Journalism Credentials: How Identity Can Influence Coverage

For reporters, where you’re from and where you’re stationed are often big factors

Journalism Credentials: How Identity Can Influence Coverage
News camera filming the war in Syria / Getty Images

This piece was originally published in New Lines Magazine’s Just Landed newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

My name is Asser Khattab. Last November, I wrote a personal essay for New Lines magazine titled “Why I Stopped Writing About Syria,” which ignited a critical conversation among media professionals that far exceeded my expectations. Indeed, the essay received more engagement than everything I had written before it, combined.

The first-person account addressed a period in my life from the years 2016 to 2020, when I first worked as a journalist in Syria, then fled to Lebanon. There, I spent three years struggling as an undocumented displaced person before I finally received political asylum in France, where I currently live.

In sharing my story, I aimed to understand the reason I reached a point in my career where I felt I could no longer report on the war in Syria, despite its being the thing I knew how to do best.

At first I hesitated to write such a personal piece, especially after years of separating the personal from the professional, as news reporting requires one to do. But given the overwhelming response that it received and the issues it highlighted, I am glad that I wrote it. Almost everyone who engaged with my story singled out one particular theme: the plight of local journalists who work in the field for international media outlets, and the underreported challenges and discrimination that they often face.

Hundreds of colleagues took to social media and commented on the story. Foreign correspondents shared it with their editors and demanded change. University lecturers discussed it in their classrooms. And, perhaps most important, local journalists in far-flung places identified with my experience and felt heard.

In view of this wide response, and in order to keep this important conversation alive, New Lines and I are starting a newsletter about the media and how our profession can hold itself to a higher standard, not just in the way we treat reporters but in how we cover stories.

So, what was all that about?

The role of international media outlets today goes above and beyond covering the world for news consumers back in the homeland.

Indeed, to learn about what is going on in Beirut someone in Hong Kong may read an investigative report published in a U.S.-based newspaper. To understand the situation at the Russian-Ukrainian border a student in Libya may tune into a special dispatch aired by a British newscaster. And when it comes to countries that are hostile to the press like Egypt or Syria, many people inside will look to international media outlets to learn about local news.

This reality undermines one of the main justifications that I have continually heard for why foreign correspondents should perceive the stories they encounter abroad through the gaze of their country folk “back home.”

Don’t get me wrong. I think that the fresh, sometimes less biased outsider’s perspective brings immense value to the conversation. There are also beneficial privileges — such as extra layers of protection — inherent for a journalist carrying a passport from, say, the U.S., the U.K. or a European country, while local reporters must often keep their byline hidden for personal safety.

I am not arguing that all those who cover a country or a region should be of it. I am only raising a question about this media practice: Why, for example, is it acceptable for an American staff journalist with (often) limited linguistic and cultural orientation to land the big assignment in, say, Tunisia, when the local Tunisian “news assistant” or “fixer” who is heavily relied upon could never dream of doing anything but assist in the Tunisia bureau?

I was in fact asked by someone who covered many countries on different continents (none of which was their own country or spoke a language that they were proficient in) why I could possibly want to cover anywhere other than Syria when I come from there and therefore know it better than many who don’t. It should be a valid question, except that the same standards do not apply to many others who work in international media.

It’s hard for everyone

Becoming a foreign correspondent is the dream of many journalists. I harbored that dream for years. It is also not an easy job to get.

This observation was reiterated to me in good faith, in the aftermath of the essay’s publication. Some colleagues might have perceived that my essay was the sour grapes of a disgruntled news assistant who never made it as correspondent and gave up trying after a few years of work. They insisted that I should have continued to strive with eyes on the prize until I reached my goal, instead of holding a grudge and complaining publicly.

I disagree with this. I never said that news assistants don’t get to be correspondents. Some do. I also never intended to say that I was not made a correspondent when I thought I should have been. I actually still don’t know whether or not I’m ready to be a correspondent, or even if I still want to, but that’s a different story.

I was only saying that, while everyone has to pay their dues, some people make it without the qualification. They move toward a clear path to their professional goals from an early stage in their career, and they usually come from the “right” country and educational background, while others find themselves stuck in limbo, not even sure whether their employers consider them to be “real” journalists no matter how skilled and experienced they may be.

This inequity is not simply about country of origin or race but about privilege and elitism, an issue with which even journalism in the U.S. must contend as American media outlets are staffed by middle- and upper middle-class graduates of elite schools. And it is true that many journalists who work for international media hail from Arab or “brown” countries and that they hold high editorial positions that are well deserved. But most of those, too, hold Western passports and attended well-heeled schools.

What we are going to do about this

This newsletter will attempt to answer some of the questions that have come out of my essay. It will also address ongoing issues in media in the Arabic-speaking world, both locally and pertaining to international outlets that are based or report from there.

Last but not least, the newsletter will offer commentary and analysis of media coverage of events, individuals and places.

There are often passing remarks about how a person is being covered in the media, like when the New York Times described the Iraqi prime minister as a Western-style leader for showing up on time to appointments and carrying hand sanitizer around. We also see ephemeral discussions on how a certain story is being looked at by the media and what angles thereof are being left out. Inequality in journalism and what is essential for a foreign correspondent to have in their quiver are issues that are not brought up nearly enough apart from conversations within journalist circles. We plan to address as many as possible of those points individually and in depth. There is a gap in the debate about the media scene and we will strive to contribute to filling it.

If you have any tips or experiences that you would like to share with us please write to us at [email protected]

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