Q&A: Sana Saeed and Abdallah Fayyad on U.S. media coverage of Palestine

Over 500 staff writers, freelancers, and former reporters have now signed a letter titled: “An open letter on U.S. media coverage of Palestine.”

I am one of those journalists. As is Sana Saeed, a host and Senior Producer at AJ+, and Abdallah Fayyad, an opinion writer and Editorial Board member at The Boston Globe.

The letter is short. It asks, in part, why U.S. media feels so uncomfortable using the language of human rights when it comes to the treatment of Palestinians. It’s an apt question: Why is the language of Human Rights Watch, for example, often deployed to discuss atrocities around the globe, but then roundly ignored by many U.S. media institutions when it comes to Palestine?

The letter makes use of what we believe are the core values of journalism and asks why many currently fail to uphold them. The letter reads in part: “We are calling on journalists to tell the full, contextualized truth without fear or favor, to recognize that obfuscating Israel’s oppression of Palestinians fails this industry’s own objectivity standards.”

I talked to Saeed and Fayyad about the letter, what the media response to the letter has been, and what the journalism profession needs to do to move forward.

The conversation is edited for length and clarity.

Gabe Schneider: Can you talk a little bit about the letter and why you signed it?

Sana Saeed: I think it was one of the most important things to come out of a collection of journalists in a very long time. I think that seeing a statement that explicitly called out a very glaring hypocrisy within our industry was important to support. Not just like, “Hey, the statement’s out there. It’s so cool to see,” but to sign the statement itself. And that’s why I signed it. I started off doing media critique before I decided to actually become a journalist.

And that’s what I’ve been doing. Prior to signing the statement, I’d also put out a video through AJ+ critiquing the way in which the American mainstream media does talk about the language that we use in discussing the occupation, the system of apartheid, the ethnic cleansing as well, and how important language is. And how we do have a double standard when it comes to the occupation and apartheid. So for me, there was no hesitation in wanting to sign this letter because it was a journalistic duty as far as I’m concerned.

Abdallah Fayyad: I agree that it was a journalistic duty. I think, as a Palestinian … I grew up in the Middle East. I grew up in Jerusalem. Even from there, the U.S. media bias was always very clear. So this is not just from frustration, that is from this news cycle, but it’s frustration that Palestinians have felt, journalists or otherwise, for decades. Of enormous blind spots in the U.S. media and/or a lack of willingness to tell the full truth and give the full context of the Palestinian struggle. And so the reason I signed the letter is that I believe in journalism. I believe that journalism is about comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. I think journalism is about telling truth and giving readers as much context as possible and educating them. So that readers come out of stories knowing something better.

I think that U.S. media has consistently failed on this issue in particular, in giving their readers the full context that they need to learn. And also have consistently failed in holding the powerful to account when it comes to this struggle in particular. So I think, as Sana said, this is an extraordinarily important letter. And thanks again for covering it. I think the lack of coverage of this letter in the mainstream press outside of Fox News also kind of proves its point. Despite the fact that it has this massive assortment of journalists, from people across newsroom ranks and from newsrooms across the country like The Washington PostThe New York TimesThe LA Times, et cetera, et cetera. So that’s ultimately why I signed this.

It’s enough of just seeing the dehumanization of Palestinians in our major papers. We’ve had enough of seeing this journalistic malpractice go unreckoned with in newsrooms. And then I just want people in this industry and this industry just as a whole to do a better job and to do the journalism that we all signed up for. And I want to see that on this issue as well.

Sana Saeed: Oftentimes when it comes to this particular issue, when you’re in a newsroom—and I realize I have a certain luxury of being in the particular newsroom that I’m in—it can feel like shouting in the dark when you are trying to get a point across about a community’s humanity. Hundreds of journalists across newsrooms have now signed onto this letter. And I think that it’s very important for a lot of journalists, especially those who are younger to know that they’re not alone. That there are others. Many journalists who are, as Abdallah said, in various ranks. Some are senior, some are people who we may read on a daily basis or we see them on a weekly basis on our screens who are. They are in agreement. And I think it’s important for journalists to see that this is not something that’s fringe, but something that is actually there.

I know there are so many more journalists who, for various reasons—perhaps contractual reasons, worries about job security, hostilities that they may have faced at work—didn’t sign the letter, but they absolutely do support it. And so I think that public acknowledgment of that you are not alone believing that this is our journalistic duty, that this is just basic journalism, and it should not be controversial. I think that in and of itself is also an important reason to sign this letter.

Gabe Schneider: I’ve been annoyed by the lack of media coverage. I helped coordinate the response to the Harper’s letter, and I think we had a good amount of media coverage there. And it’s incredibly annoying to me to see the lack of response from major outlets. The question that I do have though is: I’m intrigued by this idea of double standards because, if you read that Wesley Lowery op-ed a year now ago, you can see the same problem applies here. Even in the context of trying to meet what many institutions and journalists call objectivity, these folks fail in setting a fair standard. And I wonder if you could speak to this idea that’s presented in the letter? How, even if you’re just operating under the framework of objectivity, a lot of these newsrooms fail the spirit of that test. They don’t use active voice, they’re using passive voice. They don’t use the same language. And I wonder if you can speak to that?

Sana Saeed: You give one of the best examples, which is that all of a sudden, Palestinians aren’t killed, they die by Israeli airstrikes, right? And in the same sentence where you’ll see that Israelis are killed. Israelis are killed, Palestinians die, right? It always makes me think about the way in which we do cover, for instance, the horrific situation with Uyghurs in China, right? There is no kind of “justification” which is given to the treatment of Uyghurs in China. Very rarely will you see in articles that discussion of, for instance, the separatist movement that exists there, right? When we’re actually talking about what is the situation of Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, what is happening in these camps, questioning of all that. You don’t see the mentioning of, “Well, there’s a separatist movement, the violence that comes with it,” so on and so forth. I think the way in which coverage of various communities ends up aligning also with like American foreign policy is not something we question enough, especially when it comes to international affairs. That is a double standard that very much so shows up in coverage of Israeli atrocities and the system of apartheid.

So I think that’s one of the best ways to even look at the double standard is: How are we telling this story versus other stories that are similar? Of people who are suffering and struggling against state repression and violence. What is the kind of language we’re using? And not just simply active voice versus passive voice, but even the context that we’re offering, right? If you’re talking about Gaza without mentioning the fact that people even refer to it as an open-air prison, what does that mean? Why aren’t we talking about the fact that it’s a small strip of land that has no actual border? A lot of people don’t even know that Gaza doesn’t exactly have an official border where it ends and begins. That people can’t get in or out. The fact that materials for reconstruction or even medicine or food can’t come easily in and out of Gaza as well. The fact that we are consistently equivocating Israel and Hamas. If we’re not offering this context to what’s happening, I think that is a massive journalistic disservice, as we say, in the letter, right? It’s a massive disservice to our readers or to our viewers. But it’s a bigger disservice to Palestinians themselves. It’s the way in which we completely erase 70 plus years of context.

Abdallah Fayyad: I completely agree. I think every person in America ought to be alarmed by this as a case study in media, in that a lot of our coverage of foreign affairs tends to look at it from our own government’s angle. And all of a sudden our skepticism of people in power is dropped in certain situations around the world. First and foremost what we’re supposed to do is we’re supposed to be skeptical of our own government and people in positions of power in order to hold them accountable and make sure that they’re doing their job right.

So personally, I find that incredibly alarming when you see U.S. government talking points or language used by U.S media. That’s not what you should expect from a completely free press. That’s not what you should expect from a well-functioning press that holds its own government accountable. And we do see it happen in other contexts as well. A very good example of this is how in media and crime reporting, up until recently and still today, in many papers and media outlets, but maybe less so now, a lot of reporters took police reports at their word. And that’s not how we should operate. And that’s also not how we should operate when we interrogate the State Department or our U.S. foreign policy. I find that alarming and I think this is why, with this issue in particular, journalists should care and learn from it, so it can inform better journalism when we’re covering other issues around the world as well.

Sana Saeed: As it’s also mentioned in the letter, there’s also who is platformed. You could not open, for instance, CNN, and not see the Israeli Ambassador to the United States or an IDF representative taken at their word. That kind of skepticism that Abdallah mentioned not only does not apply to U.S. government officials but also often does not apply to officials from U.S. allies. Recently, whatever Israeli officials were saying was really being taken at its word: with the greatest example, being the way that the Israeli military really played the U.S. Media into thinking there’s going to be a ground invasion. Which was a really brilliant military tactic. But no one kind of was like, “Wait a second. Are we being played in any way?” Nobody said: “Why is this IDF spokesperson telling us about their military plans, right?” And that lack of kind of skepticism and questioning which should be innate to any journalist, to any editor, to any executive producer, ceases to exist when it comes to the Israeli occupation and the Israeli military.

Gabe Schneider: When it comes to this authority bias that you both are speaking to, I wonder—and this doesn’t have to be a specific person—who or what do you see as an obstacle for changing journalism? What has to shift in order to change the way things are?

Abdallah Fayyad: I don’t think it’s any individual person who causes these problems, but it’s kind of this groupthink that happens in newsrooms. And that’s why people, when covering any issue, have to ask themselves the core questions of why they’re writing the piece: why they’re journalists and what they’re supposed to be doing. They have to ask themselves and continuously interrogate their reporting, you know? “Am I reporting something new?” or “Am I contextualizing this enough for my readers?” or “Are my readers going to come out of this story more educated on this topic than they were before?”

I don’t think there’s yet an individual person responsible for this, but it’s a matter of entrenched preference for the status quo because it’s seen as apolitical. It’s, it’s the responsibility of the reporters to push back on editors, it’s the responsibility of editors to push back on reporters if they’re not doing enough, and ultimately it’s the responsibility of newsroom management to ensure that these conversations are happening in the workplace and to really reckon with what is political and what is not. There is such a comfort in the old guard, in particular, to just adopt the status quo as something that’s acceptable, to say that’s somehow apolitical, but anything outside the status quo is all of a sudden political or whatever.

So I think they have to drop that pretense and really reckon with what it means to be objective, as you were talking about earlier and what Wesley Lowery has been talking about a lot in a very productive way, I believe.

One thing that I always find weird with journalists is their comfort in celebrating America. And being so open about their patriotism, especially now when we’re seeing like, coverage of Biden abroad. And I’m not, I’m not talking about this in their stories, I’m just talking about, what a lot of, like, you know, old guard, journalists feel comfortable saying on social media. Why is it not political to celebrate America? Of course it is. Of course it’s political to show unconditional pride in your own country. I think that you should be interrogating as well. So I think we need to move away from this idea that “Oh, you know, if we adopt certain language, that’s taking a position.” You’re already taking these positions and you have to understand that you’re contributing to the continuation of the status quo.

Sana Saeed: Someone I know who is an editorial manager at a major news outlet went to their copy editor and their head, their lead copy editor, and said, “Let’s sit down and talk about how can we make our coverage better through our language, because there’s a lot of other things we need to change too, but let’s start with our language and the words that we’re using to describe certain things.” And they sat down and went word by word, went through all their coverage, and said, “Let’s look at how we talk when we talk about the occupation. Do we use Palestine? Do we use occupied Palestinian Territories?” Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Right. I really just liked that because it is very proactive in at least approaching that conversation.

Abdallah Fayyad: There’s also another element to this, which is outside influence. There are a lot of coordinated campaigns when there’s “negative” coverage of Israel, which is often just really fair coverage of the situation. And oftentimes when even just using basic terms that are universally acknowledged by serious people, certain campaigns and groups flood a newspaper or a reporter or an editor with letters, emails in their inbox. I’ve seen it happen multiple times with stuff that I’ve written and it really is overwhelming.

And so for me, it’s something that I’ve experienced, so I can expect it to happen when I write something, but I can imagine, less so for editors or writers who are just reporting on this for the first time. And then they see that kind of response from these vague groups, with names like “Something for Peace.” They don’t sound like propaganda machines. But they get this flood of this stuff about subscription cancellations and about how terrible of a news organization is and they can get overwhelmed. So one thing that managers have to do is not be afraid of hate mail. You know, obviously, journalists, shouldn’t be afraid of this kind of stuff, but it can get overwhelming. Even if it makes people uncomfortable, we’re not supposed to just placate our readers or whoever it is reading the story. You have to stand by it.

Gabe Schneider: Let me ask one more question. I think you touched on this earlier, but what do you say to younger journalists who are afraid about moving into this space? Of going into newsrooms like the AP or The Washington Post or I? Where should they go? How should they proceed? What should they do?

Abdallah Fayyad: It’s hard to answer because this is our institutional problem. It drives people away. And the reality is a lot of young journalists don’t see it as a space for them. I’m talking here specifically about Palestinian journalists.

They don’t see a space for themselves in a lot of legacy publications or mainstream publications, because they feel like they can’t report on this in particular because there’ll be seen as biased, and it kind of hinders their ability to cover this. And so they’ll move to either some other industry or more niche publications. And that’s something that media outlets themselves should reckon with. They’re losing a lot of talent by driving away people who just want to do real journalism and good journalism that would serve their paper well. And they’re losing out on having people with lived experience inform their coverage better.

But what I would say to like the young journalists who do feel that way—you know, I’m relatively young still and I have my doubts about having a sustainable career in this industry as any journalist does from wherever they are because it’s a very unstable industry—but in the end, we have to continue to cover this. And I think our lived experience matters and our presence in these newsrooms matters as well. I’ve personally had the experience of improving coverage on a couple of stories just by virtue of being there. It may have not fixed the whole problem, but we need small steps and small steps and eventually break the barrier.

Sana Saeed: I actually get asked this question a lot by journalism students or people who are considering going into journalism, people going to J-school, and I never like to offer false hope or anything of that sort based on my own personal experience. I occupy a particular position where I’m allowed to be a bit more… What’s the term that everyone loves? “Voicey.” So I am kind of afforded that privilege, but I also know because I’ve experienced it directly, is that by doing so at some point, that there is that glass ceiling. Perhaps I’ve already hit it.

And I know that because I have interviewed and an interviewer who’s a senior editor or manager will randomly bring up: “So let’s talk about your position on Israel.” It’s happened to me. And it’s shocking because you’ll be talking about something unrelated and then the question comes out of left field. And it’s not an interrogation of how would I cover this editorially. It’s an interrogation of why do I believe this. So it’s more of a personal versus an editorial interrogation. So if you are someone who covers Palestine in a way that does not align itself with how the industry covers it, or if you even have a past in Palestinian solidarity advocacy, it can impact you.

I mean, we just saw that with Emily Wilder, with her time advocating with Students for Justice Palestine. And how that is then weaponized against you especially when you’re young. So it’s not an easy path. But then I think the question to always ask is: why are we doing this? Why do we want to be journalists? It’s certainly not for the paychecks, right? We don’t do this for the money. We don’t do it for the glamour. We get into this industry because we’re trying to tell stories that either are not being told, not being heard, or tell stories in the way that they should be told. I think that’s really important for young journalists to keep in mind. You do have absolutely every legitimate reason to be worried about this.

It may be false hope on my part, but I do feel that there are some changing attitudes that are emerging. I don’t know if they’re going to emerge in the newsrooms themselves, but they do seem to be emerging amongst certain journalists that’s for sure. And I think that’s a really important place to start. And so I don’t want to give any young journalists false hope, but it’s more that I hope that in the next five years we’re going to see some significant changes within at least a few newsrooms. That’s my hope.

But if you’re a young journalist, it’s about asking yourself the question: Why are you doing this? And what are your own boundaries when you become a journalist? I’ve seen personally journalists say like I had to forego certain principles in order to do their job. And I think that’s the question you have to ask yourself. Is that something that you want to do as well?

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