In Depth

Arab American Journalists Get the Floor

Unity Panel to Discuss the Unique Hurdles for Middle Easterners

“After Sept. 11, people told me I could write my own ticket,” Arab American reporter and AAJA member Natasha Ghoneim said, “but in my career, being an Egyptian has never helped me.

“So many broadcasters think, ‘We need a certain cast of characters’ that are supposed to be indicative of our community. But because of the political climate—or maybe because of our inability to navigate the political waters—we don’t have much of a voice.”

Ms. Ghoneim will take part in the panel “From Iraq to Iowa: Covering Arab Americans—How to Get It Right on Deadline,” scheduled for Friday at the Unity ’08 Conference. Sponsored by the Asian American Journalists Association, the panel aims to raise awareness for reporters who cover Arab American issues.

In addition to Ms. Ghoneim, the panel will showcase reporter Tammy Audi of the Wall Street Journal’s Los Angeles bureau; Jeffrey Ghannam, an attorney and former reporter at the Detroit Free Press; Lara Setrakian, digital reporter in ABC News’ Dubai bureau; freelance journalist Sally Farhat Kassab (In Style, Parents, Natural Health); and reporter Tamer El-Ghobashy of the New York Daily News.

One goal of the panel is to give journalists insight into researching information about the Arab American community. Panelists also will address ways to find Arab American experts, improve accuracy in reporting and even attract a broader audience.

Finding an audience has always been a problem for Arab American journalists, Ms. Ghoneim said, because they also face biases from employers who feel they can only cover certain issues. “In Chicago,” she said, “a news director told my agent, ‘We don’t have many Middle Eastern people in Chicago, so we don’t need a Middle Eastern reporter.’ My agent said, ‘What about just needing a good reporter?’”

Ms. Ghoneim, who was born in the U.S., also holds Egyptian citizenship. She previously worked at the NBC affiliate WDIV-TV in Detroit, the city with the largest population of Arab Americans in the country.

Ms. Ghoneim said she felt “lucky to be there,” even though she found she had to “face some problems with colleagues” who felt she had been hired simply because she was of Middle Eastern descent. After a period of proving herself as a reporter, that burden eased somewhat—only to be replaced with another problem, this time from the very community she tried to serve.

“Culturally,” she said, “[television journalism] is not considered an appropriate profession for a woman to go into. My father will pay, right now, for me to go to law school instead.

“There are so many misconceptions about who Arab Americans are in this country. The onus is on journalists to dig below the surface. When I talk to American Arabs and people at Muslim organizations, they are very dissatisfied with how they’re portrayed in the media.”

Ms. Ghoneim said she believes both the media and the Arab American community could be better served if they took time to work with each other.

For members of the community, she said, “Part of the responsibility is to engage with the media, if they want to see better coverage.” And for journalists, she suggests “reaching out before you need someone on deadline—and not just going back to the same sources.”

Many of the sources journalists use again and again “tend to be Muslim men,” she said, noting that the idea of Muslim women in this country not being interested in talking to the press is part of a “barrage of stereotypes” that face Arab Americans.

There are several organizations, she pointed out, such as the Muslim Public Affairs Council, that will work with the entertainment and communications industries in an effort to ensure Arab Americans are accurately portrayed in film and television.

And although Arab Americans made headlines on Sept.11, Ms. Ghoneim said the feeling among many Americans that “all Arabs are terrorists” is not a new problem. “It’s a longstanding feeling about the Arab American community dating back to the ’70s. It was hijackers then,” she said. “But after Sept. 11, there are more hate crimes and many more reports of people being harassed.

“One of the things to understand about Arab American communities,” she said, “is that not all Arab Americans are Muslims. And not all Muslims feel it’s necessary to wear an abaya to be good. There are Arab Jews. There are even Arabs who have blond hair and green eyes.”