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American Media and the Arab World: Then to Now

posted on: Sep 17, 2020

American Media and the Arab World: Then to Now
Jafar from Aladdin is one of many examples of  the stereotypical “evil” Arab

By: Noah Robertson/Arab America Contributing Writer

Western media and the Arab world, what a story! For years, there has been a lot of criticism about the media’s coverage of the Arab world and its people. Just like other racial, religious, and ethnic groups in the past, Western media portrayed the Arab world as a breeding ground for terrorists, rich and evil businessmen, and hatred for the U.S. These stereotypes were especially bad in entertainment. Still, journalists reporting on the Arab world also affirmed these stereotypes and only focused on conflict and violence in the region. Media coverage of Arabs and the Arab world has evolved after sustained pressure, but it still has a lot of work to do in order to accurately portray and discuss the people and culture of the Arab world.

American Media Coverage of the Arab World in the Past

There are so many examples of stereotyping and inaccuracies about the Arab world one could fill a book. Still, we will just look at a summary to contextualize the current situation and what has changed.

For a long time in Hollywood productions, there were no “good” or “normal” Arabs in movies or TV shows, and the Arab world was seen as a faraway desert breeding these evildoers and their hate for America. Not only were most Arabs cast as evil, but they portrayed many as sub-human, stupid, barbaric, magical, and always foiled by the victorious American. Along with Arabs, Islam was targeted as an evil religion bent on spreading hate and violence, with the turban or a Muslim washing their hands before prayer, the symbol of impending violence.

American Media and the Arab World: Then to Now
Writer Jack Shaheen wrote and spoke up a lot on the negative portrayals of Arabs in Hollywood

Instead of accurately reporting information, the news media played along with these stereotypes and gave them an even larger voice. Journalists simply wrote about the events playing into stereotypes because that is what sold.

Changes Post-9/11

Leading up to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there were some movements to ensure Arabs and Muslims were not unfairly stereotyped in the media, but not much had really changed. Following 9/11, there were two trends, one was a major rise in hate crimes, but the other was actually a trend towards positive portrayals of Arabs.

American Media and the Arab World: Then to Now
News media tried to use images such as these to offset the “bad” Arabs they portrayed                                                                                                      In both entertainment and news media, there was a sense of importance in distinguishing between “good” and “bad” Arabs. When movies or TV included a “bad” Arab, they would have a “good” Arab who was helpful and patriotic. Journalists also tried to highlight that not all Arabs were terrorists and interview Arab Americans and American Muslims to get their perspectives. Despite this, the media did not really change their use of stereotypes but instead tried to negate the stereotyping by providing some positive coverage of Arabs and Muslims. A 2002 study from Columbia University found that in the six months post-9/11, four major news sources published 11x as many stories about Muslim or Arab Americans than the six months before. This meant that even with positive coverage Arabs were still associated with terrorism even if in a “helpful” context and other stereotypes were still widely used.

The Positive Changes in Media Coverage of the Arab World

In recent years, the media has attempted to correct their past mistakes and accurately portray Arabs and the Arab world. This had led to more casting of Arab actors for Arab roles, an increase in sensitivity to the accuracy of depictions of the Arab world, and a general attempt to not group all Arabs. There have also been shows just about Arab Americans like the popular new Hulu show Ramy portraying an Egyptian American. This is an improvement.

American Media and the Arab World: Then to Now
Hulu’s new hit  TV show Ramy featuring an Egyptian American

Recently, there have been major changes in the acknowledgment of the bias and lack of consideration given to coverage of the Arab world. Indeed, there have been numerous articles acknowledging the journalistic faults in covering the Arab world, for example. Not only do the articles acknowledge a lack of proper coverage, but there is a general understanding that coverage has been easily biased and that reporting on the Arab world is not as simple as many have tried to make it.

There has also been an effort to include more local stories and perspectives to broaden an understanding of the Arab world and get local input on the news. A growing number of newsrooms have worked to report the full story on situations like Yemen, regional political changes, and generally provide less American-centric content. These changes are important, but there is still work to do to correct years of misreporting.

What Has Not Changed

There has been an improvement in the perpetuation of stereotypes in the media, though it only goes so far. Dialogue in entertainment media often makes all Arabic speakers sound the same, villains often have stronger accents, and Arabs are rarely used outside of their stereotypical roles. Along with this, in some productions, Arab characters are still not played by Arab leads. In fact, producer Ridley Scott said, “say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such. I’m just not going to get it financed.”

As mentioned, journalists have acknowledged many biases and a lack of details in many news stories, but acknowledgment has not led to a lot of change. Simply the fact that journalists still use the term “Middle East” and not “Arab world” is an issue. A recent example of work to still be done is President Trump’s recent plan for Palestine-Israel relations. In the news, this plan was called “peace plan” and “deal of the century,” but without the quotes. The lack of quotes made it, so that many did not understand the true nature of the proposal, it really was not a peace plan, and the reporting only sometimes covered actual details of the plan. Generally, on TV, news experts are brought in, but when reporting on the Arab world, these “experts” are rarely Arab or have been to the region. This type of journalism without diving into important details, getting more knowledgeable perspectives, or even reporting more on events in the Arab world is simply wrong and does not often happen with any other area of the world.

American Media and the Arab World: Then to Now
Comparative Media Coverage by Percentage (from the Middle East Institute)

Looking Forward

With the anti-racism protests throughout the U.S., we are seeing that change can happen, and problems can be acknowledged. Change has started with improvements in the media’s portrayal of Arabs and the Arab world, but it is gradual. Hopefully, these anti-racism protests will catalyze overall change because everyone deserves accurate portrayals, unbiased and equal coverage, and general respect for differences in cultures, ethnicities, and history.

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