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Six tips to help U.S. journalists write like experts on Gaza

Media Uncovered  |  By Beth Hallowell, Mar 28, 2017

Gaza 2017

Photo: AFSC / Lucy Duncan

Updated on April 5, 2018.

In 2016, we spoke with journalist Mohammed Omer about how the U.S. media covers Gaza, Israel-Palestine, and the blockade. With Gaza back in the news, we wanted to share his recommendations for journalists covering the Middle East once again.  Below are six tips to help U.S. journalists write like experts on Gaza. And if you're interested in our full conversation, you can read part one of our original interview with Omer here and part two here

  1. DO write stories that connect people in the U.S. to people in the Middle East. "There is a need for deeper understanding," Omer says. "What this country needs is more feature stories that connect people. And that’s not the case right now. We have relied too much on hard news and short pieces covering bombings and attacks, and that’s what we know from all of these countries. We haven’t really learned about the culture of these nations that have been oppressed. We haven’t dug deep into their roots, into their history, into their art, into their museums, into their music. We haven’t dug deep into their foods and their heritage." Don't just focus on bad things that are happening: Tell positive stories that humanize individuals on the ground.
  2. DON'T just report on numbers. Along with the need to tell more humanizing, everyday stories that help connect people, Omer advises U.S. journalists to "[s]kip the numbers": "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." And that has to stop. "People are more than just numbers killed."
  3. DO use new and different sources when reporting on Gaza. Omer notes that the U.S. media over-relies on Israeli sources, footage, and quotes in coverage of Israel-Palestine: "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." Using different sources will help U.S. journalists tell a more accurate story. 
  4. DO cover art, music, and culture in Gaza. People in the U.S. can learn a lot about Gaza by understanding its artists, musicians, culture, and so forth: "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." Omer points out that this can be an entryway into politics and advocacy for people in the U.S. who may not ever have engaged with issues related to the blockade before: "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."
  5. DO focus on the root causes of the blockade. Most outlets in the U.S. focus on the present, not on the past. Omer explains: "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." 
  6. DON'T just repeat existing frames without comment or criticism. Journalists have a responsibility to challenge existing frames that stereotype entire regions of the world - or at least, they have a responsibility to not repeat these frames without comment or critique. "[W]e need more journalists to be encouraged to go down on the ground to check the reality," explains Omer. "And to not only focus on the bad side of events like bombings and all of that. That’s just one side. There is also life. There is the marriage of people. There is the social fabric of the society. There is the music. There is the food. There is the culture. There is all of that. It needs to be incorporated to the American audience in order to bring a better image of what these societies are all about. You know, these societies ... are not the Reel Bad Arabs that we have seen in the Hollywood movies. So that’s what we need to do: Engage and look at what’s beyond all of these headlines."

Interested in learning more? Check out our full interview with Omer here and here. You can also check out his book, Shell Shocked: On the Ground Under Israel’s Gaza Assault. Or, visit AFSC's website, Gaza Unlocked.