How do we know what we know about the Middle East? Much of our information comes from the news media and the entertainment industry. Developing awareness of how the media shapes our points of view is critical to developing a more complex and nuanced understanding of the Middle East, Islam and Muslims.
The Middle East: Whose News?
Much of our information about the Middle East comes to us through digital and social media, television news reports, or through headlines in the local newspapers. How does this news get made? Of course, “news” is just that—events around the world are reported as and just after they happen. You may have noticed that most of these news events are negative, perhaps because crises seem to us to be more newsworthy than good tidings. Journalists often learn that “if it bleeds, it leads”—that accidents, wars, explosions, and the like get the big headlines, because they sell papers and boost ratings (and thus advertising revenue). Sadly, bad news sells better, and journalism is, after all, a business.
This is why we
see a daily diet of crisis, and much less emphasis on the underlying context and cultures of the places we see on the news. It is also true that our attention span as a society has become notably shorter over the last few decades just as our general background knowledge of the world has declined. That makes it very difficult for the average American news consumer to even realize that they are missing the context of the headlines.
Another issue in American journalism is a lack of regional expertise. American journalists are usually trained as writers and news producers first and foremost, not as content specialists. Expertise in specific world areas is rare, and linguistic competence in less common languages even more so. Add to this the reality that in the business of journalism, many overseas news bureaus have been cut down or even eliminated, and you get an increase in what’s often called “parachute journalism,” where journalists are flown into crisis areas to report on what’s going on without having a deep knowledge of the society. That makes it very difficult for them to pass on a knowledge of the context behind the headline events.
The good thing is that over time, journalists learn along with us and the news coverage of a particular world area can improve dramatically, but the learning curve can be very steep. In some areas—think of Iraq today—it is also very dangerous for journalists to travel widely and talk to many different segments of the population, so we have less access to the insides of these societies.
Of course, mainstream media in the United States also reflects American points of view, which may be very different from the ways in which other societies view events. This can lead to misunderstandings if reporters and editors do not understand the various points of view of their subjects and sources, and also if they do not recognize their own points of view and how they can impact a story.
All of these factors combine to limit the depth and range of news reporting we see in the mainstream media. What can we do to help to correct for these limitations? The internet can be a wonderful resource for deeper context and for multiple points of view if it is used carefully and critically. Because the internet allows for almost anyone to express their point of view, it takes a savvy approach to be able to filter what you find online and to understand “where it’s coming from.”
Analyzing multiple points of view on events in the Middle East is a good way to develop media literacy. You can find a list of global media sites on the Middle East, Middle Eastern media outlets in English, blogs, alternative media sources, and sites on how to use the internet and learn how to be media literate here.
The Middle East as Entertainment
Think of TV shows and movies you’ve seen set in the Middle East or with Arab or Muslim characters: 24, Indiana Jones, Aladdin - maybe, if you’re a film buff, Lawrence of Arabia or The Sheikh with Rudolph Valentino.
What were the Middle Eastern or Muslim characters like in these shows and films? Most of the time, they are depicted as backward, dangerous, fanatical, and stupid. The opening song lyrics of Disney’s Aladdin originally included the lines, “I come from a land, from a faraway place/where the caravan camels roam/where they cut off your ear if they don't
like your face/It's barbaric, but, hey, it's home." It was changed to "Where it's flat and immense and the heat is intense/It's barbaric, but, hey, it's home”—leaving the stereotype “barbaric” label, without the gory details. Or think of the famous scene in Indiana Jones, where an Arab character faces off against Indiana with a dazzling display of swordsmanship; Indiana shrugs, pulls out his gun and shoots the backward show-off.
Where’s the Normal?
This kind of unity of approach to Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim characters creates a strong corresponding image in our minds. When we see headline crisis news from the region on our preferred news website, it settles over this kind of stereotype very easily. Individual characteristics are glossed over. This makes it very hard for us to imagine a normal family in Damascus or Cairo or Istanbul sitting down to dinner and talking about their news of the day, or a schoolchild in Rabat or Tehran or Baghdad studying for the next day’s math test. In this Middle East created by our entertainment and news media, such quotidian experiences are glossed over. That isn’t to deny, of course, the difficulties and crises that many people in the Middle East do face and must live with day after day, year after year.
Think about our own nightly news programs and trending stories on social media, and the problems and crises that they highlight—urban poverty, gangs, teen pregnancy, racism, corruption of government officials or big business, etc.—and then add to that the rather unrealistic picture of American life found on popular TV shows (The Apprentice, Earl, The Sopranos, for example) or movies (Meet the Fockers, Die Hard, Batman). If that were all you saw about the United States, would you have an accurate picture of the diversity of our society, or of “typical life” for most Americans?
In the same way, our access to images of the Middle East is limited to the catastrophic current events of the moment or stereotyped depictions —terrorist, veils, oil wells, camels, deserts sands—don’t begin to describe the complex realities and diversity of this large region. To fill in the picture, we need to be good media consumers and look for more sources and different viewpoints, to use a skeptical eye to distinguish between fantasy and reality, and to demand greater accuracy and objectivity in media presentations, whether in print, online, or through television.