University of Michigan alumni Beth Fertig, a former Arts editor at The Michigan Daily and a senior reporter at the WNYC public radio station, and Aisha Sultan, a nationally syndicated columnist with the Saint Louis Post dispatch, participated in a conversation on the impact of the Sept. 11 attacks on the journalism industry during a virtual conference Thursday afternoon.
The Ford School of Public Policy and Wallace House co-hosted the virtual talk, which was moderated by Wallace House director Lynette Clemetson.
During the talk, the journalists discussed the discrimination and racism Muslim Americans faced immediately following the Sept. 11 attacks. Sultan, who is Muslim, said this time was filled with uncertainty for the Muslim American community.
“I did not know if we would be put into camps like the Japanese were after World War II, I did not know if we would suffer a physical attack,” Sultan said. “It was an extremely painful experience to try to process the anguish of what was happening in our country and to also feel under suspicion all of a sudden for it.”
Sultan also commented on lasting state actions that continue to target all Muslim Americans.
“We saw informants, surveillance and government powers used against our communities in ways that had not been done before.”
Fertig was in New York City the day the Twin Towers collapsed and reported on the attacks in real-time for WYNC.
“It’s very difficult when you’re a reporter and you’re under all that stress to be as accurate as you can, but you also know it’s better to air on the side of caution than to say something that is going to be inflammatory or dangerous if people get the wrong information,” Fertig said.
The attendees also explained how the journalism industry has changed in the last 20 years. The panelists recalled the different “communication ecosystem” that existed 20 years ago, and noted how social media and smartphones have significantly changed the way facts and information are shared between sources, reporters and editors.
Fertig and Sultan also discussed the recent increase in fake news and the general lack of trust in the facts that the media reports currently.
“If it had happened today people wouldn’t even believe what we were seeing, they would say there were false flags and actors — like the crazy stuff we have heard about Sandy Hook,” Fertig said.
Fertig said the public’s distrust in the media is because reporters are less present in the community than they were compared to two decades ago, given the decline in local news coverage.
“If you don’t see reporters in your neighborhood or community who look like you, care about you, who represent your community and cover the things you’re interested in, you would not believe the media either,” Fertig said.
Clemetson added that a decrease in the availability of jobs for reporters would make it difficult for news outlets to cover the Sept. 11 attacks if they were to happen today.
“If it happened today we wouldn’t have the press core that was able to be mobilized on the ground that day because so many jobs have been eliminated,” Clemetson said.
LSA Junior Daniel Chang watched the recording of the event Youtube stream on Thursday. After watching the talk, Chang emphasized the importance of recognizing both the direct and indirect effects the attacks have had on people.
“It’s 20 years later and as we think about the lives lost and honoring those who served the country, like the firefighters, we also need to remember those who have indirectly had their lives changed, such as discrimination against Muslim Americans,” Chang said. “Both things need to be realized in order for our country to heal.”
Sultan concluded the talk by saying that Islamophobia still exists in the country today, but people are also more informed than they were 20 years ago.
“I feel like Muslim Americans do have more of a voice and are a part of the conversation, but that said, when you do have a historically marginalized group start to make gains in representation, there can be an even stronger pushback to silence that from people who are threatened,” Sultan said.
Daily Staff Reporter Shehrez Chaudhri can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.