How to cover a hate crime

I've been mildly obsessed with the horrific beating of an Iraqi-American woman in Southern California. Shaima Al Awadhi succumbed to her injuries on Sunday. She was 32 years old and a mother of five children. Her oldest daughter is 17.

Apparently other people have been obsessed, too, as there are literally thousands of stories out there about the crime -- virtually all of them centered around it being an alleged hate crime. There's even a meta story about the story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, where we learn about the worldwide outrage sparked by news reports that the woman was killed as part of a religious and ethnic hate crime:

POTENTIAL HATE CRIME IN EL CAJON HAS IMPACT WORLDWIDE Woman’s beating death raises fears of anti-Muslim bigotry

The possibility that hate and bigotry were behind the weekend killing of an El Cajon Muslim rippled worldwide Monday and renewed concerns about anti-Muslim bias.

Public fallout from the incident also echoed the uproar over the death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin.

The San Diego chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations was swamped with media inquiries from Europe, Africa and the Arab world as Muslims and non-Muslims grappled with the beating death of the 32-year-old mother of five, Shaima Alawadi.

A note was reportedly found in her Skyview Street house, near her unconscious body, telling her Iraqi immigrant family to “go back to your own country.”

El Cajon police said the note may be an indication of a hate crime but reiterated Monday that they are looking at all possibilities. They also “strongly believe” it was an isolated incident.

Remember that last line for later. The Associated Press also reported about the national and global outrage over the killing:

Her slaying was being compared to that of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer, said Dawud Walid, executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"Trayvon was black wearing a hoodie. Shaima was wearing a hijab," Walid said, referring to the Muslim headscarf. "It's the same racist principle at play that killed both of these individuals."

The New York Times went with the headline:

Killing of Iraqi Woman in San Diego Draws Global Condemnation Online

The blog post is framed entirely in terms of this murder being a hate crime, collecting various internet reactions including how Aghan journalist Josh Shahryar "added the sardonic warning, 'CAUTION: Wearing a headscarf,' to video of an emotional interview with Ms. Alawadi’s 17-year-old daughter, Fatima, who also wears the hijab." NPR's Andy Carvin tweeted:

Curious to hear your thoughts on this, @GeraldoRivera. Is wearing a hijab as dangerous as a hoodie? #RIPShaima

A sample of the local broadcast coverage is embedded above, one of many interviews the daughter gave local media. Another local broadcast outlet reported that "her five children and husband are left with nothing but confusion and tears."

The Detroit Free Press has been covering the murder, noting the Detroit ties the woman's family has. Reuters has also been covering it, including this story on the memorial service for the woman.

Now my question is whether this coverage has been appropriate. Perhaps it's because I was recently watching the BBC drama Sherlock, but my first thought on the note was that it might not be what it seems. Seriously, Sherlock is a great modern adaptation of a great character. You must watch it. Benedict Cumberbatch is amazing in it. His name is also amazing. As is this site of otters that look like him. Anyway, I'm not terribly familiar with hate crime methodology but I found the presence of a note to be interesting. Is that a common thing to find at hate crime sites? Is there any chance it was a diversionary attempt? Should these questions in any way determine how the media reports on a grieving family? Some readers at the San Diego Union-Tribune didn't love the "hate crime, all the time" coverage at the paper:

In response to “Potential hate crime in El Cajon has impact worldwide” (March 27): Once again public opinion is rushing to judgment in labeling the death of Shaima Alawadi a “hate crime.” It may turn out to be a hate crime, but it is also possible that this was a burglary gone wrong or a case of domestic violence. The note found at the scene could have been planted to divert suspicion.

Since the public does not have enough evidence to correctly judge this case at this time, we should let the police do their job, and let them determine the nature of this crime. Throwing accusations of “hate crime” around before the investigation is complete is reckless and irresponsible.J.W. Clark, El Cajon

This kind of headline in your paper brings nothing but lowers the standard of your reporting.

Newspapers are supposed to report news and facts but not gossip some maybe or maybe-not issues.

If there was no hate between the difference races before, I would predict there would be now.

At this point in time, all we know if that a woman is killed and a note was left. Police are investigating. Anyone could be a suspect. These are the facts. Please don’t speculate!

The U-T San Diego should not gossip, creating bad feelings against different races in order to obtain sensationalism for their newspaper. Rise to a higher level of reporting and don’t be a gossipmonger!Wai Luk, San Diego

What do you think? Should the media wait for more information before running with a hate crime story? Obviously if this is not a hate crime, the media will look horrible and irresponsible in how they handled it. But is there enough information to basically frame this as a hate crime story? What facts should the media wait for, if any, before running with the hate crime angle? Is the police claim that this is an isolated incident being ignored or downplayed too much?

We saw that rather embarrassing example last week of how the New York Times blamed right-wing nationalists for what ended up being Islamic terrorism in Toulouse, France.

I'm not sure what to say about this case. What do you think?

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