The ONLY active voice for American Arab Journalists.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Diversity still lags in Newsrooms, and American Arabs still targeted for exclusion

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Diversity is a major ingredient of good journalism. While a journalist's skills and training are important to writing and producing a good news or feature story, it turns out that diversity is a key ingredient to insure that the news reporting covers all of the angles. It turns out that a reporter's personal experiences often open doors that might not otherwise be open to other reporters when covering any story. When the door is not opened, no one except those from the community involved would know that the door remains closed. In other words, journalism benefits from diversity and the goal of presenting the most accurate and complete story also suffer when diversity is limited.

The ket to remember is that as a journalist, your personal experience is important. They say a reporter should never interject their own personal opinion in to a story. But the reality is that reporters do interject their opinions in the story by the way they come to decide what to include in it. In reality, what happens is that a reporter is really injecting what they "know" in to the story, more than their personal opinions in to the story. And what they "know" sometimes is important to a story's accuracy and completeness.

Mainstream American journalists continue to fall short in their coverage of American Arabs and Muslims. They have turned what they do coverage in to a religious story, merging the words "Arab" and "Muslim" into synonymous meanings, which they should not do. There are 4.5 million Arabs in the United States and only 45 percent are actually Muslim (Sunni or less, ShiĆ­te). There are about 7 million Muslims in the United States and only 22 percent are actually Arab. The largest group is African American Muslim followed by South Asian Muslims.

In other words, most Muslims are NOT Arab and Most Arabs are not Muslims. So why treat them the same? Expediency? Convenience? But more importantly, because of the lack of diversity. Most non-Arabs or non-Muslims would not realize the distinction. So their coverage reflects an inaccurate premise. That in turn creates a false knowledge about Arabs and Muslims, and feeds into the stereotypes about each group. In the end, the American public is less informed than they could be and as a result might embrace decisions that wrongly deal with issues involving Arabs, Muslims or the Middle East or the Muslim World. American foreign policy could be skewered because we have made the wrong decisions based on the lack of accurate information or factual knowledge.

And you know something, that is a tragedy, because the Middle East is one of the most important topics in our country. It has the most impact on our lives. It consumes much of our time. So why wouldn't we want to be accurate about understanding the Middle East?

That's where diversity in the news room comes in, and why many editors and publishers who are more political than the politicians they cover, want to keep Arabs and Muslims out of the mainstream media.

Their idea of diversity is to only embrace the accepted groups such as Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans. They don't want Arabs and Muslims helping the journalism professional to make the accurate decisions about the world events around us because they want to manipulate those events and can do a better job when not all of the accurate facts are known.

Knowledge is power, but so is the ability to control knowledge which is also a power, too. If you can control and manipulate knowledge and facts, you can control and manipulate the mainstream public.

Groups exist to champion these issues. UNITY: Journalists of Color is one group. But Minorities and special interest ethnic groups often find themselves competing for bread crumbs in the larger society, so they find themselves in rivalries for what little power they can get and share. UNITY includes Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans, but they have done everything they could to exclude Arabs and Muslims from participating as equal numbers and equal partners at the table.

There is only so much "food" to share and only so many chairs at the table. To let in other groups would dilute the influence and presence of those already at the table, like Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans. So there is a hostility not only from the mainstream Americans in journalism but also from those minorities that have already "made it."

Worse is that fact that the situation of diversity in mainstream journalism is pathetic. The idea is that a good goal would be to achieve a balance where minorities and ethnic groups have a presence in professional journalism equal to their presence in society. What percentage are Blacks, for example, of the larger mainstream society? They should have that presence (or close to it) in order to insure that professional journalism reflects the concerns, interests and priorities of Blacks in their coverage.

When an ethnic group is not represented, professional journalism is that much less professional. Let's use Blacks as a theoretical example for the sake of argument.

We know that the experiences of African Americans in this country is important. It can be a negative story where Blacks are blamed for crimes, and undesirable events. These negative stories would dominate the media coverage of the Black community and the impression conveyed would be that Blacks are a problem as a community.

Without Blacks working in the mainstream news media, professional journalism, that is how the media would see Blacks, as a negative story covered only when bad things happens and when Blacks are viewed as the cause of the problems.

But, when we include Blacks in professional media, we start to see another aspect, one that Blacks themselves are helping to define. A positive side to the Black community, one that offers insight in to the issues being covered that drives down the idea that they are a "negative" story and that includes other stories about their successes, achievements, contributions to society and positive news that helps the rest of the country see a true picture of African Americans.

They are not all bad.

It's amazing that even has to be stated.

They are not all bad.

Every community has bad, and good. But when you do not have a seat at the journalism table, the ability to see the "good" is skewered and fogged and not immediately clear. You see the bad and you rarely see the good. The "bad" is thrust ons societies. The "good" has to be mined, found through a specific effort and work.

Replace Blacks with Arabs and you see the problem. The mainstream media does a poor job of covering American Arabs because Arabs are excluded from the journalism profession.

A PEW Research survey from 2010 showed that only 13.26 percent of the more than 41,500 working journalists are "minorities."  The term "minority" is even narrowly defined to include only those identified by UNITY, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans.

Worse, is the fact that the professional organizations which are sentinels to these issues also lack diversity. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) for example has no American Arabs on their national board or on any elected or appointed authority position. Of their many local chapters of the SPJ (Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, etc) there are no American Arabs in elected positions and maybe a few on local committees.

So how does the SPJ represent the issues of journalists when they don't have participation from everyone, especially the one community which is a part of the major news stories that have fixated the attention of this country?

I'm compelled to run for the national board of the SPJ as an at-large director. The purpose is to impose myself on an incomplete system to force the SPJ and thereby force professional journalism to be professional by helping them to achieve a true state of diversity, or at least to get closer to being truly diverse.

If the organizations and watchdogs of journalism don't think it is important -- like PEW or Poynter for example -- that makes it an even worse problem. They don't see the problem. Or, maybe PEW and Poynter are ignoring the problem because none of their writers, educators, professional journalists are Arab or Muslim. When you are not at a table, you are pushed aside. You are not recognized as being a part of the team that addresses the issues. You are excluded form the national voice and the discussions and the talk and the meetings and therefore you are excluded from the process of making the situation better.

That needs to change. Not just because it is the right thing to do for American Arabs and Muslims, but because it is the right thing to do for America and for professional journalism.

Maybe I can either change it, or prompt other American Arabs and Muslims to do the same. Maybe I can prompt other American Arabs and Muslims to also join the SPJ and make change from inside the organization. Entering a hostile organization is in fact the best way to change that hostility. The best way to get something to change is to be involved in that something. That has always been my role as one of the few American Arabs in professional journalism, since 1976. The web site of the Society of Professional Journalists is I hope you will join SPJ and join the fight to make the voice of professional journalism more representative, and to counter the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim voices that have had free reign to do what they want to keep us out.

-- Ray Hanania

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