Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Journalist Combats Media Islamophobia

Photo: Jamie Tarabay (by Kate Noftsinger March 17, 2011)

On Meeting Jamie Tarabay--

Shortly after Lara Logan stopped reporting the news from Egypt because she was the news from Egypt, women journalists working abroad captured the nation's attention.

"What added pressure there must be on female war correspondents, living with the constant threat of sexual violence." "How brave they are, reporting from turbulent and unpredictable locations."

But that was more than a month ago. Today, when someone reads the latest from Libya, who knows if they consider the gender of the byline.

As quickly as women journalists made the front page, they were forgotten-- but not before I had the distinct pleasure of shaking hands with the toughest one you'll ever meet.

Her name was Jamie Tarabay and she didn't mess around. In 2005 Tarabay released her book, A Crazy Occupation: Eyewitness to the Infitada, covering five years of West Bank adventures with the Associated Press.

From 2005 to 2007 Jamie Tarabay was NPR's Baghdad bureau chief-- and as the feminist blog Jezebel noted, watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer to save her sanity.

After living through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the occupation of a "liberated" Iraq and more, Tarabay brought a unique perspective to her current position as managing editor for National Security at the National Journal.

And she voiced an important opinion during a controversial panel at Bowling Green State University.

Photo: Al-Marayati, Kimball, and Tarabay (by Noftsinger, March 17, 2011)

On the Panel--

Tarabay was a featured speaker for "Media Coverage of Terror in the Name of Religion," a presentation by the BGSU Journalism department. Other panelists included Charles Kimball, Director of Religious Studies at the Univesity of Oklahoma and Salam Al Marayati, President of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles.

Focusing on watchdog functions and accountability, Tarabay explained how news coverage changed after September 11th. And how the public lost its faith in the media.

"It wasn't a declared war on terror, it was more of a declared war on Islam," she said. And journalists were not above the anti-Muslim propaganda.

"It was a very rapid dehumanization of customs, of people, of traditions," Tarabay said-- because it's easier to go to war with people you've "othered."

Media shortcomings can also be blamed on the transformation of news, which people are getting everywhere but the newspaper these days.When technology enabled stories to be published instantaneously, the pressure to be first meant less time spent verifying the facts.

Favoring speed over accuracy is a direct violation of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics-- and people expect it. They want their news quick, fast, and in a hurry.

When Tarabay told her audience "If this was on TV, half of you would have changed the channel by now," they laughed-- because they knew it was true.

The world is different now. Media consumers have shorter attention spans and they're easily distracted. With television's 24 hour news channels and cell phone internet access, our appetite for information is insatiable.

But we also demand entertainment, making the reporter's job harder than ever. Even the best in the business are slipping in this constant competition for the most shocking scoop with the most compelling visuals.

Photo: Jamie Tarabay (by Noftsinger, March 17, 2011)

On Islamophobia--

American coverage of the Middle East is polluted by blatant "Islamophobia." And when fear is mixed with unchecked assumptions, the United States receives incredibly biased news.

Like children creating impossible scenarios with the monsters they fear most, Tarabay watched an American anchor ask their correspondent in Tahrir Square whether the Muslim Brotherhood would join with Al-Qaeda and take over Egypt in Mubarak's absence.

"If that's where you're starting from-- if that's the knowledge base of the person asking the questions, what can you expect," Tarabay said.

The professionals citizens trust aren't pursuing the information they need. They're failing to ask the important follow-up questions. And they're doing everyone a disservice.

"Islam and terror is not a religion subject-- that's a politics subject," Tarabay said. "You want someone with a political understanding to explain why people are using religion in the name of terror."

And yet no one has. All these years after 9/11, there's still a massive gap in understanding. And people are still scared.

Photo: Kimball and Tarabay (by Noftsinger, March 17, 2011)

On Moving On--

Tarabay suggests the media start by changing their rhetoric. Or stop mistaking harmless Arabic words for terrorist jargon. The media has helped perpetuate the idea that the word "madrasah, literally translated as "school," refers to a radical Islamic institution for religious extremism.

A decade after the United States declared a war on terror, the Qu'ran is still evil, mosques are still threatening, veils are still offensive and the media continues to uphold these beliefs, rather than challenge them and seek the truth.

"There are six million Muslims in this country-- more than half of them are African American," said Tarabay.

With so many people unfamiliar with the supposed "enemy" next door, Tarabay believes it's no longer about terror. It's about immigration, assimilation and cultural sensitivity.

American Muslims, like any group, cling to their traditions because they want to preserve part of their identity in the melting pot. And people continue to distrust this scapegoat community with the help of the media.

However, a few good journalists are working hard to change these stubborn misconceptions. While Tarabay has risked her life in multiple war zones, curing Islamophobia in the United States could be her toughest job yet.

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