Friday, May 31, 2013

Media fuel misperceptions about Lebanon

(Beirut, Lebanon)--When I told my friends, family, and colleagues that I was heading to Beirut, Lebanon, the reaction was shock and horror. How could I go to such an unstable, dangerous place?

I must admit to some pre-departure trepidation myself, given the reputation of Lebanon and Beirut in particular.

Now, after having spent about two weeks here, I am ashamed at my hesitation in coming here. Indeed it is ironic that I am here teaching peace media, including examining stale media stereotypes, while I myself had been fooled by western media’s hysteria about the Middle East.

The truth is that, far from being in jeopardy every second of my stay here, I have never once felt in danger. I have never been threatened or abused in any way, even by cab drivers. The Lebanese I have encountered have been uniformly warm and welcoming.

So, why do Americans think that only a reckless fool would visit Lebanon?

Media coverage of the situation in neighboring Syria is one factor contributing to Americans’ misperceptions about a violent Lebanon. Yes, Syria is very dangerous. However, many here would tell you that this coverage has been sensationalized and the threat to Lebanon itself exaggerated. For example, there was one small rocket attack (reportedly, retaliation for Hezbollah fighting in Syria) in suburban Beirut during my second week here. This attack, which injured four people and destroyed a couple of cars, was splashed prominently over CNN and BBC as though it were the second coming of civil war. It was violent, yes, but in context, minor. We could debate its significance, but the point is that it was just one very small incident.

For a dose of context, think of it this way: on the same day of the rocket attack, how many Americans were murdered in our cities? How much coverage did this violence get on CNN or BBC?

Beyond the Syrian coverage, a number of studies of western media reporting about the Middle East and Arab world demonstrate that coverage tends to be negative, often mischaracterizing the region and Islam as inherently inferior and violent. (Driss Ridouani , School of Arts and Humanities, Meknes, Spain). Since such coverage lacks context, westerners are often left with isolated images of angry, violent, anti-American mobs (Yasser Aman,

Also, like much of our international coverage, stories about the Middle East are disseminated primarily when there is a crisis. Thus, we hear about Lebanon or Jordan or Egypt only when a crisis occurs here, or when someone from the region commits a violent act. (The same crisis orientation can be seen in the oversimplified, superficial coverage of Africa—mostly war and famine.) What we don’t hear, or don’t hear as often or as loudly, are the success stories from this region, for example, about the miraculous rebirth of Lebanon following an awful 15 year civil war.

Part of the Lebanon’s perception problem in the west is actually a misperception problem, as some incorrectly believe Lebanon to be a Muslim-only country along the lines of Iran or Saudi Arabia. In fact, Lebanon has a sizable (40%) Christian minority, along with a mélange of different Muslim and Christian groups and sects representing everyone from the ultra-conservative to the secular. Add to this misperception frequently superficial and sometimes inaccurate coverage of Islam (Islam as monolithic, all Muslims as radicals, etc.), and it’s easy to see why our attitudes about countries like Lebanon are so overwhelmingly negative.

To be accurate, there are of course dangers in Lebanon, and parts of the country I choose not to visit for security reasons. There were riots last week in the northern city of Tripoli, so I’m not going there. There were also riots last week in Stockholm, Sweden. I’m also not going there. The difference is that when violence occurs in Lebanon, it feeds and confirms an established media narrative of Lebanon as a dangerous place. When violence happens in Sweden, we see it as a fluke, an aberration, since violence doesn’t fit into our pre-established narrative of life in idyllic Sweden.

Battling these misperceptions, of course, is one key principle of peace journalism, which seeks to highlight our commonalities and debunk stereotypes. For evidence of the need for peace journalism in the U.S., look no further than our media-fueled misperceptions about Lebanon.

--Follow me on Twitter @peacejourn--

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