The Empathy Gap in Covering Pakistan

By Mustafa Hameed

The night after Osama bin Laden’s assassination in Abbottabad, Pakistan, I watched Jon Stewart address his viewers on The Daily Show. America, and New York especially, were in the mood for celebration. Justice—and vengeance—was ours.

Then Jon Stewart said this: “Not only did we kill Bin Laden, we killed him in ‘Abbottabad?’ ‘Abbottabad’ sounds like the name most New Yorkers would have invented for the fictional place they would’ve loved to kill Bin Laden in.”

Abbottabad. Uh-BAAT-uh-BAAD, as Stewart pronounced it that night, and as countless American newscasters have pronounced it against my flinching eardrums since then. “Uh-BAAT-uh-BAAD” sounds like the kind of backward expanse of caves and mud huts where those bearded fanatics would live, doesn’t it?

Never mind that Abbottabad got its name from the British army officer James Abbott, another souvenir of colonial rule, like the blasphemy law of Pakistan’s rusty penal code, left to be mocked by modern commentators. The problem here is a long-running pattern of generalizing Pakistan and its diverse population into stereotypes of exoticism, Islamophobia, and backwardness un-relatable to western audiences. In this way, victims caught in the crossfire of drone warfare, natural disasters, and internal violence lose the opportunity to have their personal stories heard or to receive natural human sympathy from many western readers: an empathy gap with major social and political consequences.

That was the subject of a panel Thursday night at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, “Re-Presenting Pakistan,” which brought together two Pakistani journalists, a human rights lawyer, and a sociology professor to discuss western coverage of Pakistan. Steve Coll, dean of Columbia Journalism School and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer on Pakistan himself, moderated the discussion.

Journalist Madiha Tahir, who recently produced a documentary film about the innocent victims of drone strikes called “Wounds of Waziristan,” introduced the subject. She asked the audience, “What does the coverage of drones consist of?”

She answered the question herself, unveiling a series of headlines from Reuters, AP, and other reputable news outlets that all followed the same boilerplate: “Suspected US drone strike kills seven militants in Pakistan”; “Official: 15 militants killed in suspected US drone strike in Pakistan”; “Suspected US drone strike kills ‘three foreign militants.’”

The sanitized expressions in the headlines steadily wear down readers’ ability to empathize, Tahir said, and the repetition of stock phrases—“militant, civilian, three militants, five militants, 10 militants”—remove any sense of development or dynamism from stories of human death tolls.

Tahir quoted Hannah Arendt writing of Adolf Eichmann that he “repeated word for word the same stock phrases and self-invented clichés… The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him.”

American journalism, Tahir said, is likewise becoming unable to communicate. The sanitized language of canned phrases slowly chokes off the audience’s ability to think from the perspective of others—in this case, the people of Pakistan and the innocent victims of drone strikes in particular, all painted with the same brush as religious extremists, corrupt politicians and a ruthless military apparatus.

Similarly, Tahir argued, the hackneyed depiction of Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan as the country’s “Wild West” gradually made drone strikes and military action possible. “Having described them as lawless, as wild, and as savage as the Wild West, we now have opened the door for a particular kind of violence against them.”

Speaking after her, photojournalist Asim Rafiqui voiced similar concerns. “I have been a strong critic of journalists, both foreign and Pakistani, who depict Pakistan as a singular pathology and do so by erasing its political history and its rich legacy of social resistance and social struggles,” Rafiqui said. “Nations like Pakistan are never really permitted their history, and its citizens are certainly not permitted their individual stories. The nation is almost always seen through sweeping political generalizations, collective pathologies, and cultural simplicities.”

The simplifications and stereotypes prevalent in that sort of journalism culminate in an empathy gap that leaves readers unable to relate to stories of human tragedies, or even to respond charitably in humanitarian crises. Saadia Toor, a professor of sociology, anthropology, and social work at CUNY and the final panel speaker, said that during the devastating 2010 floods in Pakistan, which affected 20 million people and caused almost $10 billion in damage, that empathy gap was to blame for a major lack of charitable giving to Pakistanis in need.

“The international response bordered on indifference,” Toor said, “which was something even U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon commented on. And the question of course is, why?” Toor said this was especially shocking given the damage caused by the floods, which came at greater expense than Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake combined.

Why, indeed. Toor quoted the U.N.’s Office of Humanitarian Affairs: “Pakistan’s reputation as a haven for the Taliban and Al Qaeda, as well as other extremist groups is leading some would-be Western donors to pause before offering support that experts say is desperately needed.”

This reputation is built, by and large, by journalists. “Journalism is where most people outside of Pakistan get their information on Pakistan,” said Toor.

Echoing the other speakers, Toor said that too much current journalism on Pakistan in western outlets ignored the diverse majority of Pakistanis and focused on the fringes: Islamist militants on one end and wealthy elites on the other. “Members of this class have little or no connection to ordinary people on the ground and their hopes, dreams, and struggles,” she said. “A good way of presenting this particularly narrow idea of Pakistan is through ignoring complexity, ignoring common narratives, ignoring difficult stories that don’t fit into your framework.”

Human rights lawyer Sarah Belal, who works with Pakistanis held in U.S. military prisons in Afghanistan, added that whenever her organization offered reporters the chance to meet her clients, the response was the same: their editors, she said, claimed that American audiences wouldn’t be interested in the story.

“And I really wonder,” Belal said, “is it because it’s not interesting to Americans, or is it maybe not interesting to the editors anymore? Because I refuse to believe that the American public would not be interested in the human stories.”

Journalists try to translate events into words and images that our readers can understand. Sometimes this descends to the use of familiar phrases as a common language. At times this means attempting to simplify intricate stories to get to the heart of an issue. But when this falls to clichés and generalizations which dehumanize a population or reduce complex realities into bite-size stereotypes, we’ve gone far astray, leading, as Toor put it, to a discourse “emptied of justice, emptied of questions of social morality, and of humanism.”

At times, like during the tragedy of the 2010 floods, it feels like it’s already too late. But as long as reporting on the country, its struggles, and its diverse population inevitably continues, the desperate need for rigorous truth-seeking and telling real human stories persists.

Mustafa Hameed is a research fellow at the Columbia Journalism School. He can be found on Twitter at @mustafahameed

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