misguidedly come out of mainstream left rhetoric against cultural conservatives on the issue of gay rights and for many journalists that may have hit too close to home.

  13. This all seems very impressionistic and anecdotal. I’d like to see some data. How many column inches how far back from the front page did the Aurora shooting get X days after it occurred in the country’s leading Y newspapers? What’s the comparable number for the Oak Creek shooting? How does that ratio compare to what one would expect given the differences noted above and others that would tend to suggest somewhat less continuing coverage of the latter (fewer people dead/wounded, shooter not taken alive, so no ongoing court process and not much otherwise in the way of continuing new stream of revelations about him, shootings at houses of worship frankly not nearly as novel/unusual at shootings at movie theaters, no obvious prospect of civil lawsuits with lawyers incentivized to feed stories to the media, Olympics etc.)? I mean, I have no idea what the “right” or “fair” amount of coverage for the Sikh shooting ought to have been and I’m totally open to the possibility there’s been measurably less than that, but I don’t see anyone here with a plausible yardstick that could be used to do the measuring.

    Some of the local Wisconsin media were immediately reminded by the Oak Creek shooting of the shooting at a somewhat exotic church (one of the groups that had splintered from the Worldwide Church of God after it had started to abandon Armstrong’s distinctive teachings and move back closer to the Christian mainstream) in Brookfield, Wisconsin in 2005 in which seven people (including the pastor and several children) were killed. I didn’t see too many national media stories drawing that parallel. How many of you remember follow-up national media coverage of that story after the initial report? More or less than the more recent Wisconsin-house-of-worship-shooting story? Why? If my own impressionistic and unreliable sense that the Oak Creek shooting got more national coverage than the Brookfield shooting were accurate, what would that say about the media?

    • I blogged on that Brookfield-Oak Creek angle. In the Brookfield Living Church of God case, you had no political angles to speak of; a disgruntled former member shot up the place; any angles on follow-up would have delved into the church’s Anglo-Israelism and other quirks, which, as readers here well know, would not play to the media’s strengths.
      Oak Creek had a skinhead angle and a minority-group angle. The combination leads to follow up stories, like noting that the Sikhs aren’t Muslims but look the part to the uneducated eye and noting that the SPLC had the white-power-rocker Sikh-shooter on their radar, that weren’t quite there in the Brookfield case.

  14. Isn’t it ironic here that the SPLC has labeled the FRC a hate group?

    Sari, what would you have the Government do to prevent these crimes? Only one of these three shooters was even involved with a hate group. Compared to Government monitoring of civilians, the Army has much more freedom to monitor its officers, and that didn’t prevent the Fort Hood shooting.

    I am not unsympathetic about hate-inspired terrorist attacks on religious institutions. A few years ago there was such a shooting at a Jewish Community Center in Seattle. The shooter was apparently acting alone, just as the shooters in the 3 atrocities under consideration, so I don’t know how the Police could have known that an attack was being planned.

  15. “Isn’t it ironic here that the SPLC has labeled the FRC a hate group?”
    Why no, no it isn’t.

    Say, anyone remember how the liberal media went on for weeks and weeks when that Hannity/Savage/O’Reilly fan went hunting for liberals at a Unitarian church, and bagged two?

    Nope, me neither.

    (And according to the standard Liberal Hunting License, there’s no bag limit. Maybe he’d have have better luck if he’d done his work as prominent commentator Ann Coulter suggested, with a baseball bat.)

  16. Two possible reasons that came to my mind:
    1) Oak Creek happened on a Sunday, when news organizations have fewer people working (I know this from personal experience), while the Aurora shooting happened early Friday morning (a weekday) and there were more people around to cover it.
    2) Aurora is close to Littleton, where Columbine took place. (There was another school shooting in the area awhile ago, too, if I remember correctly.)