Student journalists shine spotlight on Arab American voters

NU-Q journalism majors travel to Washington D.C. to explore key issues in upcoming presidential elections

Doha, QATAR– June 27, 2012 – Journalism and Communication students from Northwestern University in Qatar traveled to Washington, D.C., to report on the political attitudes and organization of Arab Americans, and how that may influence the upcoming U.S. presidential election on November 6.

Through a series of interviews with political analysts, leaders, and voters in the U.S. capital, students explored the issues influencing the Arab American vote: dual identity, discrimination, and local and national interest groups.  They then launched the website arabamreeka2012.org, which showcases their video and written reports.

The students’ trip to D.C. was part of a field reporting course designed to impart the young people with knowledge and experience in reporting on campaigns, election results and the governing process.

NU-Q dean and CEO Everette E. Dennis noted the importance of developing political reporting skills for aspiring media professionals of all kinds. “Using the U.S. Presidential election to learn about politics, governance and the role of ethnic minorities, in this instance Arab-Americans, was a good way to grapple with the realities of how democratic societies work—for better and worse,” the dean said.  “Reporters preparing for careers in the news media need to be keen observers and insightful analysts as they learn that even an advanced political system is not perfect.”

Dr. Dennis commented that the success of the program reflected the broad support and experience that the students receive at NU-Q, commenting that “the work produced by the students on this project, under supportive faculty guidance, demonstrates the value of field work that builds on the academic experience.”

Freshman Angel Polacco says the program helped her to develop a “nose for news,” as one of her professors put it. She found the candor of her interviewees in Washington to be surprising and helpful as she gathered her reports, commenting that “the most interesting thing I learned during this trip is that there are people who are actually willing to speak on the record, moreover on controversial issues. For instance we had an interviewee say that President Obama might suffer from an inferiority complex pertaining to his ethnicity and misconceptions of his religious background. People are very open in terms of speaking their mind.”

During her two weeks in D.C., Polacco reported on how discrimination based on religion and ethnicity has not only discouraged many Arab Americans from participating in electoral politics, but has also influenced the way they vote.  Polacco interviewed Warren David, president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and Corey Saylor, national legislative director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, on the topic.

 “In the past, we have seen that the community is able to shift its vote from party to party because of the promises presidential candidates make and the policies they advocate,” Saylor told the students, adding that in the 2012 election, the likelihood is that they are going to vote Democratic.  According to a poll conducted by the Arab American Institute in 2010, 50 percent of Arab Americans identified themselves as Democrats, 25 percent as Republicans, and 23 percent as Independents.

 “The question that comes out of the last three and a half years is, do they remain inspired enough by President Obama to actually go and vote on the election day? And that’s the key thing,” Saylor added.

 “I think it’s important to report on Arab American voters because it’s an issue that is seriously underreported,” added Polacco.

 Her classmate Jaimee Haddad, an Arab American of Lebanese descent, agrees.

 “As a minority group, Arab Americans are key players in the US election because they are a fairly organized community, and they are active voters, yet they don’t get as much national attention,” says Haddad.  She was particularly interested in participating in the D.C. reporting trip because of her family background.

 During the trip, Haddad interviewed key figures from local and national Arab American interest groups, including the New Dominion Political Action Committee, which works to register Arab American voters and endorses local and state candidates for office in Virginia, and the Arab American Institute, which works on a more national scale to help average Arab Americans get involved in American politics, and others. “We wanted to find out more about what Arab Americans in D.C. are doing to both mobilize voters and magnify the voice of the community,” says Haddad.

 While in the U.S. capital, the journalists-in-training also met with political reporters and a chief speech writer in the White House.

 “In addition to reporting, interviewing, writing and editing, I also wanted to give the students a real taste for being a campaign reporter in Washington,” said Jennifer Koons, who is a lecturer in the Journalism program at NU-Q and led the reporting trip.  The students were required to complete a course on American Politics, taught by Political Science Professor Sean Burns, in Doha this spring before they traveled to D.C. The class provided the students with a background and familiarity with U.S. politics, which “really allowed them to hit the ground running,” said Koons.