Media plays a central role in shaping public opinion. It can proactively counter bigotry and racism before it even arises by educating the masses. Sikhism is one of the largest world religions with over twenty-two million adherents around the globe. Sikhs are often victims of misrepresentation by the media, which is generally well intentioned but does not have all the facts.
Simply because Sikh wear turbans, the media often confuses the Sikhs with terrorists from other religious groups such as the Taliban. For example, Susan Sachs in The New York Times reported on December 25, 1999, "Five Sikh men hijack Indian Airlines jet and kill at least one of 189 people aboard . . ." Two things were wrong with this story. First, the Sikhs did not hijack the plane. Second, story labeled the alleged culprits with their religious identity. When does the media explicitly mention the religious identities of Christian criminals? Can you recall the religious identity of the person who shot John F. Kennedy? There is an appalling double standard when the media focuses on alleged crimes committed by individual Sikhs and fosters generalizations about the entire Sikh community.
Positive news coverage often shows signs of hope during Sikh festivals and religious occasions. Often such constructive coverage is overshadowed by claims that deny Sikhs the distinctness of their religious identity. For instance, The New York Times published a heartwarming photograph of Sikh children during the celebrations commemorating the ordination of the Sikh nation. Below the photograph, a brief caption incorrectly claimed, "Sikhism is a Hindu sect founded around 1500 in India." (The New York Times, Metro, Page 39, April 30, 2000.) Sikhism is a revealed religion like the Judeo-Christian tradition with its own distinct scripture, traditions and identity; it sharply condemns the stratification of society based on caste, rejecting polytheism and idolatry. Hinduism, on the other hand, is a mystic religion; it seeks to create a society based on the caste system, while celebrating multiple gods through idol-worship. It is an irrefutable fact that a revealed religion can't originate from a mystic tradition such as Hinduism. The Sikh scripture unequivocally declares, "Guru Nanak [the Sikh Prophet] recognizes no authority, no doctrine, except that directly revealed to him by God." (Guru Granth Sahib, page 599).
The Sikhs continue in their struggle to create a mutually beneficial relationship with the media, enabling an accurate and fair representation of the Sikh experience in North America and in Punjab, the Sikh Homeland. When covering Sikhs and Sikhism, media representatives should confirm facts with Sikh organizations to ensure a balanced portrayal of issues. We should discourage use of religious and ethnic labels when identifying those alleged with or convicted of a crime. This would keep the growth of unfair stereotypes in check. We recognize that media sometimes has limited resources and often mistakes made are unintentional. By covering issues objectively and dispassionately, both the media and those that are the focus of their reporting are going to be mutual beneficiaries.