By SPJ | March 30th, 2011
By Scott Leadingham
You’d be forgiven for admitting confusion upon hearing or reading the term “Middle East.” And lately, that’s an almost impossible term to avoid seeing or hearing in news media.
What started as a backlash against policies in Tunisia has spread across North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and north to Syria. At the moment, the United States finds itself assisting in a United Nations-backed air defense mission in Libya.
With all of this has come near constant news coverage, which has only taken a backseat at times to news of the Japan tsunami and corresponding nuclear issues.
Each country in question is unique, and the circumstances surrounding protests and uprisings differ drastically from one to the next.
But it’s not uncommon to lump all these countries together under one simple descriptor: the Middle East. With U.S. involvement in Libya, news outlets have featured reporters, analysts, pundits and everyone in between wondering if military resources are being stretched. To encapsulate a topic of discussion: The U.S. is, after all, involved in two other Middle East conflicts – in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Therein is the question. Are Afghanistan and Libya (and any number of other countries – Tunisia, too) technically “the Middle East”? Does it matter?
It absolutely matters. Accuracy in news reporting is a fundamental underpinning of credible journalism. For example, if the BBC consistently referred to Mexico as part of South America, they’d be expected to correct this misnomer.
When hearing references to Libya or Afghanistan being in the Middle East, I had flashbacks to my undergraduate geography courses. I seemed to recall that Afghanistan was decidedly not in the Middle East by geographic standards. Aren’t these universally accepted standards in academic disciplines and in journalism?
Actually, I found, they’re not. While Mexico is certainly a part of the North American continent and not a part of South America, it’s not that simple with the Middle East.
The Middle East “is not an exact term,” according to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
Depending on the situation and who you ask, “Pakistan or Afghanistan can be either in or out,” Landis wrote in an email.
The Associated Press Stylebook – which, depending on your news outlet, is either the “Bible” or a nice spiritual guide in trying times – is in the “out” camp for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
From the 2010 Stylebook entry on Middle East:
“The term applies to southwest Asia west of Pakistan and Afghanistan (Iran, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the eastern part of Turkey known also as Asia Minor, United Arab Eremites and Yemen), and northeastern Africa (Egypt and Sudan).”
By that standard, Afghanistan is not in the Middle East, and neither are Libya or Tunisia. The latter two would, in theory, be in North Africa. It would help if the Stylebook included a North Africa entry, but it does not.
[Update: 3/30/11 1:09 p.m. ET] New York Times Standards Editor Phil Corbett got back to me after this post was originally published.
The New York Times’ style guide says:
“The Middle East comprises Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen and the Persian Gulf emirates.”
That definition includes Libya, but not Afghanistan or Turkey. (Note the differences with AP.)
Corbett wrote in an email that he agrees what constitutes the Middle East is debatable, and “there may occasionally be some contexts in which we would mention other countries in a general ‘Middle East’ connection.”
Note: I inquired of GlobalPost about its definitions of “Middle East,” but haven’t heard back.
Landis of the University of Oklahoma notes that North Africa is part of the Middle East, “according to most traditions.”
But the tradition of Bernard Haykel is less broad. Haykel is a professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and directs its Institute for Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia.
“When I think of the Middle East, I think of lands that include Egypt to the borders of Iraq,” Haykel says. “And Iran, too.”
He says he would correct a student who places Afghanistan in the Middle East, while recognizing there is ambiguity in the description. And, he notes, such regional descriptions are relative. In India, for example, what people in the U.S. and Europe label the Middle East is called West Asia.
Perhaps some of the ambiguity comes from textbooks.
Since I was channeling college geography courses in thinking about this issue, I asked a good source: my undergraduate geography professor.
Elaine Glenn is a senior lecturer at Central Washington University focusing on political geography and the Middle East. She says Afghanistan gets placed in different regions depending on the text you read. One text she uses, “Globalization and Diversity: Geography of a Changing World,” refers to everything from Western Sahara (in northwest Africa) to Iran as “South West Asia and North Africa.” Another text, “World Regional Geography,” calls the same region “the Middle East and North Africa,” and it includes Afghanistan in that description.
“You could technically describe anything from Western Sahara to at least Iran as the Middle East,” Glenn says, but notes that it’s subjective and “each text is different.”
Glenn says she personally tells students that everything from Western Sahara to Afghanistan could be included. But, she qualifies an important point.
“(I) try to help them understand the more subtle connections and linkages in these countries. Generally it is OK to put them all together, but a deeper study of the region reveals the similarities and differences in culture, language and history.”
Good advice. That’s not just a job for geography professors. Aside from striving for accuracy, providing such context and explanation should be a primary mission for all news outlets – regardless of the region from which news disseminates.
Scott Leadingham is editor of Quill magazine. On Twitter: @scottleadingham