Sometimes a photo of a Sikh is just a photo of a Sikh. But on the Internet? Things rarely stay that simple.
Early on May 7, Jesse Malik, a member of the Sikh religious minority living in Fairlawn, New Jersey, posted a screenshot of his TV to Twitter. Malik’s still image of a CNN promo featured a picture of Osama Bin Laden, the widely hated terrorist, over a photograph of a man in a turban, which is traditional Sikh religious attire.
It swiftly spread from Twitter to Reddit, where user savaero suggested that CNN had confused Sikhs with Muslims -- without proffering any evidence that the cable network had in fact done so.
Malik’s original tweet mentioned that the image was from a rally held in northern India; participants carried “Thanks Obama” signs and waving U.S. flags. The Sikh, a religious minority with members throughout south Asia, have been among the many victims of Islamic extremists inspired by the likes of Bin Laden.
It only made sense, in other words, that CNN would include the image in a montage showing worldwide reaction to Bin Laden’s death.
That nuance, though, was lost in the image’s distribution. Malik explains in a later comment to the Daily Dot: "I could barely make out the sign on large tv after pausing it. The images were briefly flashed all you really notice is a Sikh", adding, "their context feeds stereotype turban=terrorist."
The updated image, sans mention of the pro-U.S. sentiment underlying the original photo but edited to include commentary on the rise in hate crimes against Sikhs following 9/11, was submitted to Reddit by savaero (self identified by this tweet to also be 'sikhswim' on Twitter) with the headline, "Almost 10 years after 9/11 CNN still doesn't know..."
Reaction to CNN's apparent gaffe gained more than 2,000 up-votes -- Reddit users’ way of showing approval -- and 1,000 comments on Reddit Monday, while visitors to the site viewed the post over 600,000 times. A comment which eventually bubbled to the surface via Reddit's voting system showed CNN employees were aware of the issue and were pulling the promo as a result.
After the Daily Dot contacted CNN, press official Bridget Leininger issued a statement: "CNN has amended the 'After bin Laden' graphic. We regret the error." The story might well have ended there. But is there really an error to regret?
It's fair to say that only an astute and motivated Reddit user, with patience to read through the discussion that followed, found the real gem buried within the discourse -- or more to the point, lost in the transition of the discussion from Twitter to Reddit. The crowd-sourced truth: This was an image that showed Sikhs in a positive light, rallying to show their support of the U.S. and their opposition to an infamous terrorist.
It's clear in the high-res and unprocessed original -- where the pro-Obama poster, and the waving of the American flags can be seen in detail -- that CNN likely wasn't confusing Sikhs with Muslims at all. A photo of Sikh protesters in a pro-U.S. rally supporting the raid on and subsequent killing of Osama bin Laden is totally appropriate to a discussion of world reaction. In fact, it furthers the depth of coverage. Seeing the original image changes the dialogue entirely.
In rushing to convict the cable network’s producers of going by surface appearances and mixing up visuals, Redditors -- yours truly included -- made the very same error they accused CNN of committing.
Crowd-sourced news is blindingly fast. So fast that the nuance of detail is often left in the dust as an earlier, more sensationalist version of a story makes the rounds, passing from person to person in something like the Internet version of Pass the Message.
The sad thing is that CNN’s cringing acknowledgement of an error where none likely existed -- really, just an acknowledgement that they don’t want to get involved in this kind of Internet dustup -- just means that Sikhs, an underrepresented and poorly understood minority, are now less likely to appear on air than ever.
Photo by rhettigan/Flickr