When I was a journalist, I often covered stories about communities of color, becoming one of the key contacts in my newsroom for almost every underrepresented group. As one of the few minority journalists in my newsroom, I relished the opportunity to provide a voice for people on the margins.
In the weeks and months after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks, however, I had to transform into an expert on the Muslim-American community in order to write stories with cultural and religious sensitivity. But even as my editors praised my coverage, they were sometimes shockingly ignorant of my own religious identity. In the days before the United States began its bombing of Afghanistan, an editor asked me if I would be offended by an attack during Ramadan.
I stared blankly at her for a second before responding, "I'm Hindu. I don't observe Ramadan." The editor, trying to cover up her ignorance, claimed to have read that Hindus and Muslims had similar traditions. I simply told her that Islam had more in common with Judaism and Christianity and walked away, dumbfounded by having been in a conversation with a fellow journalist who had conflated two very different religious traditions.
Though I left journalism almost eight years ago, I've come to the realization that 9/11 forced members of the media to learn about Islam, just as last year's hate crime mass shooting at the Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisc., heightened journalists' awareness about Sikhism. The question is whether journalists will be more proactive in understanding Hinduism without having to wait for a tragedy to befall the community.
It's incumbent upon journalists to take the steps necessary to better understand Hinduism and the roughly 2 million Hindus in the United States and the roughly 1 billion throughout the world. Part of the challenge is to be culturally sensitive without essentializing or homogenizing an entire community. The old joke (yet sadly true trend) in newsrooms is that minorities only get covered when it's bad or when there's a festival. Many news outlets flock to cover cultural events (especially when there are colors), but don't get to know community members or even the dynamics within communities. News stories even continue to affirm the textbook stereotype that Hinduism is a polytheistic religion with many gods, which counters the belief shared by most Hindus that we worship multiple forms of a single Divine.
At the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA) conference in Austin last week, Suhag Shukla, Executive Director of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), and I met with journalists from news organizations from around the country, offering story ideas and helping to connect journalists with community members in their respective coverage areas. One thing we found is that, even for reporters and editors on the religion beat, ignorance about Hinduism and the expanse of the Hindu American community runs high. The Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) offers a manual for journalists to cover America's diverse faith traditions and RNA has helped to push for a better understanding of Hindus and Hinduism among major news organizations. HAF also has its own media toolkit to help journalists better understand culturally sensitive terms and issues.
Still, the best way to report about the Hindu American community - or any community, for that matter - is to engage in genuine dialogue with its members. Showing up to festivals barely scratches the surface of understanding and often gives journalists the wrong impression about the diversity within a community. Additionally, undertaking a quick lesson in some of the common core principles of Hinduism can help eliminate misguided assumptions about the faith, which sadly continue to prevail in many mainstream media outlets. HAF's Hinduism2Go is a handy reference that fits neatly in pockets or inside a reporter's notebook. I've even begun working with some of my former colleagues in media to offer trainings within their newsrooms so that reporters and editors have a basic but essential knowledge about Hinduism and Hindu Americans.
These are all small but important steps to help educate media members about the importance of knowing the communities they cover. While we've come a long way from conflating Hinduism with Islam, there's still much for media members to know about a growing religion in this country. At a time when our demographics and community dynamics are rapidly changing, it is more important than ever for journalists to be informed and insightful about the multicultural society we all share.