ATLANTA, US: As the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, Arab American journalists said the terrorist attacks undoubtedly had a damaging effect on views of Arabs and Muslims in the US, and that the media contributed to this by focusing on negative stereotypes.
Ray Hanania, Adam Elmahrek and Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani took part in an online discussion on Wednesday titled Dissecting the Post-September 11 Media Portrayal of Arabs and Muslims. It was hosted by the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, which is organizing a number of events to reflect on the effects of 9/11 on the Arab American community.
The panelists argued that the mainstream US media has fallen short in its coverage of the nation’s Arab and Muslim communities, especially after the attacks. They attributed the negative way in which they are often portrayed to prevailing negative stereotypes and, often, outright discrimination.
In considering the quality of reporting relating to Muslims and Arabs in the US, the panelists highlighted the low numbers of Arab and Muslim Americans who work for mainstream media outlets in the country. They said these organizations offer very few opportunities for people from these communities, even in areas where they represent large sections of the population.
Varkiani — who is based in Washington and is program director for the rights and inclusion team at ReThink Media, a non-profit organization that helps and trains other non-profit groups to deal with the media — pointed out that people increasingly are getting their news and information from social media rather than the traditional media.
She said it is important for media outlets to make an effort to recruit and support more Arab and Muslim journalists because people in these communities are inclined to be more trusting of reporters with whom they can relate or share a connection.
The diverse communities of Muslims in the US should not only cooperate with each other and leave the ethnic rivalries found in their countries of origin behind them, Varkiani argued, but also form alliances with other communities, such as African Americans, Asians and Latinos.
Hanania, a veteran Palestinian American journalist from Chicago and a regular contributor to Arab News, agreed that newsrooms need to hire more Arab and Muslim journalists to reflect the growth of these communities in the country, and also because of the prominent role the US plays in the Middle East.
Reflecting on his own experiences as a journalist and a Palestinian, he said he at times faced professional difficulties that had affected his career. “Discrimination and racism” directed toward Arab American communities in the media predates Sept. 11, he added, but became more pronounced after the attacks.
The Israeli occupation of Palestine and the conflict between the two sides is a major influence on Palestinian and Arab American journalists, Hanania said, because US media outlets are generally biased toward Israel.
“American news media put you through a filter and if they think you are a critical of Israel in any manner, it’s over for you with them,” he said. “As long as you don’t make waves about Israel, you will always have a great career in American journalism.”
He argued that discrimination against Arab Americans escalated after 9/11 simply because many Americans perceived Arabs and Muslims as “foreign” and “a threat.”
Elmahrek, an award-winning investigative journalist with the LA Times, said the image of Arab and Muslim Americans suffers because the US media often resorts to stereotypes.
“One thing the media has done well, unfortunately, is to cater to stereotypes and preconceived ideas about Arabs and Muslims, such as the issue of terrorism,” he said
Elmahrek, who specializes in investigating corruption, said that culturally, Arabs and Muslims in the US are less likely to pursue journalism as a career in comparison with other professions such as medicine, engineering and the law.
“What we, as Arab and Muslims Americans, have to do is to represent ourselves a lot more than we do now by gravitating more toward media professions so that our stories are told better and with more nuance,” he said.
He urged members of these communities to become more active and engage with the news media because editors pay attention to community feedback and in time this can make a difference in the fairness and quality of coverage.