Q&A: Nawar Nemeh

A conversation with our social media manager.

Last year, we changed up our normal Q&A schedule to introduce members of our volunteer leadership team.

This week, we’re excited to share more about the person who keeps us in touch with our Twitter audience: Nawar Nemeh, the Objective’s social media manager.

Newsletter manager Holly Rosewood talked to Nemeh about the contradictory nature of social media policies, the ways in which growing up in Syria informed his definition of objectivity, and the reach of his work at Radio Free Asia.

This interview is edited for length and clarity.

To start, what brought you to The Objective? 

I read The Objective before I was actually on-board and I’ve known Gabe [Schneider, Objective co-editor,] for a long time. He knew that I did social media for my work and, being from a Middle Eastern background and growing up in Syria, I’ve always had questions about the concept of objectivity in journalism. 

I’ve seen many different angles of “biased” reporting in a negative and a positive way, so I was really interested in an analysis of that. I think The Objective was the best outlet for that: To read The Front Page, the Q&As, all the stuff that we do, it really helps [one] stay in touch with the most pressing coverage questions in journalism.

Could you tell me more about growing up in Syria? How does that affect your personal definition of objectivity and your relationship with journalism?

First of all, my parents were always more on the open-minded, creative, encouraging side, and they would always be encouraging us to express political opinions and things like that. And that didn’t really jive with Syria’s political system very well. 

So, from an early age, I had an understanding that not everything you’re being told from an official source is necessarily true, which is kind of the first step in breaking the understanding of objectivity in journalism and the “myth” of objectivity in journalism. 

Kind of naturally, the first thing that I would go to would be Western news outlets, because the government outlets were very propaganda-heavy, and all that. Then, I quickly noticed that Western outlets were really much better at hiding some of the bias — but still bias, nonetheless. They just had a much better methodology around it. 

I think, before that, I had a rosy idea of what journalism in the U.S. looked like, especially with the onset of the Iraq War and all these different things happening in the Middle East and the Libya Crisis. Those were moments where I saw outlets in the U.S. and “English-speaking media” not taking a critical approach toward the government and kind of toeing the government lines on these issues.

We live in a weird time where journalists are expected to have a social media presence, but also operate in a way that’s not too personal. What’s your take on this situation, and do you have any advice for people working in media when it comes to Being Online? 

The reason I don’t like it and why I don’t think it’s effective is because we ask two things of journalists that are a little contradictory, which are: We hire you for your personal connection to a story or to a community or to a specific topic, whatever it is. And, at the same time, we expect that that online presence, and the online perception that you bring to the organization, doesn’t carry too much of that community or opinion or topic. 

So, it’s kind of a contradictory request to make of journalists that is not necessarily a really good outcome. I don’t want to say it’s limited discourse, but it’s also limited discourse into, “As a journalist, you can only sometimes express your opinion if it’s backed up by very expansive data,” which is very important, obviously, but it limits people’s opportunity to express their personal experiences, which are very relevant to a community and often why we hire journalists in the first place. 

It’s kind of funny, because I think major outlets are moving away from hiring people who’ve gone to a traditional journalism school and don’t have a connection to the subject, but they still want to limit the exposure of that connection.

My genuine advice is, while it’s very, very important to promote our own work on social media, the accounts I follow that I trust the most and that I think are doing the most productive engagement on social media are ones that actually engage in discourse outside of their pieces.

They engage in discourse on what other outlets are reporting and how that’s beneficial or what’s missing. That’s what I think I’m most interested in. I expect, when I see a journalist’s Twitter page, that they’re going to promote stories from their organization — everyone does that. It’s almost like there’s a template for it. But it’s much more interesting if someone is really engaging with stories that are outside of their media outlets or their assigned sphere, but that they have a personal connection and experience with, too.

I can give a small example, too: At Radio Free Asia, we hire people who are dissidents in the countries that we’re reporting on. So, naturally, they have some pretty strong opinions about the government’s views in each region. Am I saying that every time they write about Vietnam they should be like, “The criminal government of Vietnam”? No, that’s not great. But there’s a larger point here, which is that their whole existence with us is because they bring that perspective that’s often shut down. What’s the point of making it like every other perspective that’s in The New York Times

Could you tell me about your work with Radio Free Asia? How does that inform your social strategy?

I came into Radio Free Asia with initial doubts, at first, and that was because it’s a government-funded media outlet. And, obviously, that really strikes some of my nerves coming from Syria — a little bit of, “What does government-funded media outlet mean?” 

But, to be honest, it’s been really enlightening to see the difference between a corporate-run or subscriber-run media outlet versus a government-funded media outlet. For example, we have a lot of people who come here from CNN. And, sometimes, we’ll have a story that’s not fully confirmed, or maybe it’s confirmed but needs a little bit more detail to bring it fully to life, so our editor will say we can hold that for next week.

And all our people from CNN will be like, “We’ve never heard ‘hold that ‘til next week,’ that’s a new term.” There’s a model around corporate media that pushes advertising, which pushes the creation of more and more news, even if it’s not newsworthy. And so that has been a really interesting dynamic I see here at RFA that I’ve really liked. 

As for my social strategy, I don’t do social media for all of RFA, I do it for RFA English, which is the outlet that collects the best reporting from our nine language services and puts it together in English for a Western audience. So our audience is a really specific one, and tends to be academics in the West or in China or in Vietnam who use English as a main international language.

The best way to explain this is that RFA’s Tibetan Language Service covers a lot of news on what’s happening in Tibet. But, if you’re Tibetan and want to find out about what’s happening in Myanmar, you would read RFA English. So, part of my strategy here is to cover some issues that I think are undercovered.

I identify as a progressive, and something that I think is undercovered in a lot of progressive spaces is the progression of journalists in Southeast Asia. For example, in Myanmar two years ago — I think it’s a really important topic, and we’ve been kind of out of the loop in U.S. discourse about things like Tibetan language being restricted in China or Uyghur language being restricted in China. 

Those are both two things that I think are really important to highlight. And, to be honest, that hit close to home on a personal level. It’s something I’ve seen happen in Syria a lot to Kurdish communities or to Syrian communities where, first, they forbid people from using their language, and then they forbid them from practicing their religions, just one step at a time. And so, on a personal level, I do hope to bring light to that more often through my social media work

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

I think journalists who read the Objective and are interested in really examining how the media looks at objectivity and “bias” in the US would really benefit from reading a few English language outlets that are non-U.S.-based.

There’s a lot of really great journalists doing a lot of great work without this monster of “objectivity” coming up and where it doesn’t exist as strongly, so it’s interesting to see how people do that in those spaces.

This piece was edited by Curtis Yee.

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The Objective is a nonprofit newsroom holding journalism accountable for past and current systemic biases in reporting and newsroom practices. We are written by and for those underrepresented in journalism.

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