We are Malala: How the media covers a 16-year-old hero

Everyone should know Malala Yousafzai’s story.

At 15 she was shot by a member of the Taliban because she spoke out publicly in favor of education for women. A year later, she presented in front of the UN on her 16th birthday (and you thought getting a car was awesome on your Sweet 16), been nominated for a Nobel Prize and published a book, I Am Malala, that has been praised for both its syntax and its message (and has landed the top spot on my Christmas wish list this year).

In short, she’s an eloquent but humble hero.

Which, naturally, means that the media is in love with her.

Since her speech and the release of her book, some of America’s top magazines have dedicated print space to her story. Time named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, putting her on the cover and assigning the essay to Chelsea Clinton.

Malala on the cover of Time
The other Time covers featured actress Jennifer Lawrence, Senator Rand Paul, Tesla creator Elon Musk and Emperor-of-Everything Jay-Z.

Meanwhile, Glamour awarded her one of 2013’s Glamour Women of the Year awards, and although she was not on the cover of the issue, Lady Gaga said at the award ceremony, “If I could forfeit my Glamour cover, I would give it to Malala.” After the speech Malala delivered at the same event impressed the audience, the magazine’s staff may have been rethinking their decision to put a Photoshopped-thin pop star on the cover rather than the round-faced activist proudly wearing her hijab.

And then there was the Daily Show interview. Jon Stewart always seems to have read the books written by his guests, asks questions that get them talking and for the most part counters their answers with his own intelligent insight. When he had Malala on the show, however, he was left, as the Internet in total has said, “speechless.”

The interview itself lacked the usual Stewart edge, but even Edward R. Murrow would have a hard time not being swept up in all-consuming “wow” when sitting with the teenage heroine. As the Daily Show host said at the beginning of their conversation, “It is honestly humbling to meet you.” As a viewer, it’s honestly humbling to simply watch her.*

*“I’ve done nothing with my life, and I am a waste of space,” I thought as I knocked back another handful of Junior Mints.

As I’ve written before, part of the journalist’s task is to objectively approach subjects, from crooked politicians to people like Malala who risk their lives in the line of bettering their world. Journalistic ethics dictate that the press should immediately start digging into Malala’s past to confirm that she is who she says she is — a 16-year-old who has been shot by extremists for speaking up for women’s education. There have been too many occasions where the press obsesses over an activist only to watch as the once-media darling crashes in scandal. We saw this when Greg Mortenson, the author of Three Cups of Tea, was discovered through 60 Minutes investigation to have spun his Oprah-endorsed book from lies about his travels in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The media should be embarrassed enough by its blind promotion of Mortenson to keep itself from being so starstruck with Malala, even if she deserves every ounce of America’s affection.

Jon Stewart's reaction pretty much sums it up.
Jon Stewart’s expression sums up how most Americans feel when they hear Malala speak.

But Malala is not like Greg Mortenson, and here’s why. The Glamour article by Cindi Leive cites the start of Malala’s journey as the moment that the teenager alone answered a BBC journalist’s plea for someone to help expose the terror in her northern Pakistan home of Swat Valley. She did so by writing diary entries about life under the Taliban and leading, as Leive writes, “a double life: In one world, she was an Ugly Betty fan known for her spot-on impersonations of teachers and friends; in the other, a rising voice of dissent against terror.”

Essentially, the press created Malala by using her documentation of torture, killings and oppression. Now the media is repaying her for her service by giving her an even bigger platform that includes high-profile interviews and magazine covers. That’s why I find it agreeable that journalists regard Malala with not only respect but also adoration and idolization. This isn’t a middle-aged American author who travelled in the Middle East and falsified a book based on his delusions — this is a 16-year-old girl who lived the terror and had the courage to expose it, even if that meant being shot in the head.

I think it’s also important to look at the types of media that aren’t covering Malala. While Time and Glamour capture the attention of adults in America, some of the top youth-targeting media outlets have left her out of their coverage. This is egregious in a couple of ways.

First, it says to young Americans that they are not expected to be interested or intelligent enough to grasp Malala’s message. Nick News is one of the few outlets that presents serious news to a young audience (and one of the reasons I loved following current events as a kid), and they have thoroughly covered Malala. That makes the show a rarity in the world of magazines and programs more concerned with the Jonas Brothers’ recent breakup and Miley Cyrus’ MTV EMA award performance. By letting infotainment dominate, we’re training the younger generations to value what Miley Cyrus does or says more than news relating to someone like the Girl Who Stood Up For Education and Was Shot By The Taliban.

Let's play a game of "Who's The Better Role Model, Anyway?"
Let’s play a game of “Who’s The Better Role Model, Anyway?” where everyone admires eloquence and the points all go to Malala.

The second problem is that Malala’s experience of being denied the opportunity to learn and grow like her male peers and subsequent pro-education message should resonate with American students of every gender. Malala said on The Daily Show: “It is part of our human nature that we don’t learn the importance of anything until it is snatched from our hands. And when in Pakistan, when we were stopped from going school, at that time I realized that education is very important.” I think if more junior high and high school students could hear about how she was denied the ability to learn, they might complain less about classes starting at 7:30 a.m. or having a history project and English essay due the same day.

They may even start fighting to uncover severe injustices in their own world. “Come out and struggle for your rights; nothing can happen without your voice,” Malala told Glamour. “It’s your world, and you can change it.”


One Comment

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  1. it’s the women of the world who stood up to tyranny first, just read the stories of old, from joan or arc, to martha, endless list, great stuff

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