The following is a Letter to the Editor submitted to North by Northwestern and does not necessarily reflect the views of its editorial board.
About two months ago, in February, I received a message from a student at Medill, from a name that was unfamiliar to me. This student was requesting to interview me for a story she was writing for an intro-level journalism class.
Her story was about the way that Muslim women who wear the hijab experience it in the era of Trump politics, particularly after the president’s failed travel ban. Immediately, I was weary of consenting to participate in an interview. The travel ban did not affect me personally as an American Muslim of Bengali descent, and I did not want to become a spokesperson for the people who were really affected by it, or for all Muslims – which includes a hugely diverse array of cultures, nationalities and religious interpretations.
I did not want to agree to this interview, because it was abundantly clear to me that the writer was essentially asking me to be just that: a spokesperson. As a student in Medill myself, I tried to let her down softly. I explained that I was weary of becoming the “token Muslim” in this conversation.
I asked her one more question: How did she get my name? She told me that her professor told her to look up the Muslim-cultural Students Association page and reach out to women on the page.
A few hours later, messages started flooding the McSA women’s group chat. Several women in our group had received a similar request from the student, and had texted the group about it in amusement. We all turned down interviews, for more or less the same reasons that I had. We assumed the story was dead. How could you write a story about Muslim women without talking to any of them, because they were uncomfortable with your angle?
Of course, that was not the end of it. That story about Muslim women, the hijab and Donald Trump’s travel ban was recently published by North by Northwestern. On reading it, my initial reaction was confusion. The story was poorly sourced, poorly contextualized, poorly researched, and attempted to link the lives of diverse Muslim women to national politics in a way that riffed off tropes of a monolithic, racialized image of Muslims.
The article set up quotes from most of the women interviewed as unquestionable facts rather than deeply personal experiences. From what I could tell, the writer had not sourced any academic, scholarly or religious texts in order to understand the hijab or other Islamic concepts.
Considering the fact that Northwestern employs a Muslim chaplain who is more than willing to talk to journalism students, and that Northwestern has a small but extremely distinguished Middle East and North African Studies program that houses scholars of religion and Islam, this is inexcusable.
My reaction to this article was not emotional. It did not only stem from anger and disappointment at my community being misrepresented. It stemmed from a deep understanding that the practices taught at Medill that are supposed to guide the creation of quality, meaningful journalism had failed my community. This was proof to me, as if I needed more, that the institutional standards we say we value here are not meant to do justice to the narratives of people like me and people in my community and other identities who are underrepresented at elite institutions like Northwestern. We are only visible to the mainstream media and student media when our identities are sensationalized. Our narratives are meant for consumption by white liberals – they are rarely celebrations of who we are without the white gaze.
If this story was produced for class, it is extremely problematic that a professor encouraged a student to tokenize Muslim women by stalking them on Facebook. It is also problematic that this student walked away at the end of the class thinking that the piece she submitted met the basic standards of empathetic or factually, contextually correct journalism.
It is extremely problematic that no one at NBN who reviewed this story before it was published caught the numerous routine, procedural violations in the reporting presented in this story. This story was allowed to be published despite the fact that there were serious structural flaws in it, let alone for any of the content in the story.
I said as much in a Facebook post that came to the attention of the editor of this publication. She apologized to me, personally, for the content of the story. A lack of diversity, a lack of Muslims in the nightly newsroom meetings had let this story slip through the cracks, she explained.
My gut reaction was to say thank you. Thank you for apologizing, for validating my stance as a brown woman who, for far too long, was the only Muslim woman in those very nightly newsrooms.
I am no longer an editor at NBN, but I found myself critiquing an article with far more effort and thought than it had been given before it was published. The issues that I have pointed out should be abundantly clear to any journalism major at this university, regardless of racial, ethnic, national or religious background.
I am tired of speaking my truth and thanking people for their acceptance of it. It is high time that journalists on this campus hold themselves accountable for their work, its intentions and its impact.
If you are not willing to do the basic research before writing a story, why are you writing it? If you do not want to engage with the people you want to write about, what is the point of your work? If the people you’ve reached out to for comment about a personal topic are uncomfortable with your angle, why are you pursuing that story?
Why are you profiting off of misrepresenting people’s narratives with a byline for a portfolio?
Amal Ahmed, Medill junior