Story by Hayleigh Syens
Photo Courtesy SJMC
Monday morning, instead of going to their regularly scheduled class, the students of Asisstant Professor Jill VanWyke’s Media Editing class were told to report to Upper Olmsted. They filed into a room and found themselves in the presence of some international guests.
As part of the Iowa International Center’s International Visitor Leadership Program, 20 journalists from the Middle East and North Africa visited Drake University to discuss journalism, government censorship and foreign policy.
Van Wyke was initially unsure about how relevant the discussion would be to her class.
“Kathy Richardson had approached me over break and mentioned that the journalists were coming through and if I could have my class meet with them. And my first response was ‘sure,’ even though it doesn’t fit my class exactly. But, actually, this is exactly what editing is about,” Van Wyke said.
Students were able to ask and answer questions from a panel of journalists from a variety of media sources.
The discussion proved to be a learning experience about what life is like in other areas of the world.
“I was surprised that a lot of the countries said that there was no direct government censorship and that it was coming more from subtle political pressure,” said Jennifer Gardner, a magazines major. “Maybe it was just me being ignorant, but I assumed that the government had more of an active role in censoring what content went into the newspapers and other media.”
“I think the biggest benefit that I received was being able to put a face to Middle Eastern journalists,” said Avery Gregurich, a magazines and English writing double major. “You hear so much about that area in the news and in the media, and it really humanized them.”
Students found that they viewed the areas that the visiting journalists called home as much more violent, dangerous and oppressive than they actually are.
They held the U.S. media responsible for these misconceptions.
“I think the way that the U.S. media portrays the Middle East is different than what is actually going on there. I think that often times it’s motivated by our political ambitions,” Gardner said.
“It was surprising to find that a lot of these countries are not as restricted in terms of the press as we perceive them to be. Most countries enjoyed some level of freedom of the press,” Gregurich said.
Van Wyke had some insight into why the U.S. media has done a poor job in accurately representing the Middle East and North Africa.
“A problem a lot of the time is money, and a lot of the big-name news organizations are cutting budgets. Maintaining news bureaus all over the world is very expensive,” VanWyke said. “So, when news breaks, like an Egyptian revolution, everybody sends in journalists, and they parachute in until the immediate news story kind of simmers down, and then they leave. All they get is this very narrow, temporary view of what’s going on there.”
The extreme conditions during revolutions and other newsworthy events in the Middle East and North Africa may explain why Americans are so confused about everyday life in those areas.
“I think we have a very narrow view of what’s going on there, largely because, what we see going on there, as TV viewers, those videos have so much power,” Van Wyke said. “In Egypt and Tunisia during the revolution, those video images just stuck in your head and you tend to extrapolate that to the whole region and think that that’s what it’s like everywhere all the time.”
Even though she recognizes that the U.S. media could improve, Gardner said she was still taken aback by having her thoughts on the Middle East corrected.
“It was hard to hear (the journalists’) views on our country and how our media portrays the rest of the world. I know that our media does have issues, but it’s not always easy hearing that your country has problems.”
Imperfect media coverage is not the only problem that the US faces in terms of misunderstanding how life is in the Middle East and North Africa.
“Americans in particular could do a much better job of seeking out information about these regions of the world. I think it’s a little too easy to say ‘oh, the news media isn’t covering it, that’s why I’m ignorant of it,’” said VanWyke, “I think as citizens we can do a much better job of actively seeking information out instead of sitting back passively and hoping that it comes to us and then we somehow magically arrive at some sort of sophisticated understanding.”
Gardner found the experience to be incredibly beneficial as a journalism major, but thought that there were many other students who would have also benefitted from the discussion.
“[Drake] should expand this because I think that if we had international relations majors or other politics majors as well, they would also benefit. We have more of the journalism background but they have knowledge of the specific countries,” said Gardner.
Students and professor alike found the discussion panel to be a constructive and useful experience in line with Drake’s mission.
“I think any time we can get a global perspective, especially as a liberal arts university that has global understanding as one of its key values,” said Gregurich, “I think any time we can get that opportunity, as students, it’s a great thing.”
“It feeds into Drake’s mission of being globally minded citizens,” said VanWyke, “Any opportunity to bring people from different parts of the world, especially to Des Moines, Iowa, is going to be worthwhile.”