Do Headlines Tell the Story?

Syrian border
These are two elementary school classrooms for Syrian children living 15 kilometers from the Jordanian-Syrian border.

“I want to ask a question. Do you think back in Syria or in Iraq – don’t you see there is just 1% [who are] criminals and 99% are people live in peace. But there is this 1% doing all of this to 99%? Do you guys (meaning the United States)know really what’s going on in Syria?”

Akeem, the man who exasperatingly stated this to me in an interview a few days ago, is one of many people I have met in Jordan who struggles to understand the misconceptions dominating the media. The media, and to a lesser extent, the state, he went on to say, creates and contributes to the idea that Syrians are animals only capable of violence. And he’s absolutely right.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, stories focused on the Middle East have almost exclusively focused on oppression and violence. Consequently, the people of the Middle East become associated with a propensity to violence. For example, when people back in the States hear that I am in Jordan, they typically respond, “Is it safe there?” The actions of the 1% completely overshadow the actions of the 99%.

Decision-science studies have pointed to the fact that because we are unable to understand the world in its complexity, we form a simplified view of the world using heuristics – based on the information available to us. Because of the massive amount of information we receive on a daily basis, most individual stories we hear and conversations are eventually forgotten – and what remains for memory retrieval is the positive or negative feeling the story or conversation elicited about its subject. These positive or negative encryptions are cumulative, adding or subjecting to our pre-existing conceptions of reality.

For a person living outside of a major city in the United States, his or her available information and only exposure to Arab culture or Islam could very well be what he or she reads on Fox News or on his or her Facebook page. Frankly, this news is overwhelmingly negative, fueling bias about refugees and Muslims that was already negative in the first place.

As proof, here are some Fox News headlines for the year thus far:

  • “Trump signs executive order for ‘extreme vetting’ of refugees” 1/27
  • “Two Iraqi refugees detained at JFK airport” 1/28
  • “Are refugees connected to crime increase” 2/21
  • “300 refugees subject of terror investigations” 3/6
  • “Report: Hundreds of refugees investigated for ISIS ties” 3/8

And here are some more headlines, straight from the twitter of President Trump

  • “We must keep “evil” out of our country!” 2/3
  • “The judge opens up our country to potential terrorists and others that do not have our best interests are heart. Bad people are very happy!” 2/4
  • “I have instructed Homeland Security to check people coming into our country VERY CAREFULLY. The courts are making my job very difficult!” 2/5
  • “The threat from radical Islamic terrorism is very real, just look at what is happening in Europe in the Middle-East. Courts must act fast!” 2/6
  • “Our legal system is broken! “77% of refugees allowed into U.S. since travel reprieve hail from seven suspect countries.” (WT) SO DANGEROUS!” 2/11
  • “72% of refugees admitted into U.S. (2/3-2/11) during COURT BREAKDOWN are from 7 countries: Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Iran, Sudan, Libya & Yemen” 2/12

Thus, headlines that portray refugees as being associated with crime and terrorism deepen pre-existing negative feelings. In the absence of conversations with Muslims or refugees in everyday life, there are no positive interactions to combat those consistent negative associations.

Consequently, the 99% is neglected – first by governments/terrorists groups and then by the rest of the world. Ordinary citizens like Akeem are grouped with the 1%. His biggest crime becomes the fact that he did not commit one – the simplicity of his life in Syria before he was forced to flee is irrelevant. Even though the “1%” – the Syrian government and ISIS –  detained him, tortured him, and stripped him of his home, he is still associated with them. He therefore poses an equal threat.

Thus, Akeem will spend the immediate future in a small square basement in Amman without furniture, the ability to legally work, or a means for providing for his family. Because of Trump’s executive refugee quota, the United States will only settle 10,000 refugees for the remainder of the year from specific countries – and only 2,000 from Jordan, a small, poor country with 2.5 million refugees.

Later in my interview with Akeem, he stated once more, “Let me ask you this question. Do you guys (meaning the United States) know really what’s going on in Syria? What about us? We are human.”

The question remains: what will it take for Akeem’s story to hold weight against misinformation?

Louden Richason is a T’19 Undergraduate and a Duke Engage Dublin participant. He also is a current Kenan Student Research Assistant. 

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