What coverage of a Michigan town can teach us about international coverage

Hamtramck, Mich., was one of three major centers of Polish Americans, Chicago and Buffalo, NY., being the other two.

The small city is completely surrounded by Detroit. And like Detroit fell on hard times when the auto industry started moving out of the area in search of cheap Southern US labor and then shrinking after a series of bad economic decisions by the auto executives.

The town was famous for its Polish food places with delis and bakeries getting customers from all over the region.

I know all this because Hamtramck is a part of my family’s history. Even now, whenever I visit Michigan I often stop by a bakery or two to pick up some items for my mother, who can no longer make her regular trips to the place.

A few folks I know expressed shock that Hamtramck has changed. Seems over the past few years more Muslims have moved in the area. I saw it several years ago when on one side of a street were all Polish shops and on the other were halal shops and offices with names common to the Islamic world. (I did not know where the immigrants came from, but I knew it wasn’t Poland. I later learned Bangladesh and Somalia were the main sources for the newest immigrants.)

As a population changes so does its political center. Last year the city council changed to having a Muslim majority. And, as expected, loads of people started freaking out that Sharia law was coming to Michigan.

Well, of course, no such thing has happened or will happen.

To begin with, Hamtramck is under state control. Yep, the state took over the operations of the city under the emergency control law Gov. Snyder used to run Flint and Detroit.

So even if the Muslim majority council wanted to impose Sharia law — which they don’t — it would never pass by the emergency manager.

Needless to say the change in the political powers in Hamtramck from Polish Catholic to Muslim got the press interested. The Washington Post, CNN and Voice of America all did pieces on the shift.

A recent piece by Michael Jackman for the Detroit Metro Times started out criticizing “national media” coverage of the change. (How international news media tried to find conflict in Hamtramck’s new city council — and missed it entirely)

Jackman opening paragraphs describe how “national news media” reps were peppering the Muslim members about Sharia law.

The Muslim councilman is telling the interviewer emphatically that “Sharia Law” won’t be a factor in politics. The interviewer changes his tack: how about in their own lives? Doesn’t Sharia Law enter into the day-to-day life of the community? The interviewer almost pleads, “In daily matters, outside of politics, do you ever say, ‘This doesn’t conform to Sharia Law?'” The interviewee is too clever for this trap.

For my money, it would have been nice if we knew what national media outlet was asking these questions. To be honest they sound more like the type of thing and the way Bill O’Reilly correspondents would ask, rather than any serious journalistic operation.

The rest of the article is a very good look at how things operate in Hamtramck. And with the exception of the origin of the names, it really sounds as if it is business as usual in the small enclave.

“It’s pretty amazing that they all see a story here,” [Mayor Karen] Majewski says. “It seems all kind of unremarkable on the ground. But to think that they are sending people on planes to come here to scout around. And they’re not finding what they’re expecting to find. They’re looking for the mosque with the big minarets. They’re looking for ‘the Muslim neighborhood,’ you know. They’re kind of, surprised that everything is so low-key, and nothing exciting is happening. And it’s just kind of normal life.”

When it comes to national media scrutinizing Hamtramck as a Muslim hot spot, this isn’t the city’s first go-round. In 2004, the city allowed the call to prayer to be broadcast by mosques. Back then, The New York Times was the outlet to put “tension” in a headline, and NBC News showed up too. “But this seems more of a frenzy,” Majewski says.

After November’s election results, international Western media haven’t been shy about as they’ve nosed around town, in search of tension and conflict.

Residents may be able to cite a handful of instances of bigotry, but it doesn’t sum up who we are. It’s the exception, not the rule.

Jackman writes the story in the first person. He makes it clear he has a stake in the city and its growth. It is also clear he has little tolerance for Islamaphopia AND for grandstanding politicians.

Linking coverage Hamtramck to global reporting

The complaints Jackman has about how national and international media outlets report what is happening in Hamtramck can be replicated around the world.

Too often American news consumers have to depend on parachute journalism for reports from around the world. Too many foreign bureaus have been closed by major news organizations. Or, where those bureaus still exist, the area is so large, the reporters assigned to the area have a hard time developing a deeper understanding about the situation being covered.

Sidenote: I was always disappointed that the transition to democracy in Taiwan got such limited coverage. I was told by an editor once when I pitched a story about the transition back in 1992 that if it was important enough the Beijing bureau would pick it up.

Dammit. Beijing and Taipei are two completely different places with loads of cultural and political differences. Not to mention all the political baggage that both carry regarding each other.

Too many of my colleagues have too many things to cover and not enough resources to do the job as it should be done. Editors sit hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away and decide what the story should be despite what an in-depth look at the situation might indicate. (I still recall the editor who asked me to do a piece about living as a journalist under Chinese communist rule. The only problem is that I was in Hong Kong and enjoyed all the freedoms and civic rights of any democracy. The editor fell for a misunderstanding of how Hong Kong operated since the Chinese take over in 1997.)

One way for news organizations to learn more about a place, without making the massive investment in a bureau, is to look for solid freelancers. We usually have a pretty good idea what is going on in the country where we live. Too often we are relegated to writing about tourism, trade or business relations. So a nice juicy piece on politics would be nice.

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Filed under Connections, Ethics, International News Coverage, Story Ideas

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