Post 9/11 Arab American Coverage Avoids Stereotypes

By Weston, Mary Ann | Newspaper Research Journal, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Post 9/11 Arab American Coverage Avoids Stereotypes


Weston, Mary Ann, Newspaper Research Journal


As news organizations mobilized to cover the Sept. 11 terror attacks, Arab Americans suddenly showed up on the news agenda. Even before it was determined that the hijackers were Arab Muslims who had lived in the United States varying lengths of time, Americans who looked Middle Eastern were harassed, assaulted and their property vandalized in a wave of misplaced retaliation. Newspapers nationwide covered the unwanted prominence thrust upon American Arabs and Muslims as they became targets of hate crimes and subjects for government roundups and detention. Some of the hate crime victims were neither Arab nor Muslim but apparently fit the popular stereotype. (1)

After Sept. 11 newspapers were challenged to cover Arab American stories in their own communities as well as nationwide. In some cases newspapers were introducing to their audiences a people whose previous coverage had been scanty and, often, laden with negative stereotypes.

This study examines the daily newspaper coverage of Arab Americans before and after Sept. 11. Coverage before Sept. 11 is used as a snapshot of coverage at a time when there were no overriding issues thrusting the group into public attention.

Research questions for each time period include:

RQ1:

What themes, frameworks and images dominated coverage?

RQ2:

To what extent did the newspaper stories put Arab Americans and their communities in context by using background on their ethnic origins, religious practices and cultures?

RQ3:

Did coverage reinforce previous stereotypes or refute them?

Method

Stories for analysis were obtained from newspaper databases by using the search term "Arab American." The Lexis-Nexis database was used for most stories. Additional stories came from the Chicago Tribune and the Detroit Free Press Web sites. The Chicago Tribune was added to the papers indexed on Lexis-Nexis because it is a strong regional paper. The Free Press was added because it serves the metropolitan area with the greatest concentration of Arab Americans. Pre-Sept. 11 stories were those found between June 1 and Sept. 11, 2001. Post-Sept. 11 stories were those found from Sept. 12 to Oct. 11, 2001. Only news and feature stories from U.S. newspapers were analyzed. No letters, editorials or commentaries were used. In all, 195 newspaper stories were analyzed.

The research is qualitative rather than quantitative. It surveys the themes, images and texture of the stories rather than assessing their frequency. Specifically, analysis of newspaper stories is drawn from research that suggests social meanings of news, that is, that news takes on meaning and resonance beyond conveying "facts" about "events." In the present case, the research explores construction or perpetuation of images about Arab Americans, a group with which mainstream newspaper audiences may have little direct experience. It draws on studies of journalistic practices of selection, exclusion, emphasis and organization by which reporters and editors mold events or situations into "stories." Further, it takes note of research that explores universal narratives or "myths" in constructing stories. Essentially the research looks at the stories themselves, the end product that is presented to the audience. (2)

Bird and Dardenne contend that, contrary to journalistic ideology, news "is a story about reality, not reality itself." (3) They argue that journalists use culturally imbedded "story values" to make sense of events. But also journalists "have to fit new situations into old definitions. It is in their power to place people and events into the existing categories of hero, villain, good and bad, and thus to invest their stories with the authority of mythological truth." However, journalists make these judgments quickly--on deadline--and thus "inevitably resort to existing frameworks." (4)

In addition to research on narrative and framing, this article draws on the considerable research on stereotyping and on portrayals of racial and ethnic groups in journalism. …

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