Why Somalis don’t trust the Twin Cities news media

There are few relationships on the planet these days worse than the one between the Somali community in the Twin Cities and news organizations which don’t know how to cover it. There’s plenty of fallout following coverage in the last week of rumors/allegations that a Minneapolis mosque had something to do with the disappearance of young Somali men. On Thursday night, the Minnesota News Council sponsored a panel to try to repair the damage that the story, and other coverage of Somalis, has caused.

The panelists were:

Julia Opoti, editor of Mshale, the African newspaper

Duchesne Drew, Star Tribune’s assistant managing editor

Ruben Rosario, columnist for the Pioneer Press

Laura Yuen, reporter for MPR

Esme Murphy, WCCO reporter/anchor

Mohamed Hassan, president of the Somali Institute for Peace and Justice

Sahra Noor, director of language services and community health at Fairview/U of M Medical Center

Hassan Mohamud, William Mitchell College of Law

Dr. Abdirahman D. Mohamed, chief of staff, AXIS Medical Center

Hussein Samatar, executive director of African Development Center

“It’s a hole in our organization that we don’t have a lot of Somali people in the newsroom,” said Duchesne Drew of the Star Tribune, explaining his newspaper’s coverage of the story and rumors that the young Somalis have been recruited to fight in Somalia. “The story we had was an important one in helping the larger community explain what the issues are.”

Laura Yuen said her first exposure to the story was a news conference in December when some family members of the missing youth held a news conference to suggest the mosque had something to do with their disappearance. She says she had only two Somalis in her Rolodex then, and has more than 30 now.

Opoti said she wasn’t comfortable basing any story on rumors. She acknowledged the Minnesota media has to learn to get more engaged in the African community, suggesting the only time they “come to the community is when there’s a disaster or a crime.”

Hassan Mohamud said the mistrust between the media and the Somali community is growing, singling out a story on Minnesota Public Radio. “Coverage is not beneficial to the community; it is damaging,” he said. “(It) paints the most important institutions — which is the mosque — in the worst light. Mosques are everything for the Muslim community.” He said the broadcast damaged the community with coverage of Tuesday’s news conference. “They never showed the good in our community. They used military language about how we line up. Instead of talking about the positive statements that are made, they talked about my face… We cannot trust these people.”

Yuen said the story Mohamud referred to was a National Public Radio story that ran on Minnesota Public Radio. She said she hoped the national media, “which parachutes in and then takes off,” doesn’t hurt the relationship between the Somali community and the local media.

Without identifying him by name, Mohamud also made clear that Omar Jamal, often quoted by the Twin Cities media as a representative of the Somali community, does not represent the entire community.

The audience, made up mostly of Somalis, laughed when the Star Tribune’s Drew said Jamal’s name. “Omar returns phone calls,” he said, adding that while his name appears in the paper often, reporters often make many calls without success. “We’re not amateurs,” he said. “I hope next time, you guys return phone calls. We’re not not going to run a story because you don’t want to talk…. We tried very hard to get as broad a mix of voices as we could.”

Opoti said she has little faith in Jamal. She relayed her work on a story on Election Day in which a Senate campaign was alleged to have told Somali voters how to vote. “Whatever I was reading in the papers was not what I saw happening One of the challenges for me was people who were there but didn’t want to have their names used. It took me three or more days. I called Omar Jamal because he told several different numbers (of Somalis) to different papers. He refused to answer me and he’s never answered my call since then. If he’s going to b.s., then don’t take any quotes from him.”

Jamal did not attend the forum.

“I do feel some of the criticism here,” Esme Murphy said. “The problem with television is the TV cycle is very immediate.” She said television reporters often have only “an hour or two” to produce a story. She said TV “does not have the luxury” of devoting many people to stories as the Star Tribune or Minnesota Public Radio.

“I don’t think we should exchange quality for time,” Sahra Noor said.

“I’m afraid the issue is trust,” Mohamed Hassan said. “And it is just a cop out on our part to say we don’t have time. If your work is to bridge the community, inform the community, you should be able to make time to bridge the community so the new community seems welcomed. We don’t want to talk to you, of course, because we think you want to labor us as terrorists, but I think there’s still an opportunity to repair this.” Somalia is in chaos but not all of Somalia. Some of us are going back to visit family.

“If you return calls, your face is going to be on TV,” Rosario said. “As long as we don’t have people from your community entering the media business, we’re going to continue having these problems. I’ve seen a lot of stories about Somali citizens doing good, but they’re not on the front page.” He criticized the reporters, however. “That’s not journalism; that’s rumor.”

“The mosques are accountable to the community, but the people accusing the mosques, they have to come up with evidence,” Mohamed Hassan, president of the Somali Institute for Peace and Justice, said.

“My cousin went to Kenya to visit family, he was held at this airport for two hours,” said Dr. Abdirahman D. Mohamed. “One of the questions asked was ‘have you been to a mosque?’ It’s like asking someone in this panel, ‘Have you been to a Starbucks?’ Is it a crime to go to a mosque?”

“You’ve tried to defame a mosque, the most sacred place for us,” he told the news media members. “We’re not trying to minimize your right to cover stories, but to be fair and objective so you earn back the trust in the community.”

If you have something you think is a story, feel free to call me at 651-290-1414 or drop me an e-mail. If I’m not aware of something you think is a story, I can’t write about it. There’s more to the Twin Cities media than the newspapers and TVs.