Not knowing the language

on the media Kudos to National Public Radio’s On the Media team for last week’s episode (available here in transcript and mp3 form) that focused in-depth on the media in the Middle East and their coverage of everything from the political situations to the violence between Muslims and Israel.

The weekly show, typically airing on Fridays, is something of a more in-depth audio version of Poynter’s Romenesko, providing commentary on all things media-related from the previous week.

Last week’s show, focusing exclusively on the Middle East, is a wake-up call to American media organizations covering the intensely religious conflict, which managing editor Brooke Gladstone described as “one of the most covered, hardest to cover stories of all time.”

Each of the episode’s five segments is worth the time (easily listened to as a podcast). As Gladstone says in this segment,

News consumers, especially in America, often believe they already know this story. They know in each instance where wrong was committed, where justice was done. But responsible reporters aren’t supposed to bring unbreakable assumptions into the field, so this week I’m reporting from Jerusalem to learn how local reporters on both sides of the divide cover themselves and each other.

The highlight of this episode was this comment from As’ad AbuKhalil, a native of Lebanon who closely monitors Arab news with more than a half-dozen Arabic-language newspapers, two satellite dishes and a number of Internet magazines, all from his California home. He is a political science professor at Cal State Stanislaus, author of The Battle for Saudi Arabia and blogs at angryarab.blogspot.com. Here’s what he had to say:

arabic

I find a huge difference between European media and between the American media on the coverage of the Middle East. I mean, I can think of very few, if any, American journalists who deliver the news from the Middle East to us here, whether in visual media or print media, who really know Arabic or Hebrew or Persian or Turkish. That is not the case in European media, and it shows. You find a much more in-depth understanding on nuances of politics and society that is missing from the American media. In America, we are accustomed to a correspondent who stays like three weeks in Lebanon, and then the person is back in Washington, D.C., and he may be covering or she may be covering Michael Jackson, and then we send them to Germany and then to Iraq. I mean, it’s a mess.

I’ve hammered on this issue a number of times in the past, and this assertion provides some confirmation for what I’ve suspected: that journalists covering the conflict in the Middle East don’t quite get it when it comes to what drives this conflict. If this is indeed true, that American media organizations do not send reporters who know the local languages, it is indeed startling.

Sure, knowing the local languages can’t prevent one from reporting a story, but when language is so key for communicating complex religious issues and understanding their history, how can one expect to get the story right?

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  • http://blog.americanpapist.com AmericanPapist

    My experience of watching the news (in Austria) was that the coverage was better there because:

    1) each nation is used to having to understand the political views of other countries – here in America we can be comfortably isolationist (for the most part – the conflict with the middle east being the glaring exception)
    2) europeans are naturally multilingual – everyone speaks at least english rather well (at least in german/northern countries)
    3) Islam is a much more everyday reality there – they make up a percentage of the population as to be unignorable.

    It’s simply incredible to me as well how ignorant the MSM here in America is about basic facts of middle eastern life, it shows a true inability on the part of most reporters to actually cover THE STORY and not THEIR VIEW OF THE STORY.

  • http://www.bluffton.edu/~bergerd Dan Berger

    I know TMatt has commented on the tendency of many news outlets to stick any old reporter on a religion story, and not bother to maintain a specialist.

    The quote from AngryArab says that the same is true of Middle East reporting.

    As a naïve outsider–is there any beat other than sports that a major regional newspaper can be counted on to put a specialist on? What beats other than religion tend to be thrown to whomever’s available?


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