Knowing the history makes for better reporting

Social studies was always been one of my favourite classes growing up. In fact, I like to credit my Grade 12 World Issues class for making me a critical thinker about the world. It was the first time I really had an in-depth look at the social and geo-political lines of conflicts. I remember looking at my handouts about the history of warfare and proxy conflicts, specifically about the Middle East, and asking myself “do other people even know about this?”

Before that moment, I had not. I had not known the differences in Islam religion. I did not know about the Western interference in the past. I don’t even think I knew about the 1980 Iran-Iraq conflict or the details of the Gulf War. These are some of the roots of today’s issues, but few coverage gets into detail about the history of conflicts.

This really came back to me when I was reading Nahlah Ayed’s book A Thousand Farewells: A Reporter’s Journey from Refugee Camp to the Arab Spring. CBC journalist Nahlah Ayed, who was raised in Winnipeg, reports from Middle East (from Lebanon to Iraq to Egypt) and covers revolutions and uprisings.

I remember one part in the book Ayed is talking about a conflict between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims. Her news editor tells her to stop going into so much detail: people don’t understand the difference. She tells them what one of my professors once told me: it is important to the story.

At the University of Winnipeg, I took a four-day intensive class called ‘Terrorism in a Muslim Context’, taught by Amr Abdalla, a former Egyptian human rights lawyer and current professor at the UN’s University for Peace. On the first day, instead of talking about terrorism,  we reviewed the history of the Muslim religion. From the Prophet Muhammad to the separation of Sunni and Shi’a after his death to the Koran and Islamic pillars. According to Abdalla, the class could not understand what was happening in the Middle East if we did not understand the history.

[Fast explanation: After the Prophet Muhammad’s death, some thought the power should stay within his bloodline while others thought the power should be awarded by merit. Sunni Muslims believe Muhammad’s highest advisors Abu Bakr should rule while the minority Shi’a Muslims believe it should be rewarded to his cousin.]

For me, these roots were learnt in a classroom. For Ayed, it was living and experiencing the Middle East. In her book, she says she thinks its important actual stay in the country for an extended period of time to be able to understand it.

“This one year also confirmed my long-held belief in the traditional model of foreign correspondence, in the benefit – the necessity – of living in a place, if only for a year or two, in order to really understand it. You cannot fully comprehend the reasons behind the eruption of violence, an uprising, without having understood its root causes. You must know every one of a country’s opposing voices to truly reflect the tensions between them. You must know something of the people’s daily challenges before you could credibly speak to their frustrations.” (Ayed, 323)

In my future, I want to be able to take all the theoretical knowledge I learnt in the classroom and apply it to the information I learn while living in a different part of the world. I did take a “History of West Africa” class  two years before I went to the West African nation of Ghana. I too, believe in this traditional model of foreign corresponding, even though it is going out of style. With the recent cuts, CBC recently shut down their Africa Bureau and many news sources report on stories from across the world while sitting in the newsroom, writing from a wire story.

I really admire what Ayed has been able to accomplish in her career as a journalist. She has seen a world and told stories beyond the reach of many people. While Ayed had the advantage of speaking Arabic, I really do believe it was her ability to relate to people. At the end of her book, I almost feel like she was talking right to me, giving me advice,

“You must also be able to put yourself in the shoes of anyone, anywhere, to truly tell their story. People are not quotes or clips, used to illustrate stories about war and conflict. People are the story, always. And you cannot know what people are thinking by reading wire reports. You must come to know them somehow. Speaking the language, as I did, helps tremendously, but is not a prerequisite. Taking the time to speak to speak to people off camera – at length – is.” (Ayed, 323-324)

I plan on taking that advice, and using it in any journalism situation, in any country.

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