Bomb threat caller's description raises concern about racial bias on campus


English associate professor Snehal Shingavi opened his class, Literature of Islamophobia, to the public Monday in response to the UT Police Department’s initial statement during Friday’s bomb threat.

At least eight students who are not regularly in the class sat in, Shingavi said Monday afternoon. Shingavi said racial bias against Muslim or Arabic students could have resulted from UTPD’s description of the man who called in the hoax bomb threat Friday as having a “Middle Eastern accent.” Shingavi said he was also concerned that UTPD decided to release the information that the caller claimed to be involved with al-Qaida.

“These are not helpful descriptors,” Shingavi said. “The most harrowing bit about that story is not that they released the actual accent itself, it was that there was no other information about the guy.”

Shingavi also opened his office to students who felt any racial bias or hate after Friday’s incident. He said he was thankful he had seen no racial bias and no one had visited him.

UT Vice President of Student Affairs Gage Paine said she understands the concerns.

“It’s a difficult question and a legitimate issue,” she said. “You try to minimize and be sensitive about stepping on people’s toes, but I have no idea how they got to the decision to release the description.”

She said the most important thing in an emergency situation is safety, but she said issues that arose from releasing a description of the caller’s accent are part of learning how to handle an emergency situation.

Paine said UT administrators, UTPD and other entities involved in responding to threats to campus safety would discuss the description they released during a debriefing meeting Monday morning. Tara Doolittle, a UT spokesperson, said none of the information covered during the debriefing could be released, because it might interfere with the ongoing investigation.

On Friday, UTPD chief Robert Dahlstrom stood by the decision to release the description.

Shingavi said while other reactions to the bomb threat were possible, the University’s response was sensational and inflammatory. A fake audio recording of the call spread via Facebook and Twitter. The fake audio recording claims the caller’s name is Mohammed.

“It is a product of some of the thoughtlessness and laziness of University administrators to think that such information would not have consequences,” Shingavi said.

Initially, when UTPD released the description of the caller, The Daily Texan, the Austin-American Statesman and other news outlets published the statement in full. Journalism professor Bob Jensen, who teaches a media law and ethics course, said news outlets should have waited until they had context before publishing information about the caller’s accent.

“In a context when news is spreading that someone of Middle Eastern descent is calling in a bomb threat and there is potential of reactions, especially violent reactions, in a community, then that’s really quite troubling,” Jensen said.

Jensen said he sympathizes with journalists working in the “heat of the moment,” but he said he thinks news organizations should create a policy for publishing information that is possibly irrelevant and inflammatory.

Wanda Cash, the School of Journalism’s associate director, said it is typical for law enforcement to release this kind of information, but that does not mean journalists should report it if it does not advance the story.

“If the person who called in the bomb hoax identifies themselves as being part of al-Qaida, that’s enough,” Cash said. “I don’t think we have to characterize that person as having a slight Middle Eastern accent because I don’t know what that means. I couldn’t differentiate and I don’t think most people could.”

UT President William Powers Jr. addressed Friday’s bomb hoax at the year’s first Faculty Council meeting Monday. He did not mention the decision to describe the caller’s accent as Middle Eastern.

Printed on Tuesday, September 18, 2012 as: Description of hoax caller raises converns over bias