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."