Last week, 40-year-old U.S. Army veteran Wade Michael Page entered a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and massacred six worshippers. Page, a white Christian with links to an extremist group, committed an act of violence against a religious community in the United States.
This, by the FBI’s definition, was an act of terrorism. But that designation seemed to baffle some media outlets. That day NBC News qualified its story with “it was not immediately clear why local police were classifying the shooting with domestic terrorism.” (Two days later, a Fox News analyst claimed that the Wisconsin shooting was not terrorism — because Page was a ‘nut job’ who mistook Sikhs for Muslims — in contrast with the 2009 Fort Hood shooting, which is terrorism because the shooter was protesting the policies of the United States government.)
When coverage started in earnest, a Fox News anchor asked a witness whether there had been previous acts of “anti-Semitism.” A local Fox news report claimed that Sikhs were “based in northern Italy.” And the host of CNN’s Newsroom, Don Lemon, struggled with the “murky detail” of whether Sikhs were Hindus, Muslims or a different sect altogether; he later postulated that the killer “could be someone who has beef with the Sikhs.”
Why the insensitive media coverage? Part of the problem comes from American ignorance about Sikhs, who make up just 0.16 percent of the American population (there are approximately 27 million Sikhs worldwide). But the bigger problem is that too many American journalists (and Americans) equate terrorism with Muslims. So when an act of terrorism occurs that appears to have nothing to do with Islam, some media outlets struggle with how to frame the killings.
After realizing that Sikhism is its own religion (based in northern India, not northern Italy), both Fox and CNN explained that Sikhs were “unfairly” mistaken for Muslims. In other words, Sikhs were an unfortunate casualty in the war on terrorism — “unfairly” mistaken for a group expected to be involved in the violence.
As the day of the shooting unfolded, CNN decided it needed to clear Sikhs of any links to violent religious ideology and to clarify that Sikhism, although it is not Christianity or Judaism, is peaceful. In a conversation between Surinder Singh, representative of the Guru Nanak Mission Society of Atlanta, a Sikh religious organization, and CNN’s Rob Marciano and Don Lemon, the news anchors seem more concerned about the tenets of Sikhism than the implications of a crime against, as the interviewee rightly puts it, mankind:
INTERVIEWEE: But whoever did this one is — I would say — a crime against humanity. It is not about Sikhs. It is not about Muslims. It’s not about Hindus. It’s about the human mankind.
LEMON: Very well said.
MARCIANO: An excellent point, Mr. Singh. And back to the religion specifics, now that we have you, and our viewers may be wondering or are uneducated in the theology on this, describe for us in brief what are the pillars of your faith?
To its credit, when CNN broke the news story, it cautiously used Sikhs.org, a website maintained by Sikhs, to describe Sikhism as a religion that “developed about 500 years ago, and their main belief is to seek the truth.”