Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Media: Seeking a better way to report Middle East

A group of journalists and columnists who write on and from the Middle East say covering that part of the world in a positive light is not easy. They say it is much easier to fall into a negative pattern of writing, consistent with much of the pessimism coming out of the region. But, they add, they are committed to bridging gaps in their reporting on the Middle East and for this, they were honored at Columbia University recently. From VOA's New York Bureau, Mona Ghuneim has the story.

Arab journalist Salameh Nematt and Israeli columnist Akiva Eldar exchanged a series of letters on the Middle East called "Reaching Across the Divide." When the two began writing to each other as a project for an international nonprofit media group, they admitted to being skeptical. Eldar was apprehensive about what he called in one of his letters "another battleground between Israelis and Arabs" being created in the correspondence, and Nematt voiced concern that "Arabs killing each other in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories" gave him even less hope that peace with the Israelis was possible.

But according to founder of Search for Common Ground John Marks the dialogue that came out of the two writers showed him journalists can still write hopefully and positively about an event or situation. Marks says today's media are more concerned with pointing out differences or stressing negative aspects of a story.

"Most talk-show hosts, most journalists are trained in something else," he said. "They're trained to ask questions about disagreements. We think they can be trained to ask questions about agreements, and we think that both sets of questions are equally valid journalistic questions to be asked."

Marks says journalists should be able to understand and write about differences but they should also be able to point out agreements and look for common ground in a story. Marks' group honored Nematt and Eldar recently at Columbia University in New York for their work in contributing to a better understanding between people in the Middle East and advancing the peace initiative.

Nematt says it's not easy to "market peace" in today's antagonistic climate in the media. But, he says, journalists should ask questions about peace, just as much as they ask questions about war and strife.

"Take the Israeli example - last year's war with Hezbollah in Lebanon," he said. "In the aftermath of the war, we saw this vigorous questioning by the media for the reasons for the setback and failures, what went wrong, and how did we get humiliated. But we don't see the same vigorous questioning when it comes to journalists' questions [to] the leaders as to why did we fail to make peace."

Akiva Eldar agrees peace is not easy to sell, especially when newspaper readership is down and readers are used to conflict. Nonetheless, he says, he goes into work everyday as a columnist at a major Israeli newspaper hoping he can still convince Israelis that peace is possible. But, he says, convincing people to share in the blame and see that there is another side to a story is a continuous challenge.

"It was much easier to convince the Israeli readers that Barak, for instance, gave Arafat everything in Camp David, and that Arafat started the Intifadah, than what I did a few years later, and there were two books that were written, to prove that this is not exactly the exact narrative and there are other narratives," he said.

Gershon Baskin says that narratives filled with conflicts and disagreements and cynicism are still the top-selling stories. The Israeli writer and founder of the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Information was also honored by Search for Common Ground for his work in promoting peace. As someone who talks to the international media on a regular basis, Baskin says he is dismayed by the lack of interest in a lot of organizations to write about peace and peaceful solutions.

"It doesn't rev the interest," he said. "We've developed such a cynical outlook on the possibility of peace, and the hopes for peace have vanished. After so many years of failed peacemaking, and so many years of being told that there is no party on the other side to make peace with, the journalists don't want to write about it."

U.S. journalist Trudy Rubin says that the cynicism that pervades the news is counterproductive. A foreign affairs columnist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and a previous Middle East correspondent in Jerusalem and Beirut, Rubin says that in addition to the cynicism, there is also a sense of lost hope, which she worries will be difficult to regain.

"It's sort of a deadening hopelessness," she said. "It's looked at in the context of the whole region. The whole region looks negative. It's very hard to write something that really makes the case for why this is all wrong and it [peace] is still possible."

In one of his letters to his Israeli colleague, Nematt expresses his hope that a recent appointment of an Arab to the Israeli cabinet will bring some light to the darkness, some indication that the two sides can work together. He writes, "We need a partner to light a candle on the other side, rather than just curse the darkness."

By Mona Ghuneim New York
Published with the permission of
Voice of America
Disclaimer: This report does not necessarily reflect the views of Mike Hitchen Consulting