Journalists should "skip the numbers" when reporting on the Middle East

Part 2 of our conversation with journalist and author Mohammed Omer [Interview]

Recently we sat down with journalist Mohammed Omer to talk about the current state of U.S. journalism—particularly how the U.S. media covers Gaza, Israel-Palestine, and the blockade. What follows is the second of a two-part Q & A where Omer reflects on his work, the state of the media, and how journalists should report on conflict (here's part one of our interview). This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Beth Hallowell: We did a study on how U.S. media covers violent extremism last year. We found that U.S. media overwhelmingly and inaccurately links Islam with violent extremism. And purports that there’s a need or covers, I should say, military “solutions” to conflict, more frequently than any other kind of intervention or solution to conflict. And this portrays a really inaccurate and militaristic picture that at AFSC we’re working to change. Some of our recommendations included things you mentioning, like encouraging journalists and advocates to tell more humanistic stories, stories that are historically grounded, that don’t just start from today’s events, that give some context to what’s going on. And also stories that cover solutions and not just problems. Thinking broadly about journalists that cover violence or violent conflict today, what kinds of recommendations do you have for journalists working on these kinds of conflicts?

Mohammed Omer: Well, let’s go back a little bit to what you said about your study. Let me clarify things. Yes, the militarization of media is the case here. I agree with that. Always they think the only solution is a military solution, military intervention as the only way out. Even though that’s not the case really and I will tell you why. Because the West has always been engaged in military intervention, including the United States of America administration, even with the very nice president we have really supported and stood for and cheered for eight years. The U.S. and the West have excluded many parties in the Middle East. They have favored others. They have divided some governments and just ignored totally the folks in the opposition.

Arab culture needs to be understood in a better way for policymakers, for the decision makers, for politicians, and for diplomats who are working on the ground. It’s very important to understand our culture. The moment you are ignoring this and ignoring that, you are sending signals that they can do whatever they want. Have they ever been engaged in dialogue really with the Houthis, for example, in Yemen? Not that I’m aware of. Have they ever been engaged with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt? Not really. It was only during the time when Morsi came to power and then all of a sudden the Muslim Brotherhood was becoming quite popular. Now, have they engaged with Hamas the same way? All of these groups that they think may be causing all of these problems, there is a way, dialogue. Talk. The American government doesn’t want to talk. They just want to keep to the traditional allies and keep a close relationship with them.

The second part of your question about what the journalist needs to do, I think, the first thing is to look at the human side of events. That’s very important. Skip the numbers. Skip the numbers. I repeat again, we don’t want you to deal with a case in the Middle East as a 20, 30, 50, 700, 800 killed and dead and injured and houses demolished. In each and every single case, there is a home and inside each home there are seven or eight children, and each of them has a dream and has hopes and has a bedroom and he wants to talk and he wants to express what he or she feels. This is something we don’t see in the western media. This is something we haven’t encountered. We just tend to look at people as sound bites of officials. It’s time for that to stop. Why do you need to go all of the time—why do we need to go in a crisis all of the time to get 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 journalists from Syria to talking to the same person? That’s very repetitive. Journalism schools—and I say that and I have been associated with Columbia University—I think it’s really good and time for journalism schools to start teaching different methods of communication, different approaches of how to gather content. We are not only looking at content that comes from official sources as the only authentic voice. They’re just giving us numbers. They’re just giving us very gray facts, which doesn’t really tell you of the current colorful reality of how people are living and what their daily life is like. So international journalists need to focus on the day to day life, the human aspect of life and to treat people as humans that have names, that have hopes, that have dreams and not only numbers.

People are more than numbers killed. That’s very upsetting when you hear—when you look at the comparison—an incident of killing in the United States and another incident of killing somewhere else. You will see that in this part of the world people have names and ages. People have photos. People have their own identity. But there you only have numbers. Why? The media has to change. This practice has to stop. It’s not something, you know, to be proud of. It’s time to really change. And I tell you, if media does not change itself, social media will change it. It’s time for traditional media to save itself and to look for something that might interest people, that anybody would be interested in. Anybody would be interested. It’s so easy to drive people who are not necessarily interested in the Middle East to be more interested once you tell them a story. The art of the story is so important to this audience particularly in the United States. People tend to pay more attention when they hear about real people’s names and faces, and not just these numbers that we see in the hard news, which comes from news wires, the copy, paste, and transmit media. This reporting makes the Americans feel as if they are so far and so distant. Well, nothing is too far, really. Nothing is too far. Six hours or seven hours’ flight from here is Europe. And then in two hours you are already very close to Turkey where the crisis of Syria is happening. This is not far really. Nothing is far. We used to think that the Middle East is too far from Europe, but now the refugees have demonstrated that it’s not far. We need to really get more and more engaged to understand the struggle of all of these refugees and the roots of these problems. We need to focus and get more and more engaged with these problems and not tend to give voices to hegemonic power and government officials because officials don’t necessarily give us authentic sources. We need to engage more to connect people to people. That’s what media should be all about.

BH: Is there anything the journalists in the U.S. are getting right in their reporting on Gaza/Palestine, or any good examples of reporting on Gaza or on Palestine that you’ve found in U.S. media?

MO: Well, yes. They have always, always, given and represented the reality on the ground by showing—by giving the dominance of the story to Israel. People should ask where are the voices of the Palestinians? We are talking about military occupation. I remember on May 31st, 2010 there was this issue of an humanitarian aid flotilla trying to enter Gaza, which was bombed. And one of these reports, I’m not going to mention the major TV outlet, but the incident got a report of two minutes and 16 seconds. And for these two minutes and 16 seconds, it was almost entirely a narrative of Israelis with visual or sound bites, with the exception of a nine-second bite where Haneen Zoabi of the Arab Knesset of Israel was given the chance to speak. The rest was telling the story using footage that comes from the Israeli drones, footage that comes from the Israeli media, and then photos of the Israeli soldier who was attacked. We were talking about an Israeli soldier who was attacked during that particular event. But nine Turkish nationals, including one who was American, were killed, and they were hardly mentioned in this media report.

Irit Reinheimer: I’m really inspired by this idea that one way for us to learn about Gaza and learn about Palestine is through its culture, its artists, musicians, writers. So I was wondering if you could just name a few people who are artists or musicians or writers that we could look to learn more about the culture and the lives of Palestinians.

MO: Well, you can look at novelists, somebody like Yosidi Alrul, who is a novelist in Gaza who has a lot of color in his novels. You can look at the work of someone like Mohamed Abusal, an artist who has a lot of beautiful paintings, which you can find on social media, as he promotes events related to arts, to drawings and to historical objects. There are many others who are in Gaza, including young people who did not get the chance to travel, and it’s pretty easy to connect with them on social media. Nowadays we have Facebook where it’s quite easy, accessible. People in Gaza are quite responsive. They would very much appreciate these chances to connect.

I really hope that you can look at cases of people who are really talented in Gaza, as we have many cases here. Just look at cases of people who wanted to go for concerts to represent Palestine, but they have been banned by the Israelis and Egyptians to travel. This is a good cause to get people who are not necessarily interested in politics, people who are interested in art and dancing, people who are interested in music to be an advocate and write letters to get these people’s voices heard. That’s something which I find very critical because I come across many cases of people who have got talent but the moment they want to travel outside and speak, they can’t. It is really quite sad that people have worked so hard to get outside of Gaza. And they are all ready and there are the audiences to welcome them. Soldiers on the south or the northern border of Gaza decide that these talented people should not be let out.

BH: My final question is: If you could change anything about the state of journalism today in the U.S., in Palestine, or anywhere, what would you change and why?

MO: If I had to say something about journalism today, well, written journalism or print media is sadly dying. Online media is prospering. The big crisis lies actually in the ability of journalists to have access to places in the Middle East, which is quite problematic. But there are many ways to connect with people and in a place like Gaza and interact. What we also need to look at—and I really hope one day somebody can do this—is a website that can bring all of the Middle East views not from journalists who are Americans, but from local journalists on the ground and then to do a translation from all of these different newspapers around the world, around the Arab countries. That’s something which I haven’t seen. And trust me if something like that is done, it’s going to bring a whole different perspective to the American audience. It’s going to introduce the Americans into an entirely different scope of events which you are not allowed to get from mainstream media. Because the way the state of media or journalism is now, it’s just about current affairs. It’s what’s happening today. They don’t tend to go back to history. They don’t tend to focus on what is really at the root of the issue. Now, we are talking about Gaza, as the Gaza is firing rockets, do we know why? Do we know what’s the root of that? Are we aware that the siege was put in place since 2006 when people have made quote-unquote the “wrong” choice in the elections? Do we know the roots of that since 1948, do we know about all of these issues? No. It’s good to go deeper into that. And for that you need also Arab writers who are able to be translated and made accessible through just a simple website which can be the website that gives access to the media that is otherwise unable to access resources on the ground.

Interested in learning more? Check out part one of our interview with Mohammed Omer. You can also check out his new book, Shell Shocked: On the Ground Under Israel’s Gaza Assault, or come out to hear him talk in your community.