South Asian Reporters Help
Present Community's Stories
October 4, 2001
By ASHFAQUE SWAPAN
Special to India-West
As South Asians in the United States recoiled with horror
with the rest of the nation after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history
on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.,
the community has also, at the same time, confronted another issue.
Fringe elements of the roiled, tense mainstream population have vented
their frustration on ethnic minorities. Their ire has often been targeted
at people of Middle Eastern origin, but South Asians have not been spared.
Sikhs, who are easily singled out by their turbans and beards, have been
targeted, as have been Muslims, and both have been victims of violent
attacks and harassment.
The mainstream media, it must be said, has been quick to report events
of such hate crimes. ABC News, for instance, has given the events wide
coverage and newspapers like the New York Times has run stories on its
front page, and the Boston Globe sending a reporter to Mesa, Ariz., to
cover the murder of a Sikh.
Behind the scenes, the New York-based South Asian Journalists Association
has worked hard, collating information and providing contacts to the media,
and while SAJA organizers are quick to say that their effort is only one
part of the massive newsgathering that mainstream organizations undertake,
it has certainly increased awareness of what the South Asian community
is going through following the terror attacks.
"(SAJA organizer) Sree Sreenivasan phoned to alert me to the killings
in Mesa, Ariz., and Dallas," Boston Globe national editor Kenneth J. Cooper
told India-West, referring to hate-crime attacks that claimed the life
of a Sikh in Arizona and a Pakistani American in Dallas. "The Boston Globe
was one of the few major newspapers to send a reporter to write about
the shooting death of the Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Ariz. The same
day we published a sidebar from New York that focused on attacks on the
Indian- and Pakistani-American communities."
Columbia Journalism School Prof. Sreenath Sreenivasan, an indefatigable
SAJA activist and Web maven, modestly said it's less SAJA itself than
the growing presence of South Asians in mainstream media which has raised
awareness of the community's predicament.
"Several Indian Americans here at the Globe have been involved in reporting
and editing stories relating to harassment and hate crimes in the aftermath
of the attacks," said Boston Globe editor Cooper. "Raja Mishra wrote our
story from New York about the Indian- and Pakistani-American communities.
An Indian American copy editor caught a garble in a quote that, if published,
would have had an Afghan-American speaking of a 'Hindu Sikh'.''
Peter Bhatia, executive editor of The Oregonian, is not convinced that
increased South Asian presence in the newsroom has influenced news coverage
on South Asian hate crimes. "I think the response is more to the absurdity
of attacking people simply because of the color of their skin or because
they have a beard and a turban," he told India-West. But he readily concedes
SAJA's value in improving understanding of the region.
"SAJA is a huge resource, both for journalism, and by association, for
our society," he told India-West. "South Asia is an area of the world
widely misunderstood or not understood at all by most Americans. SAJA,
through its networking, spreading of information and relentless enthusiasm
for good journalism, is breaking down some of that misunderstanding."
The gut revulsion to hate crimes can be a potent emotion that a South
Asian can bring to an editorial meeting. ABC News producer Aditya Mahendra
Raval told India-West he "was sitting in a newsroom and I got a call about
someone who had been shot and murdered in Mesa, Arizona. I found out at
2:00 o'clock at night. I couldn't sleep that night. That's what prompted
my strong interest."
Raval, who is with ABC News' Washington, D.C., bureau, said ABC News had
already decided to do a story about it, and so he produced the piece with
correspondent Dan Harris. "The piece that we did looked at how all different
groups who happen to have brown skin like Pakistanis, Indians, Sikhs and
Arabs have suffered some backlash," Raval said. "A lot of other media
outlets have only concentrated on how Arabs and Muslims have suffered
backlash, but our piece talked about two Sikhs who had been singled out
precisely because they have worn turbans."
Sreenivasan is quick to add a warm word of congratulations for the community
for speaking up. "I am so proud (of the fact that) we were able to get
so many people who were willing to talk about this on the record," he
said. The result, he said, is for all to see: Stories of harassment and
hate crimes have appeared on most major U.S. newspapers.
"The South Asian community has come of age, has sort of matured and is
willing to talk about these things and this made a big difference," Sreenivasan
told India-West. He said he had just been watching Ashraf Khan, the Pakistani
American who had been thrown out of a flight in San Antonio, Texas, on
Chris Matthews' TV talk show Hardball. "He was willing to come forward
and speak, and that gave it a face. And by giving that item a face, we
get the publicity. You need that. Journalists need a face, they need a
human way to tell the story."
Though in the background, Sreenivasan has been busy helping SAJA organize
and put out information of contacts and resources, preparing and updating
round-ups that are put on the SAJA Web site. His regular daily load of
about 350 emails has doubled, he rarely gets to bed before way past midnight,
and he is getting calls and queries from as far as New Zealand and Japan.
SAJA has also organized weekly meetings with speakers like Minnesota state
Sen. Satveer Chaudhry.
But Sreenivasan is not complaining. "It's very draining but it feels so
good to contribute something," he said.
"This is what journalists do. This is the only way we can help. I am not
going to go there and lift the rubble and carry the bodies. This is my
job. This is my duty, to get the story out."