In 2014, I was in Israel on a social entrepreneurship program with 35 other Americans and Israelis. We were here when Hamas kidnapped three Israeli boys and we were here when we later found their bodies.
A week later, our lives were momentarily halted when we heard the wails of sirens, notifying us of incoming rockets shot from Hamas rockets into Israel’s civilian population.
I remember the first time I heard that wailing siren. In the middle of a lecture, we sprung up out of our chairs and proceeded towards the bomb shelter. After struggling with the key to the bomb shelter, all 35 of us fit inside and we instinctively formed into a circle.
Some cried, some were shaking, but everyone’s arms were around the people next to them. We heard the rocket explode in the sky, shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome. For some reason, and Israelis know exactly what I mean, it’s the sounds of war that linger in our minds the most– that awful siren wailing. Now, hearing a siren instantly sends a shock wave through my body, starting deep in my gut and heading upward, much like when you’re dropping from a roller coaster.
During this time, on the other side of the border, my fellow journalist from Gaza, H., was going through her own horrors of war in Gaza. She, along with her husband and two children, recall it being a particularly hot summer, especially considering she was pregnant with her third child. As she daydreamed about the surprise party she was planning for her husband, she heard a thundering explosion.
She writes, “For 51 days straight my world was flooded with darkness, fear, blood, explosions, and a constant hovering sound. For 51 days straight, I would recall these moments as I wrote letters to friends and family outside of Gaza about what had happened and how I felt. My one, true desire to write stemmed from my eternal belief that words have a stronger impact than all other forms of communication.”
She wrote of singing lullabies to her children to drown away their surroundings, much like those in Sderot do when they get to the bomb shelter, as not to hear the explosion.
Both H. and I have written from our own perspectives of what happened in the summer of 2014. Neither of our writing is less truthful than the other, because they are from our two different perspectives as an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim. We are more than journalists; we are advocates for our experiences and our people.
Indeed, our biases towards our own perspectives illuminate one of many conflicts in approaches in modern day journalism. The art of journalism, especially in news pieces, is treading this fine line between being passionate and writing from one’s perspective verses remaining impartial.
Our passions help us tell a story that others connect to on a deep level, even when one story’s perspective stands in contrast to another. What is important is to then bridge these perspectives, and there are many organizations that are doing just that.
H. and I are both part of Yala Academy’s Aileen Getty School of Citizen Journalism, an online network of Middle Eastern and North African Journalists who learn journalism techniques together and share our experiences and perspectives in the context of a region where media is too often a tool for nationalism, division, and fear. Our stories, when put together, tell an even more passionate and even more nuanced perspective.
Advocacy journalism is a legitimate form of journalism as long as it remains factual and the reader knows the perspective from which the reporting is coming. With this in mind, media organizations should be obligated to make sure reporters have basic freedom of the press and are under journalistic scrutiny, especially when reporting on straight news pieces.
It should be no surprise that freedom of the press is a major problem in the Middle East. Many of my peers from the Yala Citizen Journalist Program are scared to report on anything that goes against their government. Javaria Yaqub, a Pakistani journalist in Saudi Arabia, says that social norms for women as well as lack of basic freedom of speech is a barrier for her as a journalist. Rahma Henchiri who grew up in Tunisia and now lives in Greece also laments the lack of journalistic freedom in her birth country. Mustafa Am Zoony from Egypt told me about political activists in prison for speaking their minds. Awad Abdul Baset from Yemen said that after writing about Yemenite Jews, he was threatened with imprisonment and even murder by those in power.
Freedom of expression is not only squashed by governments, but also by news organizations themselves. Too often, mainstream media organizations report on news with bias, or attempt to find moral equivalence where none exists. Last month, when a 23-year old Israeli policewoman Hadas Malka was stabbed to death by three Palestinian assailants, BBC’s headline read: “Three Palestinians killed after deadly stabbing in Jerusalem,” transposing the aggressor and the victim in a political account rather than a journalistic one. The way in which journalists become less of an observer and more of an actor in the news is problematic and poses a challenge to the integrity of straight news pieces, whereas advocacy journalism has more flexibility.
Also problematic, but perhaps more difficult to address, is the impact of money on news creation in both advocacy and straight journalism. On the left and the right, non-profits that are funded by donors often feel they need to keep their donors happy at risk of losing their jobs. Even publically held companies need to keep their shareholders happy– The New York Times, for example, works with ProPublica, a non-profit that receives funding from agenda-driven donors.
Few journalists are uninfluenced by some bias, whether because of their emotional attachments or because their livelihood depends on it. These are economic realities that are here and are not going anywhere, making it even more important to keep journalists accountable.
In the Middle East and North Africa, coverage has an even greater responsibility because it’s often a matter of war, life, and death. Accuracy and honesty in content and in scope is a debt owed to humanity. In this way, we have an obligation to bridge dueling perspectives of advocacy journalism into dual perspectives, advocate for free press, and demand journalistic integrity.