A woman reacts while walking in Tajrish square in northern Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Jan. 9, 2020. Many Iranians say they are relieved that neither their country nor the United States appear primed right now for a more direct military confrontation that could lead to war.
Joseph Darius Jaafari is a staff writer for the PA Post. His work covering crime, the military and LGBTQ issues has been featured in The Marshall Project, Rolling Stone Magazine, The Atlantic and The New York Times. He is a graduate of the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, and an award-winning documentary filmmaker who has produced for VICE and The New York Post. He is a native Arizonan and infamous for his love of tacos.
This article is published in partnership with YES! Media, a national nonprofit, independent publisher of solutions journalism that analyzes societal problems and what’s being done about them.
When I was growing up, my father would often yell at me, “Miko shah-med,” whenever he was angry with me. It literally translates to, “I will kill you,” from Farsi, the language Iranians speak.
It sounds harsh. But translate that to American English, and it’s more akin to, “Get outta’ here!”
Last Sunday, days after President Donald Trump ordered the drone missile strike that assassinated Gen. Qassem Soleimani, I sat down at my local bar in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and watched as cable news networks and national papers reported on the Iranian Parliament screaming, “Marg bar Amrika,” or “Death to America,” as it’s literally translated.
USA Today posted a video of the chant online without any explanation. And as the video lingered on, it almost seemed scary – Iranians wanted to kill Americans!
But language is nuanced. In Iran, people view governments separate from the population. And referring to someone’s death (as noted above) is not always exactly what it seems. So, translate “Marg bar Amrika,” to American English, and it should be better understood as, “Shame on the American government.”
As I watched the news that night, though, no one could give that context.
For the past week, Iran has dominated the news cycle. There has been a spate of media panels discussing what this means for Americans and our presence in the Middle East, and social media went rogue declaring this as the beginning of World War III. But while the news has been heavily centered on foreign policy in Iran and what it means for its people along with Americans, there has been a noticeable void in the conversation: the voice of Iranians who could give historical and cultural perspectives of the conflict.
Even one of the more prominent voices on Iranian coverage for Iranian-Americans – Voice of America – is sorely lacking with using Iranian voices (though, as The Intercept reported, the coverage has as of late become more partisan than in previous years).
Quite simply, it’s because Americans aren’t getting a full picture of Iranian people. For example, without historical context, viewers wouldn’t know that the same youth movements that propelled anti-regime protests in the country are also deeply patriotic, but want to handle Iran’s issues themselves.
November: Hundreds of thousands risked their lives to protest against government.
Last week: Millions of Iranians came out for funeral of Soleimani.
Now: Thousands of Iranians protest the downing of Ukrainian plane by Iranian missile.
All of those nuances in culture and history could’ve been explained, had outlets used more Iranian voices, said Hoda Katebi, an Iranian-American writer and social justice activist in Los Angeles.
“The U.S. media loves to exclude people who they’re talking about,” she said. “We see this throughout the history of journalism. The people who are being affected are not being represented. Right now, we’re at an all-hands-on-deck moment, there’s no reason to say you can’t find an Iranian person.”
A history of leaving out voices of color
This is not a new problem for U.S. newsrooms. Though representation for people of color has been something of a hotly debated topic over the past decade in newspapers and digital outlets, there historically has been – and continues to be – issues with poor representation of diverse communities in American media.
“By and large, news organizations have failed to communicate to both their black and white audiences a sense of the problems America faces and the sources of potential solutions,” the report said.
Since then, nonprofit news organizations and philanthropy groups have spent millions of dollars in hiring initiatives to diversify the media. In just one of dozens of examples from last year, the Knight Foundation and Maynard Institute gave $1.2 million to newsrooms to diversify their ranks.
And there is continued need for that, as we saw this past week with the level of misinformation coming out of American media on what was happening in the Iranian Parliament in regard to the nuclear deal to limit nuclear power in the country. When Iranian media reported that the country was stepping away from the deal, American media ran the story, attempting to work off word-to-word translations.
Turns out, that’s not what really happened, said Melissa Etehad, an Iranian-American reporter covering Iran for the Los Angeles Times.
“The nuance of culture and language plays a really important role, and translating things that we see in Iranian media is a really difficult thing, even for second-generation journalists, like myself,” Etehad said. “There seems to be several layers removed from how American outlets are interpreting things.”
A push for diversity in coverage
This story is also a testament to the importance of diversity in newsrooms. We were able to read Persian social media and watch protest videos and translate them to add to our coverage. It’s not often you see two Iranian American women helming coverage of #Iran in a U.S. paper https://t.co/UnSRnXOvQx
Still, hiring as a solution has its problems. Kathleen McElroy from the University of Texas in Austin, for example, wrote for Poynter that newsrooms can’t hire their way out of its diversity issue. Journalists who work at media companies that have focused on diversity already see the benefits through better reported stories.
At AJ+, the digital and youth-forward American presence for Al Jazeera News, using more diverse voices has helped its ability to tell richer narratives, said Yara Elmjouie, an Iranian-American producer who reports on culture and food.
“Being a member of that community, it exposes you to insight that people outside the community could never, ever have. It leads you down a rabbit hole,” he said.
But it’s not just getting newsrooms to hire more diverse reporters, it’s also making sure to include more voices in the coverage, which also is a problem.
When it comes to coverage on issues of Iran or Middle Eastern countries, though, that shouldn’t be an issue. Yet, it is, argues Mana Mostatabi, communications director for the National Iranian American Council, the nation’s largest organization representing Iranian-Americans. She said that for the past week, getting news organizations to contact her for expert sources has been nearly impossible.
“I should never have to beg and plead for the media to come to us,” she said. “The fact that I have to—in my planning—actively pursue bookers to say we exist and we are here, that’s a problem. They’re not reaching out.”
But there is an expectation among other Iranian-American reporters that we can ride this wave of inclusion in newsrooms, even if it hasn’t been directly targeted at us.
“There’s a more general push for diversity, generally, than Iranians and other people of Middle Eastern backgrounds, specifically, but we’ve benefited from it,” said Ramtin Arablouei, co-host of NPR’s Throughline podcast, adding that without more Iranian-Americans in newsrooms, Americans are the ones that truly lose.
“Syria, Iran, Iraq—these coverage areas are not going away and will only become more prevalent in American news,” he said. “Without an Iranian to parse out information—who truly understands that identity—the American consumer is not getting the story. And their opinions and voting habits will be swayed in a direction that is misinformed.”