Misrepresenting the Middle East

By Irina Fomichev

Lately there’s been a lot of news about the civil war in Syria. Hundreds of civilians are killed on a daily basis, and strong evidence suggests the use of chemical weapons. There have been many discussions on whether we should get involved and, most importantly, how. But do we know what exactly is going on in Syria? Can we trust what the news tells us? Joris Luyendijk, author of People Like Us: Misrepresenting the Middle East, says we can’t.

Luyendijk, who worked as a correspondent in the Middle East for 5 years, discusses the complicated issues in the Middle East. More importantly, he explains how the news influences our view of the Middle East and how the news is created. What he immediately found out when he started was how little influence he had on the news.

The news is governed by press agencies. They are the ones who decide what will be covered in broadcasts. They contact the news agencies in a specific country who get in touch with correspondents. Then, they have to write an article or film a news segment on the subject.

Another thing we should keep in mind, according to Luyendijk, is that news deviates from daily life. But because we in the West do not know what daily life is like in the Middle East, we assume that everything we hear and see on the news is a fair representation.

A big problem Luyendijk stumbled upon was that it is next to impossible to represent the conflicts in a right manner. Most countries in the Middle East are dictatorships, meaning that they are ruled by fear and censorship. It is very hard to find out the truth when people are afraid to speak up. Even if they do speak up, they are often only willing to do so off the record.

The dictators want to keep their power, and the news is the perfect marketing tool to achieve this goal. In the conflict between Israel and Palestine it becomes evident how big a role the news plays. As an Israeli director of information says: “It’s not about what happened, it’s about how CNN shows it.” Whichever country portrays itself as the underdog most successfully, will win the sympathy of the West. Israel has the advantage that the Holocaust is still fresh in the Western minds, whereas for example the crusades that victimized the Palestinians are not.

Then there is also the problem of impartiality. The job of news stations is to simply represent the facts. But is there a correct way of doing it? When you refer to Israel you can also call it the Zionist entity or occupied Palestine. If the military takes action, do you call it an invasion or a preventive attack? By choosing either one of these labels you are already taking sides. The same problem occurs on television. You can zoom in on a group of people demonstrating, making it seem as if a huge protest is going on, while in reality it’s not.

News is not always a completely trustworthy source of information, especially when looking at the Middle East. It’s also important to realize that our western mentality is totally different than in the Middle East. This makes it impossible to look at the Middle East objectively. If you’re interested in the many more problematic issues of news reporting, then it is definitely worthwhile reading Luyendijk’s book. As the author himself says: “Were the cameras here because something happened, or did something happen because there were cameras present?”

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