Just over a year ago, my world was drastically different from what it is today. Then, I was working on college applications, and my understanding of what life would be like as a college student was only limited by my imagination.
I never saw myself going to school to be a journalist – as an active member of my high school’s newspaper, I felt like I already was a journalist. Not because I believed I knew everything I needed to know about journalism, but because of the experiences I had which couldn’t be taught.
As an Arab journalist, I have lived experiences that no number of anecdotes could relay; I know firsthand the breadth of consequences of being an Arab journalist in a predominantly white field.
I applied to Northwestern as a journalism major anyways because I figured it was my best route to getting in. I knew absolutely nothing about Medill, but as I worked on my "Why Northwestern" essay, I was thinking about the work of Arab journalists before me, namely, Shireen Abu Akleh.
It was a nightly tradition for my father and I to watch the evening news at 6:30 p.m. on CBS, ABC or NBC – we weren’t loyal to a particular American station – but at 7 p.m., my dad would switch our free-to-air antenna outlet to our satellite dish outlet.
If you’re Arab American, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about when I describe the giant satellite dish that occupied over 75% of our tiny back porch. The awkwardly angled dish was our lifeline and messenger to the Middle East. This wasn’t your mother’s cable satellite dish; while my friends bonded over their love for TV shows like Hannah Montana or iCarly, I grew up watching random anime shows and other cartoons with Arabic dubbed over.
While my dad changed outlets, I was responsible for adjusting the dish outside. At his signal, I would shift the dish ever so slightly to find the elusive sweet spot for the perfect TV quality. My family had to choose between this or cable television because we couldn’t afford both, but it wasn’t for the sake of my entertainment; we paid for the news stations. Once I managed to get the dish just right, the static gave way to the dramatic opening music for Al Jazeera.
For half an hour, it was as if our house was dropped in the middle of the Middle East, where the humanity of Arabs wasn’t questioned or granted as if it was a privilege before reporting on the communities that looked like my extended family. From a young age, seeing this contrast in reporting with my dad, I was hyper-aware of how vastly different Western journalism was from journalism in the rest of the world – particularly at a time when relations between the US and the Middle East were tense.
Given the discrepancies in coverage between different stations, I grew up skeptical of American news. Instead, I looked up to the reporters on Al Jazeera. People like Abu Akleh were the voice of Palestinians who the rest of the world neglected. Being an Arab journalist requires more from you than being an American journalist – the reality is that you also have to assume the role of an advocate, even if indirectly.
Without journalists in these regions, no one would know about the atrocities committed there every day. Whether intentional or not, this is an act of resistance to the powers that be.
Abu Akleh was one of many examples of this resistance. As a Palestinian, she exposed herself to the violence and danger of the Israeli Occupation Forces. She didn’t do this for the sake of accuracy or other bullshit mission statements; she did it for the people.
Without Arab journalists, particularly Palestinians in occupied Palestine, corruption would continue to take place, largely unnoticed, at all scales of society. Stations like Al Jazeera were a survival guide and map for so many Arabs who lived in fear in their own homes.
The Israeli Occupation Forces are aware of these journalists and the threat they pose to their regime. According to the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, Israel has been responsible for the murders of 46 Palestinian journalists between 2000 and 2020.
That number is only going up, as evidenced by news of Abu Akleh’s murder. I was devastated by the news, especially considering the instrumental role she played in my understanding of media and politics. I couldn’t help but think back on my own journey as a journalist at Northwestern.
I am the product of all the work Abu Akleh accomplished in her storied career. There’s an irony, though, that I was admitted to Northwestern – which often silences Palestinians and shields Zionists from criticism – in part due to the perspective a Palestinian journalist gave me.
I knew that being both Arab and a journalist was mutually exclusive given the history of misrepresentation of Arabs in the media, but I found my purpose within that incongruity. Journalism should be serving the oppressed rather than oppressors and bystanders, and in choosing to not be compromising in my identity within my work, I’m reclaiming part of journalism for myself.
In beginning my education in journalism, I wasn’t prepared for how Medill would expect me to put myself – and my identities – on the line. I was shocked at how our boldness was taken for granted in the University’s silence on not just Abu Akleh’s murder, but the political unrest in the Middle East; the danger a white journalist, for example in the case of Ukraine, might face was more important than reporting the story. Yet, it’s almost an expectation for Palestinian or Syrian journalists to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of newsreporting.
There’s a level of undue understanding given to the forces that kill journalists because people perceive Arab journalists as war-time journalists. It’s difficult to hold any one party accountable for murder when it is seen as inevitable that journalists get caught in the cross-fire. Not only does this perpetuate stereotypes about the sociopolitical state of the Arab world – that it is war-torn and uninhabitable – but it curtails the amount of responsibility that the world has to journalists when deaths such as Abu Akleh’s can be excused as a war casualty, rather than a war crime.
Medill forgets that after we take off our press badges, we can become targets ourselves, and in some cases become targets by virtue of being journalists. It’s presumptuous to ask marginalized journalists to adopt a color-blind approach to journalism by relinquishing their lived experiences and identities in the pursuit of objectivity.
This idea of “objectivity” – that there is a singular, unbiased way to report – is just a thinly veiled way to silence journalists of color. It is meant to push an agenda of conformity rather than a pursuit of truth and justice. It’s clear that Medill’s curriculum, or at the very least its perspective on diversity, is catered to a white audience with a lot of white guilt. But journalists of color are not responsible for addressing that, and we shouldn’t have to sit through useless and embarrassing conversations about identity that end up being soapboxes for white women to talk about their experiences – experiences that are in no way comparable to those of BIPOC journalists.
What’s even more frustrating about the pursuit of objectivity is that Western media doesn’t abide by its own principles. In the coverage that followed Abu Akleh’s murder, most news publications including The New York Times, Forbes and the AP framed it as death by a stray bullet, avoiding any sort of attribution to the Israeli Occupation Forces that was responsible.
“In a statement issued on Facebook, the Palestinian health ministry said Shireen Abu Akleh, a well-known reporter, died after being hit in the head by a bullet,” Forbes published in its article. Read that again.
Poet Rasha Abdulhadi put it best when they tweeted, “In US newspapers, Palestinians are only allowed to die in the passive tense.” This is one of many examples of misleading journalism in the West.
It’s exhausting watching Medill dance around important topics such as race, class and power by having one-sided lectures about diversity and inclusion. These vague talking points are doing a disservice to marginalized journalists whose experiences are boiled down to buzzwords that give white journalists a misguided sense of confidence when it comes to navigating the nuance of reporting on race.
We need to press past conversations grappling with white privilege – as students at a predominantly white and rich institution, we KNOW that Medill and its students have a lot of privilege. Instead, we need to discuss how to use that privilege to protect and defend journalists of color. We need to de-center white women from conversations of diversity. Please. I don’t care about your experiences in sports journalism when I need to be worried about dying in this field.
We’re talking about these nuanced topics in such an abstracted way that we forget the human element at the center of all this. At the end of the day, regardless of your implicit bias in your writing, lives are on the line.
What breaks my heart the most about Abu Akleh’s murder is that her legacy as a fierce protector of her people will be overshadowed by her murder. I don’t want her to be seen as an example of how the media has failed her and her career but rather as an example of how to be a journalist. She set herself apart from other journalists because she carried her identity as a Palestinian in every story she reported on. Without her perspective, we wouldn’t have nearly as much depth to the Palestinian occupation. Her story is larger than a cautionary tale, no matter how the narrative is spun, and I hope that her story carries on as I live by her example.
Thumbnail image “Pictures of Shireen Abu Akleh in the streets of Jerusalem” by Osama Eid is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.