The words of journalists have power

September 27, 2016 01:30

By Waliya Lari

As journalists we know our words have power – the power to inform, the power to influence, the power to create fear, the power to heal. For most of us it’s an abstract concept – one of those ideals of big 'J' journalism we all hold dear but often forget in the daily grind of feeding the news beast. It’s easy to take the power of our words for granted, until you started seeing and feeling the harm of those words. This is most evident in the words we as news media, and we as a nation, use to describe the people accused of terrorism.

To illustrate this point, here’s a little quiz: Which description below is the suspect in a recent terror attack and which is my husband?
Man 1 Man 2
•Child of Pakistani immigrants
•Has visited Pakistan numerous times
•Recently married
•Recently grew a beard
•Started going to mosque more often
•Spent a lot of time on social media & message boards        

•Emigrated from Afghanistan as a child
•Has visited Afghanistan and Pakistan numerous times
•Recently married
•Friends noticed changes in appearance and behavior
•Majored in criminal justice
•Felt racial and religious discrimination and harassment
There’s no doubt that the profile of a suspect is an important and relevant part of any crime story. The problem is throwing out random facts without context about a person accused of horrible crimes. Doing this implies these attributes are inherently suspicious. Child of immigrants?!?... must not really love the USA. Traveled abroad to visit relatives who live in unstable countries!?!?... must have been radicalized. Went to a mosque a lot!?!?... must believe that violence is a religious obligation.

The problem of this kind profiling is amplified by the fact that it’s not used evenly across the board with all suspects in mass attacks. What were Dylann Roof’s religious beliefs? Did anyone discuss Elliot Rodger’s immigration and his foreign-born parents? Where did Robert Lewis Dear Jr travel before his deadly attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic – any place that could have fueled his extremism? It seems these issues are only discussed when the suspect’s name is a little hard to pronounce and whose skin is certain shades of brown.

Providing context is an important part of the first pillar of both the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and the RTDNA Code of Ethics while seeking truth and reporting it. We need to include the facts about a suspect that are relevant to the story and explain the relevance. It’s as simple as adding a sentence or two – “He traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan numerous times – something common for immigrants families. Because these areas are home to active Al-Qaida and Taliban groups, each time he returned he went through secondary screenings and was cleared by immigration officials.” If we can’t explicitly say why a factoid is relevant, it probably isn’t and doesn’t belong in the story.

This context is a vital to another important part of both groups' ethics codes: Minimizing harm. When we imply that certain immigrants, religious beliefs and travel patterns are indicative of terroristic beliefs, we create a harm for the tens of millions of people who have similar profiles but are in no way violent or a danger to society. The portrayal of attributes like these creates dangerous prejudice and bigotry with real consequences – mosques vandalized, children bullied and immigrants attacked. This is about more than semantics.

It’s easy to forget that Steve Jobs was the son of Syrian immigrants, that Hakeem Olajuwon not only attends mosque regularly but also runs his own mosque and that Tyrese Gibson spent significant time in the Middle East during which he wore Emirati clothing and visited religious sites. Those facts don’t detract anything from them or their contributions to society and that same standard should be applied to the average person.  We as journalists have the power – and the words – to help make that a reality.

By the way, my husband is “Man 1.”  Hopefully, no one mistakes or treats him like a terrorism suspect.

Waliya Lari is Executive Producer at WRAL-TV in Raleigh, NC