Today, I’d like to share my statement at the panel discussion on “Sensitivity Rather than Sensationalism: Western Media Coverage of Human Rights and Religious Issues in the Middle East,” which took place on March 18, 2015 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The event was organized by In Defense of Christians, on whose board I serve. It was an honor to participate alongside H.G. Bishop Angaelos and other eminent speakers.
I’d like to thank the organizers of this event, In Defense of Christians, for bringing us together for this productive conversation.
I feel my co-panelists have already shed important light on how Western media coverage of human rights and religious issues in the Middle East must be done with sensitivity rather than sensationalism.
The perspective that I’d like to add today comes out of experience with working “on the ground” in the Middle East, engaged in humanitarian aid, education, and development projects.
My goal for providing that perspective is to help our friends in the media understand how, together, we can do more to build the peace and prosperity that we all want for the region.
As my colleagues have touched on, minority religious groups are an important part of the Middle East’s social fabric.
To take Christians as an example, we are carrying on Christ’s example of educating and healing through our networks of schools, hospitals, and non-governmental organizations.
These institutions play a key role in maintaining social harmony. This role is often under-reported in the Western media. I’d like to give you an example from Egypt, where the Christian nuns called the Sisters of Maadi treat 200,000 needy people each year in Cairo. 90 percent of those treated are Muslims. As you can imagine, this has a huge affect on interfaith relations at the grassroots, where it counts, and where other actors often struggle to have an effect.
Coptic Orphans is one of those non-governmental organizations, serving nearly 10,000 Egyptian children and their families and communities. We work through church volunteers in their own communities.
We are among the people “on the ground.” We work in many religiously mixed neighborhoods. When there’s tension, the solutions in these neighborhoods are not always as black-and-white as they might appear to outsiders.
So in many cases, it’s critically important to us that the media refrain from screaming headlines and reporting that doesn’t give the full context of a story.
Why? When reporters don’t present the facts of an issue in a sober, straightforward way, it can create the climate for violence. It puts our staff and the people we serve at risk.
This is especially true as the world becomes more interconnected. The Internet makes it harder and harder to distinguish between a “Western” and a “non-Western” media.
The most violent images and videos cross the world at light speed. Texts are mistranslated and misquoted. Social media platforms offer torrents of misinformation.
In this context, the most important thing the media can do is help people distinguish between sensationalism and reality. They can do this by reporting more on minority faith communities, especially our efforts to build bridges with our neighbors, before a crisis erupts.
Every day, there are a thousand good stories to tell about the work of our schools, hospitals, and aid groups in the Middle East. Telling those stories before a crisis will help people on all sides screen out the sensational and focus on the beneficial.
Coptic Orphans’ experience on the ground is that the more people learn about their neighbors, the less fearful they are, and less prone to extremism. The media can crush that positive tendency with sensationalism, or nurture it by covering the good work being done in communities.
After all, what’s going to be more beneficial to people in the Middle East? Sensational reminders of religious differences, or sensible reminders of good-faith efforts to fight poverty, hunger, and disease?
In closing, I would observe that it’s tempting to focus the TV camera on extremists. Those extremists exist in every community, and they will always be willing to say something outrageous on camera.
But the media’s role should be to cover people of all faiths, in every country, who are working for better relations with their neighbors.
That kind of sensitivity, not sensationalism, will truly benefit all people in the Middle East.
If you care about this topic, please see How Can We Defend Christians? (a speech at the inaugural summit of In Defense of Christians), as well as Copts Are Targets. Here’s How We Are Protecting Them (regarding efforts to secure the homes of orphaned Christians in Egypt) and What Could We Have Done to Save the 21? A Lot More (on the subject of the Christian martyrs in Libya).