The Fault In Our Media: Accusing The Wrong Person Of Color After A Terrorist Attack


Although media outlets pride themselves in being factual and accurate, at times the facts can elude them for the sake of disseminating information as quickly as possible. This dynamic is particularly evident during breaking news situations — and the mass shooting in a Orlando nightclub that resulted in the deaths of 50 people was no exception.

This week, media irresponsibility was on full display once again as several outlets made false connections between the Orlando shooter, Omar Mateen, and a local Florida imam, Marcus Dwayne Robertson.

A Fox News report cited anonymous law enforcement officials who alleged that Mateen had been radicalized by Robertson, who’s also known as Abu Taubah. Robertson runs an online Islamic seminary, and the anonymous source claimed that Mateen was one of his students. The report also claimed that Robertson and several of his associates were rounded up for questioning. Other outlets, such as the Daily Beast and the New York Post, also reported on the alleged connection between Robertson and Mateen.

Florida Governor Wants To Monitor Refugees In The Wake Of Orlando ShootingPolitics by CREDIT: AP Photo/David Goldman Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has spent this week attending the funerals of…thinkprogress.orgAccording to The Intercept, however, Robertson and his seminary had no connection to Mateen. And the false accusations leveled against him have had serious consequences — Robertson has been getting the death threats.


This is not the first time a person has been wrongfully accused by the media in the aftermath of a terrorist attack. There have been several instances in which the media has falsely incriminated a person who ended up having no connection to the attack. Many times, these false reports are predicated on racial bias and Islamophobic hysteria that have unfairly and disproportionately targeted other Muslims, South Asians, and Middle Eastern people.

These are a few examples of instances in which the media reported false claims connecting an innocent person of color to a terrorist attack:

PARIS ATTACKS: Veerender Jubbal

Following the Paris terrorist attacks last November, Veerender Jubbal — a Sikh man from Canada — was accused of being one of the terrorists responsible for killing 130 people and wounding scores of others after a photoshopped image surfaced of him wearing a suicide vest and holding a book resembling the Quran.

The original photo was actually a selfie of Jubbal donning a Dastar, a turban worn by Sikhs, and holding an iPad. But the doctored image gained circulation after it was printed in major Spanish newspaper, La Razon, and television channel Antenas 3. As the image went viral, Jubbal, a freelance journalist, responded to the allegations via Twitter, saying he had never been to Paris and in fact lives in Canada.


Since 9/11, Sikhs in the U.S. have been victim to many incidents of violence from people who wrongfully believe they are Muslim, oftentimes due to their turbans and full beards. This incorrect assumption, is only representative of Islamophobic sentiments that result in the racial profiling of many people of color, particularly for people of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent.

BOSTON BOMBING: Salah Eddin Barhoum, Sunil Tripathi, and a Saudi man

In the aftermath of the Boston bombing, a photo showing Salah Eddin Barhoum and another young man watching the marathon dominated the front page of the New York Post with the headline: “Bag men: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.” Barhoum, a Moroccan native who was a runner in his high school track team at the time, told reporters he was too afraid to go outside for fear of being blamed for the attack. He and his family were bombarded by the press.

While the photos later released by authorities of the suspected bombers did not implicate Barhoum in the attack, Post editor Col Allan, defended the decision to publish the photos. “We stand by our story,” Allan wrote in a statement to Salon. “The image was emailed to law enforcement agencies yesterday afternoon seeking information about these men, as our story reported. We did not identify them as suspects.”

Then, after the circulation of a photo showing one of the FBI’s suspects, users on Reddit and Twitter accused 22-year-old Sunil Tripathi of being “Suspect 2” in the Boston bombing, plastering his name across the internet. Tripathi’s alleged involvement in the attack also made the rounds on several media outlets and even police scanners. Following the allegations, Tripathi’s family was bombarded with phone calls from reporters.

Tripathi, a student at Boston University at the time, was reported missing on March 16, 2013, prompting a desperate search by his family. A Facebook page dedicated to finding Tripathi had to be taken down after it was bombarded with hateful, angry posts. On April 25, 2013, Tripathi’s was found dead after his body was pulled from the Providence River. Three days before the discovery, Reddit General Manager Erik Martin released a statement apologizing for driving the witch hunt and speculation that targeted Tripathi.


A 21-year-old Saudi man was also suspected in the Boston Marathon bombings after a bystander saw him running after the explosion. According to a CBS news report, the bystander tackled the man and brought him down. At the time, people thought the man looked “suspicious.” Authorities searched his apartment in a “startling show of force” with officers, agents, and KG units present at the scene. The man’s roommate was also questioned by authorities for five hours, and was later hounded by a Fox News producer asking if he was sure he hadn’t been living with a killer. The New York Post also reported that a Saudi man was “under guard at an undisclosed Boston hospital.”

SEPTEMBER 11: Sher J.P. Singh

On September 12, 2001, Sher Singh was pulled from a train in Providence, Rhode Island by law enforcement after media outlets were alerted that there was a possible terror suspect on his train. He was one of 10 people pulled off the train at gunpoint, handcuffed on the platform, and questioned about his residency status.

Singh, a Sikh man, was eventually placed under arrest after he revealed to the officer that he was carrying a Kirpan, a type of knife that Sikhs are obligated to carry. Subsequent media reports proceeded to show Singh’s photo side by side to Osama bin Laden.

In an essay published in The Progressive, Singh said he felt personally responsible for the backlash against the Sikh community following 9/11. There were three Sikh men pulled from the train, including Singh, and the others who were held looked to be of South Asian or Arab descent, according to The New York Times.

Celisa Calacal is an intern with ThinkProgress.