The tireless work undertaken by diaspora journalists to change narratives about their homelands and to build bridges between communities still goes largely unacknowledged
It was a brief interaction, during a welcome event. Team Pakistan had arrived in Birmingham, UK, for the Commonwealth Games 2022.
Like every other journalist in the room, I was hunting for story ideas, and getting quotes from the athletes of my home country.
"Which field do you specialise in?" inquired the first person who approached me - a 30-year-old writer. "What is diaspora journalism?" his brow furrowed in confusion after hearing my response.
Such perplexing questions are hardly uncommon.
‘A bridge to the homeland’
"It's a very niche area. I've been working on it for the last 20 years," says Olatunji Ogunyemi, associate professor at the School of English and Journalism at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom.
In his book, Diaspora Journalism and Conflicts in Transnational Media Circuits (2017), Ogunyemi describes diaspora journalism as "an emergent type of journalism" that serves as a bridge connecting the homeland and the host country of the diaspora. "Diaspora are the immigrants," he says. The word “diaspora” refers to people who settle away from their ancestral homelands.
Observing the journalistic practices of the African diaspora in the United Kingdom, Ogunyemi explains that diaspora journalists give "culturally specific information". They provide "orientation and connective roles".
"When a member of the diaspora community arrives in the host country, [usually a western region], they are unfamiliar with the system. When they arrive, they will require information, so that's where the diaspora journalist comes in. They provide academic information. They also provide connective information individuals want to know what is going on in their home country, whether good or bad. The mainstream media will only tell you when something is in critical need of attention. Even then, they will only cover it once, then it will be as if it never existed."
Diaspora journalists give culturally specific information. They provide orientation and connective roles
Olatunji Ogunyemi, Associate Professor, School of English and Journalism, University of Lincoln, UK
A report on Vietnamese diasporic media coverage published in Taylor & Francis journals, in February 2021, found that diaspora journalists are also under-represented in empirical media research because they do not represent the majority in their society and are generally small in size.
However, Ogunyemi has been authoring publications and journals in this area. One of the many include: Conceptualising the Media of Diaspora, which is a study on the representations. He is also the chair of the Media of Diaspora Research Group (MDRG), a platform of academics and professionals, dedicated to developing and widening diaspora journalism. As a result of MDRG's research, diaspora journalism has now been recognized as part of journalism studies. "Many are seeking PhDs in diaspora journalism as a result of our initiatives," he is pleased to say.
But there is a particular need to address this issue for Pakistani diaspora journalism, which is underserved within academia as well.
The struggle to be heard
In addition to being unacknowledged in the media profession, diaspora journalists - immigrants from developing countries - also face significant challenges in the publishing process. The Western media's narrative about Pakistan differs from my perspectives of the homeland, so I often struggle to get my pitches approved.
"I'm afraid I'm going to have to pass. I hope you find a good home for it." These were the most common responses I received from various mainstream media editors, along with silence, when I pitched stories featuring hometown athletes from Team Pakistan at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games 2022.
The following is how the Guardian chose to cover Team Pakistan during the Commonwealth Games 2022: "Commonwealth Games T20 cricket: Mandhana helps India thrash Pakistan," on July 31, 2022.
Also on July 31, 2022, the BBC ran the following headline: "Commonwealth Games: India thrash Pakistan in cricket."
The Cambridge Dictionary defines "thrash" as: "To hit a person or animal hard many times as a punishment." The negative perceptions formed by the usage of the verb “thrash” highlight biased broadcasts on Pakistan and work strongly in India's favour. It's striking to read Pakistan's defeat articulated in that way - not only because I sympathise or support them, but rather because it barely resembles the way the losses of other teams were described.
In contrast, take a look at the Guardian's headline on August 6, 2022: "England fall short in run chase as India reach Commonwealth Games T20 final."
Although both Pakistan and England were defeated by the same country in the T20, England's defeat was reported more politely and sympathetically. If the Guardian had instead said: “England thrashed in run chase as India reach Commonwealth Games T20 final”, it would have been much more offensive. But why would they do that?
At the Commonwealth Games 2022, Pakistan won gold medals in weightlifting and javelin. Unfortunately, such Pakistani success stories are generally dismissed. The majority of coverage focuses on crime scenes, disputes, and losses, depicting the country as hopeless and without options.
A similar portrayal of Africa is prevalent in the Western media:
"That's why you see so many NGOs showing pictures of Africans looking so haggard and malnourished. They overlook other parts of Africa. Some people are struggling and living in poverty even in Europe. However, this is rarely addressed; instead, they point to poverty in Africa. It is very degrading," says Olatunji Ogunyemi.
Such repeated patterns in the media have established the general public's attitude and thinking about a certain country, and when diaspora journalists, like myself, offer any variation from that narrative, it is unsettling, and many simply refuse to believe it.
Navigating the ‘Western gaze’
Anam Zakaria, a Pakistani writer, oral historian and author based in Canada, whose work has featured in The New York Times, explains why she has only done a few pieces for the Western media.
"I've been thinking about not only what you write, but also who you are writing for. I've been hesitant, because there's a certain Western gaze and a certain expectation about what Pakistan or South Asia is and what should be written about them.
"Many of my immigrant friends in the United States, North America, and Canada are brilliant writers, but their novels won't get a publishing house. That's because there's a certain story they are supposed to tell about South Asia. It's a reality. The publishing houses are thinking: ‘How many South Asian writers have we already published this year? Is it enough?’ They don't question it when it comes to white authors or readers. But there is a quota for BIPOC writers, for racialised writers with immigrant stories. So that's a reality I'm expecting to face," she confesses.
This quota system is not new; it has been in place for many years. Consider the following example from Valerie Alia's book, Un/covering the North: News, Media, and Aboriginal People (1999), which recounts a discussion between Bud White Eye (p48), a First Nations journalist, and the CBC in Windsor, Ontario:
"The producer said: ‘We've already done two native stories this week’. When I asked how many "white" stories we had done so far, she slipped right off the handle; media say their budgets are tight."
It was further written: "When the London Free Press asked me to review the Harry Rasky documentary, Wars Against the Indians, I thought this was great. They didn't tell me they had also asked a white journalist. They put his review on the front page and stuck mine on the third page. I thought they didn't trust me enough. But I don't think it's just about trust, it's also about the ‘authoritative’ voice."
Olatunji Ogunyemi concurs, stating: "The global media is very powerful, they set the agenda for the rest of the media. So for us as minorities, we can't put our voice in the middle of it but we need to be able to do that."
‘I write to effect change’
In a similar vein, Afghan diaspora writers encounter significant challenges in getting published in international publications.
"There's this double standard that's applied to Afghan Americans or Afghans in the diaspora," says Arash Azizzada, a Los Angeles-based Afghan writer, photographer and community organiser who captures the tales of underrepresented groups across the United States.
"Every time we consider writing a piece or pitching it to a larger-sized publication, if accepted, the tenor and tone of the piece definitely takes on a new contour. That's because the gaze will be white and the gaze will be American," he adds.
In reference to his opinion column published in the New York Times, entitled: This Is What the Afghan Evacuation Looks Like from the Inside, on August 24, 2021, he says: "This was a window of opportunity for me since there was a crisis on-going. There are other pieces of writing that I have done previously, as well as certain credentials that I do not believe the New York Times respects or seeks. But at that moment, that previous work had built up. Sometimes, there's also just a sheer amount of light being in the right place at the right time."
According to Azizzada, diaspora journalists should be mindful of their intended readership and set some boundaries for their practices.
"It's always about catering to the intended audience. It's also self-censorship, shaping the narrative of your writing, and making it less one that reflects my anger, but rather more suited to the intended audience." His New York Times opinion piece was written with the president, his staff, the White House, and significant elected figures and policymakers in mind.
"When I write an opinion piece about Afghanistan, I always write from an activist perspective. I write not to reflect, but to effect change and to shift the focus of public discourse. If Afghans or other diaspora and immigrant writers wish to write about their homeland, it is a difficult position to take because some of us are exiles."
"There is a level of discomfort and maybe awkwardness, as a diaspora, to write about a situation back home. There needs to be a level of accountability. If you are writing in the United States, it's about holding elected officials accountable and giving them clear policy directives through opinion writing pieces that further the aims of 38 million Afghans."
Many diaspora studies claim that diaspora journalists are human rights advocates with the power to influence international media agendas and policy decision-makers. "But what is really required is for that type of voice to be constantly present, and for people to take up writing as a sustainable source of income," Arash Azizzada concludes.
‘The minority within the minority’
On August 1, 2022, the New York Times published a critical book review of The Haunting of Hajji Hotak, written by Afghan-American writer Jamil Jan Kochai. The book review, titled "The Echoes and Echoes and Echoes of War", was written by Elliot Ackerman, an American author, former CIA officer, and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who grew up in the United States. He writes that "some of Kochai’s work is hindered by poor research", "relies disappointingly on caricature" and portrays Afghanistan "less as a country and more as a dreamscape".
"It's an almost ugly assessment of the book that completely ignores the context," comments Arash Azizzada."It is unfortunate that he [Elliot Ackerman] writes negatively about one of the few published Afghan-American fiction writers in this powerful institution [the New York Times]. He may be the only mainstream Afghan-American novelist. Afghan writers already suffer significant barriers to publication and this is an example of very ugly double standards."
White journalists, reviewers and editors have traditionally dominated the scene when it comes to explaining diaspora homelands. Demographics don’t help. According to recent research, the newsrooms in the United States and the United Kingdom are predominantly white, with 70.8 percent white journalists in the United States and 94 percent white journalists in the United Kingdom. Diaspora voices are rarely featured in the mainstream media. But where does the problem originate?
"Well, 98 percent of my journalism students are white," says professor Olatunji Ogunyemi.
The National Council for the Training of Journalists discovered in November 2017 that 82 percent of undergraduate journalism students in the UK were white, with 8 percent being black, 4 percent Asian and 6 percent “other”. The findings highlight the need to attract more students from minority groups to pursue journalism as a career. It also raises the question of whether the lack of diversity in journalism begins at this early stage.
Additionally, the training of white journalism students should also focus on digging beneath the surface when covering diaspora perspectives. Ogunyemi further adds: "In journalism studies, a lot of aspects are covered, in terms of professional practice, content and audiences. But it doesn't actually look at the minority within the minority, which is how I classify the diaspora group. We do ethnic media studies. But the diasporas are not ethnic. We should separate the two, so we can study them and take them seriously."
However, it is not just the mainstream media and journalism departments which should be held accountable for the lack of diaspora voices in journalism. Local homeland institutions are at fault too. Ogunyemi recounts an interesting encounter from his homeland: "The editor of London's Africa Today magazine travels to South Africa to meet with the Minister of Information. He's told to take a seat and wait. Minutes later, a white BBC journalist arrives and requests to meet with the Minister. Before meeting the editor of Africa Today, African officials see the BBC reporter first. The mentality is that they do better journalism than us. Everything Western is better and good."
Ogunyemi believes that the African governments should first call Africa Today to tell them of breaking news and request that it be published. In that situation, the BBC would follow Africa Today. But instead, the BBC gets it first, and Africa Today struggles to keep up. In that regard, he says: "We are undermining our own efforts and platforms. As a result, you remain on the periphery. The spokesperson for Number 10 does not provide news to the African Voice, Africa Today, or even the CNN. Why would they do such a thing? They contact the BBC."
"Although connecting with the BBC will amplify the African voice, it will be twisted and framed to fit their own particular framework," he says. "There is an acceptance problem. The government and political leaders in the home country do not favour their own people, organisations and platforms."
This situation not only illustrates a lack of access for diaspora journalists, but it also magnifies a conflict between them and foreign journalists. When diaspora journalists try to get a place at the table, they are usually driven out or robbed of new opportunities by both their own people and foreign journalists.
Natural interpreters and negotiators
As a result, non-natives continue to tell native stories in the Western media. However, do non-natives or foreign journalists understand the communities they cover? Can they speak in the local language, as the diaspora journalists who were born there or have deep ties to the place?
Ogunyemi states the contrasts: "Just as there is a gap between native and foreign languages, there is a significant difference between diaspora journalism and foreign reporting. But what about those who know, understand and speak both languages?" he wonders.
As fluent speakers in both their host and native languages, diaspora journalists are natural interpreters and negotiators with a deeper understanding of cultural differences. But it is more likely for them to prioritise narratives from the host country, as well as sentiments towards the homeland. Emotionally charged homeland topics, on the other hand, may cause diaspora journalists to become biased, preventing them from writing effectively or accurately. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology by Catherine Caldwell-Harris, an associate professor of psychology, reveals that: "An emotional reaction can be influenced by any aspect of the ongoing situation, such as the language being spoken."
As such, white non-native journalists may appear to be experts and diaspora journalists, driven by emotions, may look to be amateurs, even though both are just covering the same story from different perspectives. Olatunji Ogunyemi says: "All journalists, whether from the mainstream or the minority, are now trained alike. You adhere to the same ethics, and you know about journalistic objectivity, gatekeeping and news values. That is all there. The only difference is in the application of these professional values." With this in mind, diaspora journalists must uphold ethical standards, accountability and accuracy as communicators of their host country and homeland.
Writing from a different location to the homeland, on the other hand, may provide diaspora journalists with unique perspectives and stories. Anam Zakaria advises: "It's more about experimenting and trying to learn in a different environment, rather than having some kind of static image in mind. That is something that being in the diaspora can offer you."
Some people are struggling and living in poverty even in Europe. However, this is rarely addressed; instead, they point to poverty in Africa. It is very degrading
Olatunji Ogunyemi, Associate Professor, School of English and Journalism, University of Lincoln, UK
Furthermore, if foreign reporters lack language skills and cultural understanding, they may be viewed as "too biased" to report effectively on the diaspora's homeland. As a result, the story is then presented from a distance, with key details missing. This is known as helicopter journalism, a style of reporting which lacks depth.
"When you go in and feel like you understand a place," says Zakaria. "You may, however, end up going in with preconceived notions of stereotypes of a specific region, with certain expectations, and then kind of reproducing those. That is the risk of not being rooted or familiar with the region," she adds.
When comparing diaspora journalists living abroad to native or local journalists residing in their home nation, a similar principle may apply. "Sitting in Pakistan, writing those pieces means something quite different than writing in the diaspora from Canada," says Zakaria.
"When you are not on the ground, rather when you are on the ground, there is a certain nuance, a certain dynamism on the ground that can be easily overlooked when you are in the diaspora. There's a certain expertise that comes with native journalism."
"The answer is not, not to write. But to take some time to really understand the audience, readers, and what's been published, as well as thinking about how I can do more nuanced story-telling."
"I don't want to become involved with the whole good and bad Pakistan image. Those are dichotomies that are just constructed. Every place is messy and has complexities that must be addressed. I believe it is necessary to have that critical lens. Are you interested in hearing that story?," she questions. And if you aren't, she says, "then I want to write about it, talk about it, and figure out where those barriers are coming from. But more importantly, how can I tell that story in such a way that it is not so easily lifted and packaged to do something else?"
Zakaria suggests that more diaspora representation is required on editorial boards of publishing houses. "It's a long struggle because it's a systemic problem that won't be solved overnight, but you have to keep pushing," she says. "We need to have more of these dialogues that address the systemic and structural factors that racialise writers. We need more platforms and organisations. There's a lot of power in creating platforms where people can tell their own stories in their own words." Zakaria has recently launched an artist collective, Qissa, a platform that documents oral histories of South Asian diaspora immigrants and others.
To ensure balanced media coverage of all communities, educational journalism institutes should focus on attracting more minority students. Meanwhile, foreign and national media houses must recruit more diaspora journalists.
Whether a diaspora journalist, a local journalist in your home country, or a foreigner reporter, we should all work together as sources who cross-verify one another.