Knowing where you are coming from helps in charting where you want to go. The Arab mass media, like many other sectors of society, need to gauge how to take advantage of the Arab awakening that continues to challenge and transform governments. This is the time to do the hard, long overdue workof achieving higher standards of professionalism, credibility and market viability for those who report the news. First, it’s vital to pause and recall how various media—old and new—have fit into the gamut of change that has been sweeping the region since last December and understand how news and views—facts and passions—have been circulating through the region and continue to do so today.
Traditional news media—television, radio, newspapers and magazines—have played an influential role in the spread of these citizen revolts. Yet the significance of digital media has been impressive, too, in shaping public opinion and spurring action as activists, citizens and journalists increasingly used and relied on it—most of all, Facebook, Twitter, e-mail and cell phone text messaging. Even so, with their powerful and captivating spot reporting, traditional news media did convey developments on the ground in multiple countries and cities while also providing nonstop analysis and opinionated interviews. Such coverage affected the region’s political mobilization, even if traditional journalists’ impact seemed mostly inadvertent and only sometimes deliberate.
These contemporary means of messaging were buttressed efficiently and effectively by old-fashioned word-of-mouth conversation in mosques, churches, neighborhoods, local groceries, and street corners, and through professional organizations and political groups. In fact, the most important media lesson I learned during the past nine months came from watching what happened when governments shut down the Internet or cell phone systems, as leaders did in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, and Libya. The number of people out in the streets visibly increased; this reminded me that mass news media can be marginalized or seem dispensable at times of political peril.
“The Arab Story: The Big One Waiting to Be Told”
– Rami Khouri
From Summer 2002 The challenge that has defined the aspirations of traditional Arab journalists since the 1950’s—figuring out how to nurture and promote an independent, professional media free of government controls—is now being pushed to the side by at least a dozen serious digital communications media platforms that now compete with traditional audio, visual and print mass media. In many instances, the traditional news media, as a distinct sector of society, vanish from view at those times when hundreds of thousands of citizens gather in the streets and communicate face to face or digitally.
Inspired by Al Jazeera’s success, media representatives visit its newsroom in Doha, Qatar. Photo by The Associated Press.
I’ve worked in the news media business in the Arab world for the past 40 years, and I am a fervent celebrator of the political changes under way. To those who own, manage or work for traditional news organizations, I offer five observations for making progress at a time when there are unprecedented opportunities to create an independent (nonstate-affiliated), relevant and viable news media. These are attributes we’ve worked toward achieving for decades, and now, while doing this is still difficult, it is possible.
- Young Arabs have little time or respect for their traditional news media. They took to the streets because they refused to put up with the humiliating subservience and dehumanization that the controlling regimes and their savage media practices subjected them to—practices that their parents and elders could not protect them from. Nearly half of all Arabs between the ages of 15 and 29 say they have little or no faith in their country’s news media, according to recent Gallup surveys. The first task of journalists is to re-establish the relevance and credibility of news media with the half of Arab society who are under the age of 30.
- It is critical to understand that young and old turn to their numerous media choices for news and entertainment; this requires journalists to find ways for public affairs reporting to become much more captivating.
- Arab citizens, once freed from authoritarian regimes, can absorb the full range and combination of news, views and analysis critical to the news media’s credibility and success. A proliferation of informational sources for those with access to a cell phone, radio, television or Internet connection—in other words, the Arab region’s 350 million citizens—means that journalists must stand out as the reliable aggregator of facts, synthesizer of views, and purveyor of independent, accurate analysis. When people can choose from tens of thousands of sources of news and opinion, journalists need to sift and cut through the unfiltered noise and offer a contextual article, television or radio piece, or a multimedia online story that explains the significance of what happened. Why does it matter to me? To my country?
- With its expansive reach across the region (and globally), Al Jazeera’s cable and satellite TV succeeds because its journalism is solid: spot news gets covered quite accurately, quickly and fairly. Independent analysts provide well-considered commentary and opinions, tempered and contextualized. Its stories matter to its various targeted audiences, and editorial decisions are made mostly without pandering to biases or ideological allegiances.
- Constitutional and legal protections matter. This is why political uprisings in the Arab region are calling for genuine constitutional change with the goal of protecting the fundamental rights and equality of all citizens. Legal limits to press freedom, including for reasons of national security, social or moral decency, or personal libel are routinely practiced here, as they are in many other countries. As these revolutionary movements push ahead, Arab news media need to define their legal safeguards, which means their voices need to be a part of the broader constitutional debate rather than ceding this ground to politically powerful entities.
Arab journalists who have more freedom to operate can experiment with meshing their independent reporting with emerging business models. Training will be essential if this younger generation of journalists is going to learn how to practice the nuanced mix of news and views that citizens in this region now expect.
Rami G. Khouri, a 2002 Nieman Fellow, is an internationally syndicated columnist and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at American University of Beirut in Lebanon.