Liam Foskett: Good afternoon everybody, and thank you for joining us on this rainy Friday afternoon. My name is Liam Foskett and I am a summer intern here at the Jerusalem Fund and Palestine Center. On behalf of the staff here and the rest of the interns, it is my pleasure to welcome you all to the second installment of our summer intern lecture series. It will be about mainstream media’s distortion and misrepresentation of the Palestinian issue.
[On] Tuesday, we began our three-part series with a talk by Omar Baddar about the extent of media bias and what it takes to combat it. Today, we are extremely honored to welcome Ms. Noor Wazwaz for a Palestinian journalist’s perspective on reporting on Palestine, as well as an inside look at media bias. The final lecture in the series by Tareq Bacouni will take place next Friday, and will focus specifically on reporting on Gaza and the influence of journalism on the region’s policy making.
Noor Wazwaz is a journalist at the National Public Radio here in D.C. At NPR, she produces radio content for Morning Edition and occasionally directs the program. Her work on the program has covered everything from the 2016 election to the Istanbul airport bombing. In addition to NPR, her writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, Vice News, U.S. News and Report, Military Times and CNN. She holds an M.S. in Journalism with a concentration in multimedia journalism and a national security specialization from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Her reporting has taken her from Guantanamo Bay to Istanbul to Jerusalem and the West Bank. In 2015, she was selected as a recipient of the White House Correspondents Association Scholarship. She is a Chicago native. Noor is a Palestinian-American and will talk about the challenges and learning experiences she has faced as a journalist, when it comes to reporting on topics pertaining to Palestine. Additionally, Noor will share some research she found about media bias when it comes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Noor will be interviewed today by another of our summer interns, Dana Lobad, who is a rising senior at Framingham State University and is majoring in Global Studies. Their conversation will lost 20-40 minutes, after which we will have a short Q&A session. For online audience, you can tweet us your question to @PalestineCenter. So, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to Ms. Noor Wazwaz.
Dana Lobad: Just to start, so we can get a feel for what you are about, could you tell us what inspired you to be a journalist?
Noor Wazwaz: Sure, I would like to start off by thanking you all for coming. I know it was very hard for me to get here because of all the rain. It is really nice to see you all here and I would like to thank all of the interns here for setting this up. Could we please just give them a quick round of applause? It is very impressive what you guys are capable of doing.
So, to answer your question, I grew up with a Palestinian father who was always watching Al-Jazeera. Any Palestinian would know what that is like. When I would sit with him, I never understood why he was so passionate about the news, journalism, or politics. But, the more that I sat with him, I became passionate about it as well and wanted to learn more about history—my history—[and] what was going on in the Middle East, foreign policy, and international news. That was something that always kept with me. Fast forward: I go into high school and join the journalism club, and I knew that I wanted to be a journalist. But my dad was not very supportive; he actually discouraged it because I was Palestinian-Muslim woman. He didn’t think that I would get anywhere with the media. He felt that it was so biased towards Palestinians and Muslims, especially post-9/11.
I decided to go the safe route and go into something in the medicine field. My undergraduate degree is actually psychology and pre-med. During my last semester of school, I decided this was not I wanted to do. It hit almost like a panic attack; I did not what I wanted to do anymore. Somehow, I was always going back to journalism. I took journalism elective credits and I joined the journalism club in college. So that is when I decided that I am going to take a break from school before jumping into any program. After reflecting and seeing myself regret not going into journalism, I decided this is what I am going to do. I applied for the graduate program at Medill and it was honestly the best experience that I had. It was such a learning experience for me. I was able to travel to many different countries and cities and report on topics that I was very passionate about it. This included Jerusalem and the West Bank. I was never the most passionate about Guantanamo Bay, but I got to go there too, which was an eye-opening experience.
Dana Lobad: Thank you. So, you graduated from journalism school and worked as a student reporter while you were at school. Could you talk about how different it is reporting on a college campus versus now at NPR? Could you also talk about how that relates to the Palestinian issue specifically?
N.W: Sure. So, when I started my graduate program in Chicago, it was more just learning the basics of journalism, like ethics and law. I needed to the tools to become a journalist. I was there, in Chicago, for six months. Then I was given the option to do my capstone project in D.C. I was reporting from the newsroom here in D.C and partnered with many different organizations. You listed them earlier, Military Times, U.S. Today, Vice, etc. That gave me the work experience that I needed to be prepared to go to a place like NPR. I was covering the Senate [and] Congress, and had all the credentials I needed. I was reporting side-by-side with other CNN reporters and writers, which made me equipped to be a reporter and editor.
Obviously, there is a difference between being a journalist in the real world versus school. As a student reporter, you are allowed so many mistakes. At a place like NPR, or other news organizations, you are accountable for so many things. Fact-checking is fact-checking and accuracy is accuracy. That is why I chose a place like NPR honestly, because I see how focused they are on seeing that a story is true. We won’t tweet or write anything unless we are 100 percent sure that it is true. I have respect for that. Going to your question about the Palestinian issue, when I was at Northwestern University, the SJP students (Students for Justice in Palestine) were voting for BDS. They wanted to divest from organizations that were profiting from Israeli settlements in the West Bank. I wanted to cover that. I ran into a problem with that, because I had contacted people from the Hillel group and the president of SJP. The president of SJP found it problematic that I wanted to a story that included her and a voice from Hillel; she refused to do the story. Looking back, it was a learning experience for me. I can understand why she didn’t want to be included in the same story, but I was not able to do the story because of that. Thus, both narratives were excluded. But now at NPR, I feel that there are more people that are willing to get on the air and discuss, because they know their voice and message will be getting to millions of people.
D.L: Looking at your past works, you have done several different pieces that fall into many different categories. You have done breaking news, you covered Brexit, [and] you also have narrative stories of personal everyday stories. I was wondering if you could talk about the interplay between each type of those journalism styles.
N.W: Sure. The majority of my work now at Morning Edition is breaking news and daily news. I cover a lot of Trump administration stories. With that being said, it is based on expert opinion. We try to get voices on the ground whenever we can, but sometimes there is context missing because of time constraints. This can be problematic, I found. Then there are pieces I’ve written for places like Huffington Post, op-eds and more opinionated pieces. I think these are crucial as they open up dialogue, whether you agree with them or not. I still will read something in The New York Times op-ed sections, which I will think is crazy, because I think it is important to be open-minded. I don’t have to agree with you to think that your opinion is valuable and I also have respect for you to write something. That goes with freedom of speech. As a journalist, I will not agree with everything you say; but, I will fight for your right to write whatever you want.
D.L: Absolutely. I think that helps with the lack of humanization with the issue. When you talk about personal stories and bring these narratives to life, it helps people to relate to the stories.
N.W: One issue that I wrote about in the Huffington Post, was my experience in grad school. I was doing a group class assignment. We were doing a live video shoot for a PBS affiliate. Long story short, [someone] did not want me to be in it because of my hijab. He said that it was distracting. When I heard that, I was livid. Thankfully, Medill stands beside all its students. They said that they wanted all their students to be treated equally and threatened to cancel their contract. They took a very strong position, which I am thankful for. I wrote about that experience in the Huffington Post as an op-ed, which attracted a lot of attention. We hear about Islamophobia, we hear about the numbers, we hear about the hate crimes, but when you take a personal story and are able to share that, it humanizes it. That is just one example. Another example is how humanization becomes such a number and statistic, that we forget that each person has a story, hopes and dreams. That gets lost with everyday reporting, and that’s why, me not being on the ground, I try to do my best using social media to get those voices and bring them to our air. Those are different ways to humanize those voices.
D.L: Earlier you mentioned that you worked in the West Bank and in Jerusalem, can you talk a little more about that?
N.W: I went there as a student with two of my colleagues. Are you guys familiar with Rasmea Odeh? She is a Palestinian activist in Chicago who was charged with lying on her citizen application form because she did not disclose that she was imprisoned in Israel; she says she was tortured into admitting to a 1967 bombing that killed two Israelis. We were doing an in depth investigation and research about that. We traveled to Jerusalem and into the West Bank and talked to relatives of hers, people that were in prison with her. As it was my first time going there as a journalist it was an eye opening experience because I was not going to eat knafeh, eat ice cream and hangout, [or] smoke hookah with my cousins. I stayed in hotels, which is different, because I had always gone before to visit my family. Staying there and interacting with the people that lived there allowed to hear their stories and their struggles, especially in Ramallah.
I remember that was staying at a hotel and ended up talking to a guy who worked there until like three o’clock in the morning because he was telling about his frustrations: he had a master’s degree in English, and spoke English fluently, as well as French, but had no way to get a career, because the Palestinian Authority had failed him and so had the Israeli Authority, the occupation. For people who are put in these positions, what is left for them to do? What are their options? To go there as a journalist and hear these stories like these really struck me, because I knew there was an occupation, I knew that it was hard for Palestinians but when I hear the stories it’s different. I encourage anyone who has not been there to actually go there and spend time and hear these people’s stories because it really changes you.
Another aspect I experienced was from the first time I walked through a checkpoint, I never knew what that was like. It reminds me of the privilege we have. We complain about getting stuck in traffic for like 30 minutes, but it was a hot summer day, and were standing in line for whenever the Israeli soldier would decide to check our passports and let us walk through. As I was waiting in line I was feeling my privilege kick in, I looked back at the rest of the line and thought, “Oh my God, this is everyday life for them.”
D.L: As a Palestinian journalist, do you find hard, given the dominant narrative in the media, to get your voice out?
N.W: As a journalist, I think it is crucial for journalists not to focus on their own voice. I think it is important to take one’s voice out of the story, even if I am Palestinian, even if I am Muslim, even if I am a woman. Even if these things do affect me in some way, I am the one telling other people’s story, a journalist should not insert themselves into the stories; when that starts to happen it can be problematic. When I see issues such as Islamophobia, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I look for voices to voice those concerns, I won’t tell how I feel about a certain issue, and I won’t tell you how to feel. I will show you the facts and share people’s stories with you, and you decide how to feel.
D.L: I hear a lot about how journalists have a bias, and people say it shows when someone is covering a story, have you experienced this?
N.W: Everyone has a bias, right? We all grew up with different experiences, cultures, religion, gender, [and] we all have unique lived experiences. I think it is important to acknowledge biases. As a journalist you might not always them, but when you work in a newsroom, or have editors, there are different lines of defense that can put you in check who can say things like “Your wording here was not very balanced.” There are people who can check your work. That’s why it is important to have diversity in newsrooms because someone may think they are saying something that is not biased, or they’re missing a crucial perspective, and someone with a different background may say, “Hey, you’re missing a Palestinian voice” on a piece about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I have done that at NPR, honestly. I started there as an intern, I remember they were saying something about “the Third Intifada,” that is what they were calling it, with the increase in violence, stabbings, and all that was going on. I remember us calling them Arab-Israelis. And I was like, “Why are we calling them Arab-Israelis?” I remember fighting with myself internally: “Should I say something? Or should I not?” I thought, “Whatever, I am an intern.” I went to the deputy managing editor and I let him know that I think that it is problematic that we are calling them Arab-Israeli unless that is how they specifically want to be identified, they are Palestinians. If we do story about Egypt we call them Egyptians, we are not calling them Arabs… you get it. He went to New York Times to see what they were reporting, and New York Times were using “Arab-Israelis,” I said, “That’s part of the problem why are we following what other media organizations are doing. We should have our own standards.” To be honest, that did not do much. Fast-forward to a year and a half later, the same thing: I saw in an introduction that a reporter wrote [in which] he called them Arab-Israelis. I went to the Middle East editor and I was like, “Listen.” I felt like I had a little more authority now that I was hired.
Something that I have learned myself is that when you want to open a discussion like this, is to do it in a productive way, put your emotions aside—because once you are emotional and so passionate, then that is your bias—I raised the issue to him and it was a very productive conversation. I told him that basically the same people that live on the other side of the wall are Palestinian. He took my concerns to our senior editor and now we use Palestinian Arabs. A small word change, but it makes a difference because that way you are not diminishing the narrative. It is not a small win because it follows a pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli narrative; it is a win because it is factually correct. And that is journalism, being factually correct and making sure that you have the right context.
D.L: In 2014 NPR finished a study that spanned eleven years of reporting about the bias that might have been presented on the Palestinian-Israeli issue, they found that there was no bias. But, they acknowledged a lack of Palestinian voices reporting for NPR and they found that some of their stories were not complete with the facts. I don’t know in what year you spoke up, but do you think that things have changed since 2014?
N.W: I definitely came after 2014, and I did not know about that study until you flagged it for me. I saw that they claim no systematic bias, but from research that I have seen and read about, and have done, NPR is not much different from a lot of news organizations [that] fall into this category of not much context [being] given. There is not much historical context given when talking about the stories. I can go ahead and talk a little bit more in depth about what research I have seen, but that is something that the mainstream media outlets are missing: giving context, just to give you a short answer.
D.L: What do you think of the coverage in the media of the Gaza crisis, whether in NPR or the media in general?
N.W: I haven’t looked into it thoroughly to give a substantial answer. When you hear about Gaza, you think Hamas, Israel, and rockets going back and forth. However, you lose the humanization of the story, as there are people living there. I think, NPR included, we can do a better job of hearing from voices there. I honestly do not know why we have not. I know when I started as an intern there, one of the stories I pitched and produced was the Palestinian Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF) building the first cancer research center there. That is something that I wanted bring attention. The reason that they need a cancer center there was because Israel was not allowing kids to go to Israel to get treated. And if they were letting them go, it was a very long and tiresome process for someone who is sick. They also did not allow their parents to go with them and so their elderly grandparents were forced to go. So it was just hardship on hardship on hardship to go and get treated. That was something that I wanted to raise awareness about, but I do agree that we could definitely do more.
D.L: The U.S and Israel have a longstanding [alliance], we send [Israel] billions in military aid. What kind of message do you think that sends to journalists in the U.S.?
N.W: What I can tell you is, which is what is missing from context, is the role that U.S. has in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I will also talk about in the research that I found. I think that when we are missing this context, we are not able to accurately tell the full story. The reason that Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been prolonged is because the U.S. has been involved. It has given 100 billion dollars to date in aid, including advanced weaponry, which is not assisting or helping the current situation. I will say, because of the time constraints, on TV news and radio news, there is only so much context that you can give. That is not to say, that I think that accurate and fair reporting is very necessary. This goes back to the American public, if you take and consume a story, go find supplemental information to read about it. Go read other articles, or videos or other resources that will further the story and give you more context.
D.L: It helps to perpetuate the spread fake news, like that fake news epidemic and giving half stories.
N.W: Fake news is very real and very dangerous. If you remember the story from December about the man from North Carolina who drove up to D.C. because he heard this story about the pizza place that was trafficking young girls and run by Hillary Clinton. I am not sure of the details, so don’t quote me on this. But, it was just something so bizarre, because he just saw a fake news story and went with a gun and started to shoot up the place. Luckily no one died or was injured. But, that just shows the danger of fake news and the things we share on social media. I get my news from social media with Twitter and news articles. It goes back to people making sure that the sources are credible. I see people on my Facebook posting really bizarre things and I wonder how they don’t know that it’s fake. But, really, people do not know that there is a checklist of things that you should do. You should make sure that the source is credible. Who are they? Who is being quoted, is it a real person? These are just some things to pay attention to make sure that you are getting real news.
D.L: I think there is a feature on Facebook now that you can report to delete posts for being fake news.
N.W: Social media has definitely had to step up. But, there are so many algorithms they can create, and there are so many other algorithms that people who are creating fake news can make. So, it will still always somehow exist, because there is only so much that you can compete with. That is why you still have to be really careful.
D.L: So, you have been talking about your research, so we are going to let you present that. It will take a few minutes to get the PowerPoint set-up, so just stay tuned.
N.W: As I was saying, I have done a little bit of reading and research about the way mainstream media has been reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I am going to share some of the observations and research that I have found with you.
First, why is it important to have context? The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most familiar conflicts to Americans and one of the longest lasting. As we have mentioned before, U.S. policy has played a major role, especially after 1967. It has changed the conflict ever since in many ways, especially with the 100 billion dollars of American aid given to Israel. The U.S. has engaged militarily and politically in Arab and Muslim world.
It is important that the Americans trust the media to get the news and not any news, but news that is factually correct. It must also have important context about historical and political aspects that have been going on in the region. A pattern I saw was that a lot of reports focus on the empirical to the near exclusion of the contextual. What does that mean? That means that in a lot of news that I saw, news organizations were focusing start and stop diplomacy. For example, “Trump is going to meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu or Abbas” without giving context about why these people are meeting or what led them to meet there. There is a lot of coverage, also, for the cycles of Israeli-Palestinian violence. We see a lot of coverage but are missing context. You will hear that “Palestinians are stabbing Israelis” but no context about there is an occupation go on, the increase settlements, or the annexation of land.
Two of the most repetitive themes that I noticed were missing, was the impact of U.S. policy on the conflict for many years—again… 100 billion dollars in aid including advanced weaponry—and, the political backing of the U.S. in the UN. December was the first time that the U.S. did not veto in favor of Israel in the UN. This was a huge surprise to Israel who was so used to being backed by the U.S. in the UN. It is important to mention the aid given to Palestinians since 1994. So, we see 1.8 billion dollars, plus 3 billion for Palestinian refugees, including the West Bank, Gaza strip, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. So, we can see that there is a disproportionate amount of aid given to Israelis and Palestinians. You cannot compare. Again, this is missing in reporting: the mainstream media does not really share the amount of influence the U.S. has had on this conflict.
Another important factor is just how the U.S. had in 1992 withdrew the recognition of Palestinian’s Right of Return, which did not help with the peace process of course. Under international law, the Palestinians, like every refugee [group], deserve to go back to their homes. I think this one is the most obvious, the U.S. favors Israeli security over the Palestinians, and that is something that is out of context in the news.
Part two of what is missing in reporting is that news rarely acknowledges or explains international law. Under international law, settlements are illegal. Under international law, the occupation in and around Jerusalem is also illegal. Given this, I feel that the mainstream media is hesitant to call it what it is; the context and historical perspective is missing. Another aspect that I have already mentioned, but is important to reiterate, is that under international law Palestinians have a right to return to their homeland. When Palestinians say they want to return to their country, people say “Well, you left,” or “We won the war.” And that’s when international law should be used to acknowledge that while they left they were displaced or fled from the war, and have the right to go back to their homes.
This is something I saw when I went back to the West Bank and Jerusalem. Rasmea Odeh was from Lifta which is a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Lifta was one of the first villages people fled from in 1947-1948 during the Nakbah, or catastrophe. When I went there and saw the houses, I wish I had brought pictures of this, because it is really remarkable, the roofs of the houses were bombed so that they would not come back after the war. People thought, “Maybe after ten years, fifteen years, we will come back.” Unfortunately… that was not the reality. You probably are familiar with the symbolism of Palestinians leaving with their keys. The symbol indicates that Palestinians want to return to their home country, and that is also missing from mainstream reporting.
So, what can be done? One of the things that I saw that can be helpful is to reframe the frame. What does that mean? It means to acknowledge and analyze the impact that U.S. policy has had on this conflict. Not to shy away even when it is the military aid, [or] the UN role of the U.S. I found myself guilty of this too when I first started as a journalist, we rely on, “An Israeli said this, a Palestinian said this,” and we call that fair and balanced. But when we just say, “An Israeli said this, a Palestinian said this,” it is superficial and we don’t get anything out of that really. A better way to go about that is to broaden the parameters, [and] expand the pool of sources. Sometimes people try to avoid talking to activists, and sure, maybe they will not make into the story, but you should still listen to what they say because they might raise important issues and points that, as a journalist, I may not be aware of. They are not just angry, or they might be angry, but they don’t just have one motive, and sometimes you can gain from them.
Another thing is that we, as journalists, should consider [is] the role the audience has. Sometimes, we see that if a story is too pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli, we worry that we are going to be called biased or be attacked. We should focus less on that; we should focus on the criticism that actually has journalistic merit and learn from that. That does not mean that we should ignore our audience, but that we should focus on our core values and principles and report something that we believe provides context, provides accuracy, [and] provides balance rather than [asking], “How will our audience perceive this?” If we worry only about what the audience is going to say, then that is ultimately the definition of being biased. I cannot worry about what the audience is going to say, or that someone is going to attack me on Twitter or something.
The fourth thing I will say is, “Rethink the concept of journalistic objectivity.” Obviously, focus on fairness, accuracy, and contextual depth. I think that we should take a more critical approach with telling the news. Again, not just focusing on the day to day events, because while we might not hear that a Palestinian stabbed an Israeli, or that an Israeli shot a Palestinian, day to day there is still other stuff going on, and we should not only pay attention to this particular region just when there is war or catastrophe. Like with Gaza, we would go months hearing about the war, the rockets going back and forth, [and] Palestinians being used as human shields by Hamas. And then after the war is done? I can’t remember the last time I heard a story about Gaza in the mainstream media, like breaking news on CNN. There is still a lot going on there, like the issue with electricity, poverty, hunger issues, and so on. That is missing because we do not follow up, I don’t want to see we don’t care, but these issues are not as sexy and appealing than when something is actually happening like a war.
Last but not least… [is] the news consuming public. You guys have a role to play. When you see something that is factually incorrect, truly factually incorrect, it is your responsibility to write to these organizations, tweet at them. Not tweet at them angrily, like, “You are biased!” like trolls, but to do it in more productive ways. So you are able to have constructive feedback and conversation. For example, one recent issue or event I remember is about Ayman Mohyeldin, when he was pulled out of Gaza people stormed twitter. That put a lot of pressure on MSNBC, and he was ultimately put back. The public does have a role: a role to fact check the news that you get. Also, do not rely only on one news source. There are multiple news sources you should turn to, so you can get multiple dimensions, and be equipped to know what is actually going on in the region. So you can see more than Israeli versus Palestinian… so you can have background, and have done your homework.
D.L: I like what you said about the public having a role, because I think that part of why the media is biased is because we have a government that is biased and has a narrative they want to show. And, I feel like the media reflects what our government is putting out there. I feel like if people speak up and say something, it could change that. I was wondering, do you have any advice for Palestinians that are trying to become journalists, or anyone who has a voice?
N.W: I would give this advice to minority groups, people of color especially: go into this field because your voice is crucial and needed. I work at a newsroom that has a lot of white people, which is great, but we do need more diversity because voices like mine are the ones that are raising issues that the everyday white person is not seeing. I am not trying to offend anyone here. But, diversity is about more than just bias in our stories, but a more critical approach; diversity in our sources, diversity in our storytelling.
At one point I was discouraged from going into this field. If we want to take control of our narrative, we need to go into the arts, music, books, publishing, movies, [and] journalism. If we are sick and tired of white people constructing our narratives, then we need to take the steps forward and move into these fields. If you are going into something like journalism, it is not as glamorous as some people make it out to be. It takes a lot of work. I worked the overnight shift today. I just got off work at eight in the morning and now I am here. It is not glamorous at all; you have to put in a lot of work. If you are doing it to get famous and gain popularity, then you are in the wrong field. Realize that you are not the story, the people around you are the story.
One thing I would like to distinguish is that you are not giving voice… everyone has a voice. You are giving them a platform so that their voice can be heard. Some people are silenced because they are oppressed. I am not a fan of that quote I see on people’s bios, “I want to give a voice to the voiceless.” No one is voiceless. Another thing I want to say is speak up, when you are in a newsroom, and you are the only one who looks different, and you have a critical perspective. It can be intimidating, but that is your job. The public trusts you to be that person who share their diverse opinion and pitch those stories that no one wants to pitch, [or] write that story that no one wants to write. Lastly, I would say really read and educate yourselves because you have to not only keep up with the daily breaking news, but you have to stay equipped to make sure you have the right context. I keep going to context because that is what is so crucial in telling the news. It is not the everyday news, it is the historical, and the political underpinnings that are in these stories.
D.L: Before we take questions from the audience, do you have any upcoming projects we should keep an eye out for?
N.W: So, currently, I am producing the “Up-First” podcast at NPR, which you all should subscribe and download. I am actually working on a passion project. I am very interested in my culture, who I am and the Arab world. One thing I noticed is that whenever we talk about the Middle East or the Arab world in general, we are always thinking of war, destruction, and oppression—just very negative things. There is actually a lot of rich gems that I am learning about. I am basically working on a project that allows me to look into the Arab culture and at the different contributions that are present within our history.