Semantics matter in journalism and distortions of different cultures and people in the media are a form of hate speech, an expert on media portrayals of the Middle East has said.

Zahera Harb, a Lebanese journalist, broadcaster and director of MA International Journalism at City University, London, added journalists have to stand up to the use of racist jargon and call it out.

“Semantics matter, the language you use, the terminology you use in referring to the other is extremely important… you shouldn’t assume that it is okay to call people certain names,” she said during a talk with UTS journalism students.

“There is no middle ground when it comes to racism… say this is not acceptable.”

Harb, who is an advocate for ethical reporting of Middle Eastern communities, particularly by the UK media, believes terms used to identify groups can result in the discrimination of Arab communities, making them feel “that they are targeted and misrepresented”.

If you feel that there is something that is not right just stand up and mention it.

“The journalism that I do is out there to help people… and be the voice of the people,” she said, adding: “Many of the journalists, they don’t really realise that they are being stereotypical about Muslims.”

The continuation of hate speech against Muslims after 9/11 was highlighted in a 2017 study by Harvard Kennedy School, where between 2015 to 2017 American television news coverage of Muslims was overwhelmingly negative in tone. During this period there was not a single month where stories on Muslims were more positive than negative.

Harb said negative reporting of Muslims following the 9/11 attacks, was the result of laziness, and she encouraged the need for journalists to think for themselves, stressing “if we allow that type of speech to go along as normal speech, as accepted speech we don’t really know where this is going to lead us”.

“If you feel that there is something that is not right just stand up and mention it,” she added.

Harb, who has edited numerous books on the Middle East and journalism, said stereotyping, framing narratives, and hate speech used by the media when reporting on the Middle East was a common problem.

She said the idea of generalisation was critical in the stereotypical coverage of the media, finding the perceptions of Muslims to be “static, that we don’t change, that nothing happens in that region that is worth exploring. All of these things came across in the coverage of 9/11″.

guest talk

Zahera Harb is interviewed by Martin Newman for a Media Law & Ethics guest talk. Photo: Mikeli Walker


Even terminology used to describe certain groups risked generalising about the Muslim community as a whole, and Harb used the example of ‘Islamic State’ – a notorious militant group associated with killings across Iraq and Syria. She said journalists instead should refer to ‘Islamic State Group’. Harb believes terms used to identify groups can result in the categorisation of Muslim communities, finding “British Muslims felt that they didn’t want to be associated with Isis”.

The media relating descriptions of Muslims with negative stories, particularly around terror events, increased during the US’s war on terror, and while Harb said there had been positive change since then in the coverage, the media has a tendency to slip back into old patterns.

“If a terrorist attack happens, suddenly we lose all advancements and we have to remind again and again why that use of [language] is not an accepted way of reporting and generalising,” she added.

“Always think, ‘can I editorially justify what I am doing?’ If not, don’t do it.”

Main image by Central News.