hate crimes

New York Times' 20th anniversary piece on East Texas dragging death is powerful, yet disappointing

New York Times' 20th anniversary piece on East Texas dragging death is powerful, yet disappointing

The New York Times' front page Monday featured a "beautiful and powerful story" — as one top journalist described it — on the 20th anniversary of James Byrd Jr.'s racially motivated dragging death in the East Texas town of Jasper.

Emotional and compelling, the piece is expertly written and filled with riveting details.

It even contains several references to faith.

So why am I about to give this story — which I mostly liked and really hoped I could praise — a negative critique? The simple answer is that the Times, in an otherwise excellent piece of journalism, fails to answer basic questions tied to religion. 

Up high in the story, the newspaper hints strongly at a religion angle when it mentions church and notes that Byrd's family forgave his killers:

JASPER, Tex. — Sometime after church but before dinner, Sgt. James Carter of the Jasper County Sheriff’s Office knocked on the front door of James and Stella Byrd’s home. He stepped into the living room, removed his white cowboy hat and bowed his head. Then, with a somber look on his face that the Byrds still remember years later, he delivered the news that their son James Byrd Jr. was dead.

The horrific circumstances surrounding his death they would learn later: Chained by his ankles to a pickup truck by three men, he had been dragged three miles, murdered before the sun rose that Sunday morning 20 years ago.

“I just knew something was terribly wrong,” Betty Boatner, 63, one of Mr. Byrd’s younger sisters, whispered as she sat on a picnic bench at a memorial park now named in his honor. “It’s such a small town that we had already heard the rumors that a black man was found dead, but we didn’t know who it was. Until the knock on our door.”

The family forgave Mr. Byrd’s three killers long ago and made peace with Jasper, the small East Texas town where they have lived for three generations. But as the nation faces a spread in bias crime incidents, the family wants to ensure the public remembers one of the worst hate crimes of the 20th century. In the years since Mr. Byrd’s death, both state and federal hate crime laws bear his name.

As I kept reading, I expected — or at least hoped — that the Times would elaborate on the family's forgiveness of the killers and the reasoning, which I suspected would include religion, behind it. But that explanation never comes.

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A world religion few readers know about: Sikhs get some news coverage from ProPublica

A world religion few readers know about: Sikhs get some news coverage from ProPublica

ProPublica, the investigative journalism powerhouse, doesn’t have a religion reporter even though it has a raft of other specialties ranging from civil rights, the military and health care to consumer finance, tech and education.

Why this newsroom doesn't cover the motivating force behind how billions of people live their lives is a puzzle but recently the organization did come out with a piece about religion.

Called “Sikhs in America: A History of Hate,” it chronicles how a blameless religious minority has been mistaken for Muslims for years and often murdered in cold blood because of that misperception. Remember, it was not a Muslim but a Sikh: Balbir Singh Sodhi, who was murdered at a gas station in Arizona right after 9/11.

The lengthy first-person feature begins with an incident that took place not far from where I live.

The 1907 episode in a seaside timber town in Washington came to be known as the Bellingham Riots. Really, though, there were no riots. There was a pogrom.
At the time, the U.S. was suffering through deep economic distress, a panic-filled recession that had begun the year before. Angry anti-immigrant sentiment was ascendant. And hundreds of Sikh men who had traveled from India to Bellingham to toil in the lumber mills paid the price.
Some 500 white men, many of them members of the local Asiatic Exclusion League, descended on the Sikhs and other South Asians, routing them from the bunkhouses where they roomed and chasing them into the streets. Within hours, the entire Sikh population of Bellingham had fled, frantically piling onto trains and boats in search of some sort of refuge. Many had been physically battered.

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Religion newswriters take note: Scholarly specialists are joining 'The Conversation'

Religion newswriters take note: Scholarly specialists are joining 'The Conversation'

Reporters and editors who specialize in religion should be aware of a young Web site -- TheConversation.com -- and regularly check out its section devoted to “Ethics + Religion.

This innovative site was launched in 2011 in Australia, 2012 in Britain, and then 2014 for the United States, with funding from 11 foundations and sponsorship by a constellation of 19 major U.S. universities (oddly, no Ivy Leaguers).  

The stated concept here is to provide “an independent source of news and views” that allows “university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public,” as opposed to writing articles for narrow academic journals. TheConversation hopes that its “explanatory journalism” from experts will “promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues.”

The editor for the ethics + religion section is Kalpana Jain, a former reporter for The Times of India who has been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

The site can help reporters by offering three things: 

(1) Added angles and background on themes in the news.

(2) Ideas for new stories.

(3) Perhaps most important, names of knowledgeable scholars on specific topics to keep on file as needed in the future.

This is, of course, similar to the ReligionLink material offered by the Religion News Association. Of course, when it comes to solid sources of information, reporters want to bookmark as many as possible.

A good example of this new site’s resources is the detailed July 19 piece “Explaining the rise in hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S.”

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Is it a hate crime? Washington Post offers strong coverage of Muslim girl's D.C.-area slaying

Is it a hate crime? Washington Post offers strong coverage of Muslim girl's D.C.-area slaying

Is it a hate crime?

That's a key question after the slaying of a 17-year-old Muslim girl in the Washington, D.C., area.

Regardless of the motivation, of course, the death of Nabra Hassanen is an unspeakable tragedy. My daughter is 17, and I can't help but identify with what the local sheriff told the Washington Post:

“I can’t think of a worse instance to occur than the loss of a 17-year-old on Father’s Day, as the father of a 17-year-old myself,” Loudoun County Sheriff Michael L. Chapman said

From the beginning, the Post has offered strong, insightful coverage of the murder case — boosted in large part by the expertise of the newspaper's stellar religion reporters, including Julie Zauzmer and Sarah Pulliam Bailey, a former GetReligionista.

That coverage has included excellent, factual stories (examples here, here and here) updating readers on the police investigation as well as how the victim's family and friends are handling the loss:

The Virginia teens were up late observing Ramadan, so they did what young people often do in the wee hours of the weekend: They went out for a bite to eat at McDonald’s.
But as they walked and biked back to the All Dulles Area Muslim Society mosque in Sterling, along a major thoroughfare, a red car approached from behind about 3:40 a.m. Sunday and chaos erupted.
The driver, Darwin Martinez Torres, a 22-year-old construction worker from Sterling, got into an argument with a teen on a bike and then drove his car over a curb, scattering the group of as many as 15 teens, police said. He caught up with them a short time later in a parking lot and chased them with a baseball bat, striking 17-year-old Nabra Hassanen and then abducting her in his car, police said.
Martinez Torres assaulted Nabra a second time, in Loudoun County, before dumping her body in a pond next to his apartment complex, where it was discovered about 3 p.m. on Sunday, police said. The medical examiner ruled Monday that the girl died of blunt-force trauma to the head and neck.
The horrific slaying of the South Lakes High School student reverberated beyond Virginia on Monday, as social media lit up with anger and grief, politicians expressed condolences and groups of various faiths condemned the violence. Many feared it was another hate crime targeting Muslims, coming shortly before a man driving a truck in London plowed into a group of people who had just finished Ramadan prayers. It follows a national upswing in attacks targeting Muslims since the November election.
So far, Fairfax County police said they have no indication that Nabra was targeted because of her religion, saying her killing was probably a “road rage incident,” although they continue to investigate the motivation.

Beyond the straight-news stories, though, the Post has supplemented its coverage with pieces such as Bailey's overview of "What happens when tragedy strikes Muslims during Ramadan."

This is a case where, obviously, it helps to have a Godbeat pro — or in the case of the Post, more than one — on the team:

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Heartland authenticity: Praise for one paper's nuanced coverage of post-Trump Muslims

Heartland authenticity: Praise for one paper's nuanced coverage of post-Trump Muslims

In the wake of President-elect Donald Trump's election, one of the prevailing — and predictable — storylines has been the plight of Muslims in the U.S.

It's sort of the post-election version of the "Muslim backlash" stories that follow any terrorist attack by an Islamic radical.

Among the major news organizations where I've seen such reports: CNN, the Dallas Morning News, the Detroit News, National Public Radio and Religion News Service.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal (among others) reported this week:

Hate crimes increased nearly 7% in 2015, the Federal Bureau of Investigation said Monday, a rise that was driven partly by a sharp increase in anti-Muslim incidents, which rose 67%.

At the same time, some are skeptical of claims of a "post-election hate crime epidemic." 

And in his post Tuesday, GetReligion's Ira Rifkin delved into reports "that Trump secretly reached out to Arab embassies in Washington to say they should simply ignore his anti-Muslim campaign statements."

So — on this subject matter — where does the politically correct narrative end and the actual news begin? Some of that may depend on one's own biases and life experiences. A few of the reports cited above are better than others, and I'll acknowledge that I didn't have time to digest each word of all of them.

But I do want to endorse a piece by Jaweed Kaleem of the Los Angeles Times. 

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Mirror image question: No American coverage of the murder of Muslim merchant in Glasgow?

Mirror image question: No American coverage of the murder of Muslim merchant in Glasgow?

It's time, once again, to look at the mirror image of a story that is in the news. We are, of course, in the final days of Holy Week for Western churches.

Let's change the context and flip the key details to create our mirror-image case. Let's say that, somewhere in Europe, the following tragedy took place. It is days before Ramadan and a Christian merchant, extending a hand of fellowship during these tense times, posted a message extending good will and affection for his Muslim neighbors as they entered a holy season.

Hours later, in our hypothetical story, one or two Christians enter the man's shop and brutally murder him, stabbing him repeatedly and then stamping on his head.

Police quickly make it clear that this was a "religiously prejudiced" attack.

Yes, this would be a major story in Europe. But do you think it would draw significant coverage from elite newsrooms on this side of the pond? Or would it be one of those stories that is ignored, other than in alternative media sources that come with political labels attached?

Now, what is the actual story? Let's turn to the BBC, which is hardly a minor news source:

A 32-year-old man has been arrested after a Glasgow shopkeeper was killed in what Police Scotland are treating as a "religiously prejudiced" attack.
Asad Shah, 40, was found seriously injured in Minard Road, Shawlands, at about 21:05 GMT on Thursday. He died in hospital. The incident happened hours after he apparently posted social media messages wishing his customers a happy Easter.
Police said both Mr Shah and the arrested man were Muslims.
A post on Thursday from an account that appears to be Mr Shah's said: "Good Friday and very happy Easter, especially to my beloved Christian nation x!" ...

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Anti-Muslim backlash strikes again: Media can't help falling in love with circumstantial evidence

Anti-Muslim backlash strikes again: Media can't help falling in love with circumstantial evidence

Facts, please.

That most basic element of strong journalism would be helpful as media keep spinning reports of "anti-Muslim backlash" after the Paris and San Bernardino attacks.

As you may recall, I criticized the Houston Chronicle last week for squishy, speculative reporting after an arson fire at a storefront mosque:

My plea for journalists pursuing the "Muslim backlash" story: Do some actual reporting.
Yes, treat Muslims (and other people of faith) with fairness and respect. By all means, listen to their concerns, and report them fully. But don't ditch normal, necessary journalistic skepticism and investigative techniques for the sake of a politically correct storyline.

So what happened not long after the Texas newspaper's big Page 1 story on the fire stirring fears in the Muslim community? Police arrested a suspect who claims to be a devout Muslim who regularly worshiped at the torched mosque.

Hmmm, that fact changes the storyline a bit, huh?

In the Pacific Northwest, meanwhile, a 16-year-old Muslim's death has caused a furor and fanned Islamophobia concerns, according to the Seattle Times. 

Earlier, the Seattle newspaper publicized online speculation that the teen was the victim of an "anti-Muslim hate crime." Speculation, of course, involves "the forming of a theory or conjecture without firm evidence." That's not exactly a recipe for quality journalism.

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