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Conference Discusses Arabs in the News - 2002-03-11

The war against terrorism and the increasing violence between Israelis and Palestinians has meant more stories about Arabs and Muslims in the mainstream United States media. But many Arabs and Muslims say these stories are not always accurate. In Chicago, journalists joined Arab and Muslim activists to talk about ways of improving such stories.

Kamal Abu-Shamsieh recently spent a week in the Palestinian territories. He says on one day, there was a suicide bombing and a few kilometers away a Palestinian demonstration against Israeli roadblocks. But Mr. Abu-Shamsieh says news coverage that day by both Israeli and U.S. media suggested the two events were more closely linked than they really were. "The footage that we received showed there was a suicide bombing and there was a peaceful demonstration and people cheering," he said. "Immediately it was perceived that Palestinians were cheering the suicide bombing.

Mr. Abu-Shamsieh of the California-based Muslim Public Affairs Council was speaking at the National Conference of Arab and Muslim News Media. He and other speakers cited many cases where their community's activities or beliefs have been inaccurately depicted in news reports. Most agreed the errors, especially in the American media, result from a lack of knowledge about the Arab and Muslim worlds.

For example, Professor Assad Busool of the Chicago-based American-Islamic College says the word "Jihad" is probably one of the most misunderstood in America. In news reports, it is usually used as a synonym for "holy war," and as a result, many Americans do not know it means much more. "Everything we do in our daily life, getting up in the morning and praying, fasting on a hot day, even taking care of the dead, preparing a dead person for burial, is a form of Jihad," he said.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, media throughout the United States have increased coverage of life in local Arab and Muslim communities. But the stories are not always well-received.

Emilia Askari of the Detroit Free Press got a lot of unprintable responses from readers after she wrote about a Muslim man who escaped from the World Trade Center before it collapsed, "including a lot of emails suggesting that, well the worst one was, 'I hope you die screaming,'" he said.

Some speakers suggested Arabs and Muslims, even if they were born in the United States, are still seen as outsiders by many Americans. Isam Zeitoun, a former head of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, urges Arabs and Muslims to become more involved in mainstream American life by running for local public office or volunteering for civic groups. Mr. Zeitoun said, "The message I want our community to take is an American message. We do not just want to talk about, 'We are discriminated against, we are mistreated.' We want to come in as Americans and talk about the issues that concern us and concern other Americans education, safety for our kids, drug problems."

Others suggested one way to improve the mainstream media's coverage of Arab and Muslim communities is to work in the mainstream media. Conference organizer Ray Hanania used to be a reporter for the Chicago Sun Times newspaper. He said, "If you are at the table, they stand up and say, "There was this big bomb attack. Ray, do you know some responsible leaders in the Arab-American community we can call?" You short-cut that whole process for them. You know that news is about speed as much as it is about accuracy."

One Chicago journalism professor said she would like to seem more Arab and Muslim young people pursue reporting careers. She says in seven years of teaching in Chicago, she has had only five Arab or Muslim students in her classes.