OPINION | Is media coverage of Somalis too negative?


Since Sept. 11, the American news media have been preoccupied with stories about Muslims. News coverage of bombings, suicide killings, cartoons (and ensuing death threats), angry bearded men and anything else “radical” has become the norm. To Muslims, the warped representation of us in the media is obvious, and I’m sure you’ve noticed it too.

What you may not have noticed as much is the negative media representation of Somalis, particularly in the Twin Cities. We hear a lot about those menacing Somali pirates, the first “home-grown terrorist” and community elders who refuse to “assimilate.” Just last week I heard about a human trafficking ring run by – you guessed it – a Somali gang.

But try to remember the last time there was positive reporting on the Somali community. That’s probably difficult, because there’s almost none in our mainstream media, and it would be disingenuous of me to claim that this newspaper has been an exception.

Last Monday, there was an in-depth, front page story in The Minnesota Daily about the perceptions on female circumcision in the Somali community and the four-month-old controversy about the American Academy of Pediatrics Bioethics Committee’s recommendation to approve the clitoral nick.

The story was very well researched, unbiased and represented diverse voices on the issue. I initially saw its freakish length and the sensational 1996 AP photo of a girl being circumcised in Hargeisa, Somalia and my thoughts were, “Another cliché story about genital mutilation being a Somali problem.”

A few things irked me, like the oft-used quote of an inauthentic hadith (a saying of the Prophet Muhammad), the references to westernization as a possible cause for changing perceptions, and a quote that suggested circumcision is rooted in Islamic beliefs – which it primarily is not.

The reactions from several Somali students on campus were overwhelmingly negative. I spoke with physiology senior Abeer Ibrahim, who said she liked the article because “it broke it down and gave you different viewpoints. It explains what [circumcision] is and why it’s a major issue. I thought it was a good article to have in the Daily … [because] if journalists don’t talk about it, no one will.”

But Ibrahim admitted that her perspective is in the minority. “A lot of people got angry [and were] offended. Some didn’t even read it and they got angry. Maybe they didn’t like the idea of [other] people getting into their culture … It’s a touchy topic for the newspaper to cover.”

Family social sciences junior Amira Jama said the reporting wasn’t the problem, but she fears the negative impact of stories like these in the mainstream media.

“I’m worried that when a person sits next to me in class, the first thing they’re going to ask me is, ‘Are you oppressed?’ or ‘Are you circumcised?’ They don’t see me as a human being first,” Jama said. “I want us to be seen in a positive light, because people have preconceived notions that we’re a corrupt people.”

I asked Jama what she thinks media outlets could do to clarify misconceptions. “The main thing is that I want people to know that this is not the mainstream thinking in our community. [Almost] no one does [circumcision] anymore,” she said. “When [the media] talk about Somalis, they talk about terrorists or pirates. I would like to see newspapers actually bring some positive light to the minority communities…I want to read an article … that makes me smile.”

I agree with her. I’m Ethiopian-born and I wear the hijab. I’ve experienced racism, and I feel just as frustrated with the shallow U.S. media coverage of minority communities. The main reason I decided to pursue journalism was to help empower my own community.

As a journalist, I can see the catch-22 reporters face when they cover minority communities. There is a tension between being offensive to minority groups and a reporter’s obligation to tell the truth. It is also easy to fall into the trap of “othering” because of preconceived notions about an unfamiliar group. And sadly, the nature of reporting is to cover conflict, because those stories are usually the most interesting.

The mainstream news media need to take responsibility over how they cover underrepresented communities, whether that means creating a minority news beat, hiring more reporters and editors of color or covering more positive topics on underrepresented communities. Locally, I’ve noticed that MPR and the Twin Cities Daily Planet (for which I have interned) have consistently provided a human voice to the Somali community. The Star Tribune published an article last year profiling female Somali-American entrepreneurs and public figures.

The Minnesota Daily is also on the right track. The newspaper made efforts this year to reach out to the University’s cultural groups in order to have more diversity represented in its staff. And the sensitivity of last Monday’s story is a step forward.

It is imperative that journalists and newspapers equip themselves to report on issues they may not be comfortable with and communities to which they may not be attuned, while recognizing cultural and racial sensitivities.

If journalists can’t sensitively report on issues in the Somali community, then who will?