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MENASource October 24, 2023

I spent two decades as a CNN correspondent. We journalists need to do a better job reporting the truth.

By Arwa Damon

As the often-quoted sentence goes, “The first casualty of war is the truth.”

I would argue that “casualty” is not merely an innocent byproduct of war but deliberately targeted.

As a twenty-year veteran of the journalism industry—two decades spent mainly covering war and violence—I can attest to that and how each “side” is trying to lure and manipulate with their messaging—what some might even call propaganda. I can attest to how each “side” will lie or try to cover up the truth, even when a “side” claims to have a higher moral standing.

I can also attest to just how hard it is to navigate through the many pieces of information hurling themselves in your direction, coming from sources on the ground, eyewitnesses, officials, and social media, which is a beast of its own with its trolls and state-sponsored cyber armies. Add to that journalists’ emotional reaction to the images the world sees and the words heard from survivors.

As the media, we need to realize the role we play in the trajectory of events. Our role can either inflame or educate and explain by building bridges of empathy and understanding.

Arwa Damon in Gaza in 2012 (Courtesy of Arwa Damon)

Looking at the coverage of what is happening between Israel and the Gaza Strip since the October 7 attack by the militant group Hamas, it feels like we’re catapulting ourselves toward this abyss of sheer and utter inhumane madness.

The events take me back to the drums of the Iraq war after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks—a runaway train where many Western, especially American media, cheered this effort and the US narrative of “good versus evil.” Oversimplification is so dangerous.

I was in New York City on September 11 and not yet a journalist. My body trembled in fear and confusion as I witnessed the second World Trade Tower come down. I remember how the streets were so eerily deserted at first; the only people out were those looking to donate blood or somehow help. At the time, I thought, “This is how we should treat each other. This is the sort of kindness I want to be a part of.”

But then it all changed.

I remember the hatred and vitriol spewed towards Muslims and people of Middle Eastern and North African descent. It was something that I was spared being a direct target of, despite being an Arab-American of Syrian heritage, simply because I am blond with green eyes.

I also remember watching how, somehow, all Arabs and Muslims got painted with this terrorist brush; watching coverage that lacked nuance and understanding. It was what pushed me to become a journalist.

I remember how Arab rage at the Iraq war was somehow twisted by many in the media as Arab support for al-Qaeda, which could not be further from the truth. How the calls of the few compared to the entire population of the Arab world of “death to America” and “death to Israel”—for the two are magnetically connected in the minds of Arabs—somehow ended up being the loudest voice. The reality was that Arabs did not want an American war in Iraq; not because they supported al-Qaeda; not even because they supported Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein—for most did not—but because they did not support war. Back then, the Western media played a role. It aided and abetted the United States and its allies in their campaign to villainize and dehumanize Iraqis, Arabs, and Muslims.

Despite being so deeply reminded of the past, this present that we are living in is very different and arguably even more dangerous. Military commanders and even President Joe Biden are warning of the lessons of the past; of the point in time when “victory” will be declared and how there needs to be a plan for “peace.”

I fear that, in that planning, based on everything I am seeing and hearing now from heads of state to people on the street, the intense impact of the emotions generated now is not being planned for at all. Or even more disturbing, it is being planned for: a complete and total meltdown of humanity, which we will all be complicit in bringing around. 

For it is not quite the same as the post-9/11 era. This juncture we are in is potentially more divisive, dangerous, and destructive. There is a much deeper, darker history here with a deeply embedded generational trauma, all of which makes the emotional component of this even more intense. Make no mistake: emotions play such a big part in warfare. There is a reason why there’s an “information war.” It’s because a significant component of military strategy is not just troop movement on the ground nor striking strategic targets but psychological operations. These psychological operations target not just the population against whom war is being waged but all of us.

We need analysts to break down the information war and how it plays and preys on emotions and trauma. I am not talking about military or other analysts who talk about the mechanics of the information war or state that it’s a big aspect of war, but rather psychological analysts who can explain how that impacts our psyche and thinking towards each other. We need to show and analyze the human reaction to hearing words like “human animals,” “rats,” and “children of light versus children of darkness,” and break down how that can dehumanize an entire population and what the risk of that is.

No armed entity can gather support and power without being able to point to pain in the past and say, “Look what has been happening. Look at the pain you suffered. I am the only one who can protect you from your biggest fear.”

No nation can gather support for war within its borders or from its global allies without painting its enemy as “less than.” A life worth less than yours. A life that is not human; not human in the way that you are. A life that doesn’t love like you, laugh like you, hurt like you. This is how we end up, consciously or not, accepting the significant loss of civilian life.

We cannot allow this to happen again. As the media, we cannot let ourselves be a pawn in a dehumanization campaign.

As the media, we need to dive into the emotional aspect of all of this as part of the coverage. Every one of our actions is driven by an emotional reaction—a desire for revenge, anger, hatred, and fear. We need to include emotional analysis, experts who can talk about collective and generational trauma, and the impact that that has had on getting us to this point. It is one thing to analyze events that lead us to a certain point, and it is another, deeper, and necessary thing to talk about how emotions drove the actions that led us to that point.

The polarization that I see is frightening, whether it’s antisemitism on the rise or growing Islamophobia. It is utterly appalling to hear about a six-year-old Palestinian-American child being stabbed to death in a hate crime. It cuts me to listen to an Arab friend tell me about her relative living in the West spat on and told, “You should all be killed.” It is sad to see a Jewish mother post on social media that she is losing followers because she posted about her son’s Bar Mitzvah, a celebration of their faith. It is wrong to hear about some Jewish schools in London closing because of fear.

The Western media needs to give more space to Palestinians, and we all need to really listen and treat their words as if we are hearing them for the first time. There is this very wrong “normalization” of the “plight of the Palestinians”—perhaps because it has been going on for so long—for more than seven decades—and the media “spotlight,” being as limited as it is, kept moving on. Palestinians are right when they question why the outcry and the coverage of their pain is muted. To those networks who do think they are covering “both sides” because they have the one package out of the Gaza Strip and one guest, it’s not enough when the rest of your coverage is leaning so heavily into military operations or, even worse, consists of a lineup of mostly older white men who have not tasted, smelled, nor felt what war feels like on the other end of an American or an Israeli bomb. They are experts who have not lived or experienced, in this scenario, the “Arab” side of it.

On the flip side, non-Western media—especially Arab and Arab-owned media—should not continue to bypass the pain and trauma of the survivors of the Hamas attack and the parents, friends, and family of those taken hostage. I have watched a lot of different networks’ coverage of these events, and while I might have missed it, I did not once see the pain that the Hamas attack caused in Israel reported on. Space needs to be made for Jewish and Israeli voices on such outlets. Not all Israelis support their government’s policies, the illegal settlements, or the oppression or occupation of Palestine. And not all Jews across the world support Zionism or what Israel has done.

We cannot abdicate our fundamental responsibility as the press: to question, confront, and probe all sides; to call out lies and crimes no matter who is committing them. All media outlets need to rise above this notion that, if you cover a person’s pain, you somehow take a “side.” Pain is pain. We must be allowed to see the pain of our “enemy.” For some—and I do believe it is the few; I want to believe it is the few—it will bring them joy and a sense of vengeance to see the pain of the “enemy.” But, for the majority, perhaps, it will make them question and probe why they reacted a certain way, hopefully leading to more understanding.

We need to be allowed to see that the “enemy” is not monochrome. I believe that, for the majority, it will make them realize that perhaps what they have been conditioned to believe might not be the whole picture.

The media needs to realize and recognize the role we can play in fueling polarization and hate, whether that be through simply negating or disregarding a person or a population’s pain. We did play a role in fomenting the deep hatred post-9/11 that ultimately led to a more violent world. We need to be hyper-conscious not to play that role again.

I can see the trajectory we are on—this spiral of animosity and the growing monster that fuels a madness we will not be able to control. I can see a world filled with more hate and violence that will impact not just our generation but generations to come. And I can see the media’s role in preventing that. There are many aspects of this that we cannot alter, but we can ensure that we are not pushing divisions. We need to be stronger and better than the pressures on us—be it pressure from our government, our bosses, and even our own emotions.

We must build a world with more power in the truth than in the lie.

Arwa Damon is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and president and founder of the International Network for Aid, Relief, and Assistance (INARA), a nonprofit organization that focuses on building a network of logistical support and medical care to help children who need life-saving or life-altering medical treatment in war-torn nations. She is also a former CNN senior correspondent with two decades of experience.

Further reading

Image: Palestinian search for survivors under the rubble after an Israeli strike on the Nuseirat camp. via Reuters