|This article is based on a presentation at the conference "The Ethics of Journalism: Comparison and Transformations in the Islamic-Western Context," under the auspices of German President Johannes Rau (Bellevue Palace, Berlin, 29-30 March 29-30, 2001), organized by the German Institute for Middle East Studies (Deutsches Orient-Institut), Hamburg, and the Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius Zeit Foundadtion, Hamburg. The article will be published in Kai Hafez (ed.), "Negotiating Global Media Ethics"|
The development of Arab world television in the past two decades has been marked by increasing awareness among government information officials as well as TV executives and practitioners of the potential role of television as a credible and influential source of news. Until recently, the concept of television journalism was virtually non-existent in Arab world television services, which for three decades had functioned more as government propaganda machines than as independent sources of information. nightly newscasts were not only the major components of television journalism but they were themselves dull and monolithic in their format, content, and delivery orientations. Television news gatekeepers selected their topics with a view guided mainly by existing political, social, and cultural arrangements. Political news dealing with leadership speeches, official visits, and protocol activities was always topping Arab world TV news agendas. Opposition groups had less access to government-monopolized television and so did large segments of the population living beyond urban centers. In the 1970s and 1980s, a single-channel environment provided viewers with limited exposure to regional and international television from neighboring countries and around the world.With the new political, social, and technological developments sweeping the Arab world since the late 1980s, a new version of television journalism has evolved as a distinctive programming genre on Arab world television. The political democratization and socio-economic liberalization of Arab societies, coupled with accelerating advancements in information and communication technologies, seem to have created a new environment conducive to the utilization of television as a powerful force of public opinion formation. The rise of commercial satellite television alongside government-controlled broadcasting has brought about a new public sphere marked by varied news agendas. More than ever before, previously suppressed political perspectives and orientation have become more visible on Arab world television. According to Alterman (1999), the rise of regional information organs has reinvigorated a sense of common destiny among many in the Arab world. Regional broadcasting has created regional news organizations-both in terms of news coverage and delivery-that far surpassed what had previously existed.The evolving Arab world television environment owes its development to numerous factors, the most outstanding of which has been a new generation of television executives and practitioners, with professional training in the United States and Western Europe. They seem to believe in the potential role of Arab world television in the age of globalization and media competition. New television journalism practices drawing on news work as a professional rather than a political domain, have also become more common with the rising popularity of live talk shows, panel discussions, and interviews. An American-style journalism drawing on exposure to global and national U.S. television news practices seems to be gaining new ground in Arab world television. Alterman (1999) credits satellite television channels like Al-Jazeera for launching a regional dialogue among intellectuals in the Arab world on a range of issues. Al-Hail (2000) and Amin (2000) note that such dialogue contributes to fostering civil society practices in the Arab region. In government broadcasting, competition from global television networks such as CNN seems to have brought further pressures on government television organizations to modify their news programming contents and techniques (Ayish, 1995).This study explores newscasts broadcast by five Arab world satellite television channels: Abu Dhabi Satellite Channel, Al-Jazeera Satellite Channell, Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC), Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), and Syrian Satellite Channel. Based on the analysis of newscasts aired by the five broadcasters, the study identifies professional journalism features that seem to lend themselves to American TV news practices. The objective of the study is to shed light on evolving television journalism in Arab TV news environments and to relate that to ethical standards dominant in Arab Islamic societies. Although the findings include numerical data about sample newscast features, the study derives some of its significant conclusions from a qualitative analysis of news materials.
The Arab World Television Scene
One of the remarkable developments in the Arab television scene in the 1990s has been the breakup of a 40-year government monopoly model of broadcasting in the Arab world. The model traditionally derives from the notion of broadcasting as a tool of national development that should be placed under government control. Although this model drew partly on broadcast systems dominant in former colonial nations like Britain a France, a greater government control of television organizations had deprived broadcasters of editorial discretion and autonomy. Operating within ministries of information, television organizations for the most part were funded exclusively from national budgetary allocations and their employees were viewed as part of public-sector bureaucracy.
By the end of the 1980s, the Arab world TV monopoly model began to experience major cracks with the creation of more autonomous television organizations in several Arab countries and the rise of commercial television service alongside government broadcasting. The liberalization of government television in the Arab world seems to have taken place in tune with new global trends in public broadcasting around the world. Achilles and Miege (1994) note that since the mid-1980s, public service television in Western Europe had to confront competition from new commercial and for the most part generalist television channels, and to take up cultural, programming, and financial challenges.
The entry of commercial broadcasters with huge technical and financial resources into the Arab world television scene has been an important development. In September 1991, Arab audiences had their first taste of private satellite television when MBC went on the air from studio facilities in London with Western-styled programming. More private broadcasters followed suit: Orbit in 1994, ART in 1995, LBC and Future Television in 1995, and Al-Jazeera from Qatar in 1996. These services brought to Arab homes not only a wider range of program choices, but new programming genres that continue to be distinctive features of Arab television screens. The main implication of this development has been a dwindling government television audience and fiercer competition with print media for a limited advertising pie.
Another perspective of the professional communicator derives from organizational research. In his discussion of mass communication models relating to the understanding of media work, Hirsch (1997) notes that the organizational perspective takes the organization as a whole and its administration as the basic unit of analysis. According to Sigal (1973), the organizational perspective of news production suggests that news gathering and news reporting are routine practices as reporters follow fixed procedures in information gathering. He also points out that the division of labor within news organizations reflects some sort of bureaucratic politics where editors and reporters are perceived not as monolithic, but as holding conflicting views on news. In her study of news as a construction of reality, Tuchman (1978) notes that the structuring of newsgathering, as an organization feature, suggests that news is defined mostly in accordance with the way news media are organized. Tunstall (1972), who conducted detailed studies on international news agencies, observes that news organizations are non-routine bureaucracies always under pressure towards routinization.
American media draw on a range of professional axioms to guide their operations. One of them is the concept of objectivity which denotes reporters' detachment from the information they report. The concept has come under fire because it suggests a preclusion of responsibility and nurtures reactive attitudes on the part of media workers. Priority is given to sources' statements to the exclusion of reporters' insights and firsthand observations. Objective journalism differs from advocate journalism in the active role accorded to the latter in the surveillance of the environment and the interrelation of its parts (Janowitz, 1975). Schiller (1979) notes that objectivity seeks to legitimize the role of the commercial press as the "protector of the public good." American media have also been criticized for playing up sensational and entertainment-oriented content at the expense of serious political and cultural issues and social problems. In international affairs, American media have been taken to task for playing up negative news and information about wars and natural disasters while ignoring "developmental achievements" in Third World nations. As gatekeepers strive to cope with successive deadlines, they have been criticized for compromising news thoroughness and accuracy.
The Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) Code of Broadcast News Ethics, which was adopted August 31, 1987, has been the most outstanding frame of reference governing news work practices at U.S. radio and television newsrooms. The RTNDA code notes that the responsibility of radio and television journalists is to gather and report information of importance and interest to the public accurately, honestly, and impartially. It calls on RTNDA members to strive to present the source or nature of broadcast news material in a way that is balanced, accurate, and fair; evaluate information solely on its merits as news, rejecting sensationalism or misleading emphasis in any form; and guard against using audio or video material in a way that deceives the audience.
Broadcast News Between Politics and Journalism
The launch of commercial television in the Arab world has not only widened viewers' programming choices, but it has also given them access to new formats and styles rarely used in government-monopolized television. Professional rather than political considerations seem to be the driving force behind news work at private stations keen on establishing a foothold in a highly competitive media market. For them, what makes news is a host of values that relate to the event or issue and its significance for the audience. Because most news staff had been either trained in Western countries or had worked in Western media organizations, their sense of news work draws on it as a highly selective process. To this end, private broadcasters have invested heavily in news development by introducing state-of-the-art technologies and establishing far-flung networks of reporters and correspondents who often do their dispatches on live bases. The visual capabilities of television are highly utilized with rich graphics and video materials as well as sleek delivery formats. A newscast is made up of a series of news intros for reports and news items. Rarely does a news item appear with no accompanying video. Conversational and friendly news delivery methods are adopted. As the head of Al-Jazeera Satellite Channel notes:
Yet one must note that although objectivity seems to be a distinctive feature of American-style journalism, it does not seem to be as such when it comes to Arab television handling of what are perceived as national Arab concerns like the Palestinian Intifada, the situation in South Lebanon, and the blockade on Iraq. A senior MBC official told this author in 1996 that while this service prides itself on being balanced in its coverage of events and issues, it cannot detach itself from the fact that it is also committed to pan-Arab issues and cannot cover them like any other television network (Ayish, 1998). This statement seems to apply to all other Arab world television channels, which argue that the centrality of the Palestinian cause dictates that they take their Arab viewers' side by promoting Palestinian perspectives.
MBC: Owned and operated by the Saudi ARA Group International (AGI), this commercial Arabic single-channel service was launched on September 18, 1991, from studio facilities in London. MBC provides a middle-of-the-road mixture of news, information, and entertainment, modeled on Western broadcasting production values and practices. One study found that MBC was particularly attractive to viewers because of its news and current affairs programming (Ayish, 1997).
Al-Jazeera: This Qatar-based service was launched in November 1996 with a six-hour transmission that ran around the clock by February 1999. Al-Jazeera has risen to prominence in the past three years in light of its daring handling of social and political issues in the Arab world, where audiences had been used to monolithic media performance. In as much as Al-Jazeera has won the hearts and minds of millions of viewers, it has also incurred the anger of numerous Arab governments for its critical coverage of social and political issues. The service draws on a highly professional staff with international experience as well as on state-of-the-art digital production technologies. Al-Jazeera has been hailed as the only satellite television service in the Arab world to deal with issues of corruption and polygamy (Hafez 1999, 75).
LBC: LBC was originally launched on August 23, 1985 as a private terrestrial broadcasting organization, the first in the Arab world. It went on the air as one of 50 stations in Lebanon at the time. Even so, the service claims to command 60 percent of market share in a highly competitive environment. By January 2000, the Lebanese service was transmitting special television packages to Europe, the United States, Africa, and Asia.
Abu Dhabi Satellite Channel (ADSC), a government-operated service based in the United Arab Emirates with state-of-the-art technologies, professional staff, and mostly entertainment-oriented programming. ADSC operates as part of the Emirates Media Corporation, a newly established media body serving as an umbrella for one national newspaper, three television stations, four radio stations, and numerous publications. During the past two years, ADSC has experienced major development and technical modernization.
Syrian Satellite Channel (SSC): This is a government-controlled and operated television service with traditional news and public affairs programming format, yet with modern entertainment offerings. Since President Bashar Al Asad of Syria assumed office in July 2000, the opening up of a traditionally closed media system has been one of his priorities. This attitude has been slowly reflected on the programming content of Syria's local and satellite television services. News, however, remains confined to conventional formats.
The five-day sample was taken over the following dates: Friday Sept. 22, Saturday Sept. 30, Sunday Oct. 8, Monday Oct. 16, and Tuesday Oct. 24, all in the year 2000. Newscasts were recorded off the air and coded for the following themes: news topic, news format, area of coverage, and attitudes.
News topic: The study shows that LBC had the largest number of news items (82) in the five newscasts of the sample, followed by ADSC, Al-Jazeera, and SSC respectively. This is due to the fact that LBC follows a format in which the largest number of news items are included in the news lineup with a very short duration for each item. For the five television services, political news was the most dominant news topic, scoring 78.7% on MBC, 77.4% on Al-Jazeera, 75.7% on SSC, 74.3% on LBC, and 58.3% on ADSC. The overall percentage of political news in the whole sample was 72.2%, the highest percentage of news topics. This finding may be explained by the fact that political news has traditionally been an important news selection criterion used by Arab media gatekeepers to the extent that news has often been defined mostly in political terms. Economic, military, and civil strife news followed in terms of percentage-9.69%, 8%, and 7.2% respectively.
News Format: The findings of the study show that voice-over news items were the dominant format used in ADSC, Al-Jazeera, MBC, and SSC, while the report format was dominant in newscasts aired by LBC (69.5%), followed by ADSC (37.5%), Al-Jazeera (35.2%), MBC (16.6%), and SSC (2.85%). It should be noted here that the high percentage of report formats in four satellite channels (ADSC, Al-Jazeera, LBC, MBC) is due to the fact that those services seem to have adopted new delivery styles drawing on Western presentation formats. All four services have correspondents stationed at major Arab world and international cities from which they dispatch their reports on a daily basis. They also have correspondents based in the Palestinian territories, Cairo, Amman, Beirut, Washington DC, London, Paris, and other cities. Both ADSC and Al-Jazeera maintain permanent offices in Washington DC and London. On the other hand, the low percentage of reports in the SSC newscasts was offset by a high percentage of voiceovers and on-camera items. This SSC finding reflects a lacking comprehension of the visual potential of television as a medium of communication at some government-controlled services. As Schleifer (1998) notes in reference to MBC:
Area of Coverage: All five television services carried a high percentage of news items about pan-Arab developments and issues 55.5% for ADSC, 72.3% for Al-Jazeera, 43.9% for LBC, 48.4% for MBC, and 57.1% for SSC. Local news was reported only by Syrian television. International news was the highest in LBC (56%), MBC (51.5%), and ADSC (44.4%). The overwhelming majority of pan-Arab news items was about the Palestinian Al-Aqsa uprising, while international news related to developments in a wide range of countries in Africa, Asia, and North America. The coverage of the events in Palestine reflected satellite television services' interest in not only conveying newsworthy events to their viewers, but also underscored their keenness to bring the suffering of Palestinians under Israeli occupation to the attention of Arab world audiences. It has been noted that the role of Arab world satellite television services in promoting Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation has been instrumental in keeping the Palestinian uprising alive for over two months (Khairi, 2000). This is consistent with the findings of previous studies about an enduring negative Israeli image in Arab world television (Alterman, 1998).
Attitudes Toward Selected Political Players: The findings of the study show that all five broadcasters were supportive of Palestinians in their struggle for independence. The same attitude was expressed to a lesser degree for Iraq, which continues to be subjected to a ten-year economic embargo. Pro-Palestinian attitudes were reflected notably in newscasts by Al-Jazeera, with 32 items, and ADSC with 22 items. ADSC, Al-Jazeera, SSC, and LBC reported positive news about Iraq, while MBC broadcast three items only. Anti-Israeli items were reported by all five services with the highest number of negative items reported by SSC, ADSC, and Al-Jazeera. The United States received mostly negative treatment in news items carried by the five broadcasters. This is clearly due to U.S. support for Israeli positions during the Al-Aqsa uprising. It was noted that the United States was unrightfully accusing the Palestinians of inciting violent actions against Israel. The U.S. was oblivious to Israeli overuse of force in handling Palestinian reactions even when Palestinians were being shot dead in big numbers. This supportive attitude towards Palestinian resistance against Israeli occupation reflects Arab world television's commitment to furthering Palestinian national interests. Although television services like MBC and Al-Jazeera were featuring Israeli personalities on their news programs, the way those programs were handled by news anchors reflected a clear disenchantment with Israel's excessive use of force against Palestinian civilians.
The Television Journalism Model Components
a) Sensationalism: The use of television as a sensational medium of communication in the Arab world has been evident in the extensive use of video and images about demonstrators. The video film about the Palestinian boy Mohammed Al Durra being shot to death while lying in the lap of his grieving father was sufficient to attract viewers' attention and inflame anti-Israeli sentiments. Other images of stone-throwing Palestinians facing heavily armed Israeli soldiers and tanks added a great deal of drama to the coverage of events in the West Bank and Gaza. Similar images and video scenes of the fighting in Afghanistan and the Ivory Coast also reflected the playing up of violence as a means of catching viewers' attention. In two of the services covered by the study, the use of a video film showing some black South Africans being attacked by police dogs represented an over-dramatization of events to which exposure may not lead to favorable consequences. Another video scene also described a mob attack on a lone man in the Ivory Coast. The man was beaten to death on camera.
The sensational component in Arab world television news may be explained in two ways: to attract viewers' attention to the atrocities committed by Israeli forces against Palestinian civilians, especially children, using video scenes shot mostly by each station's crew in the West Bank and Gaza. Video scenes dealing with events in Afghanistan, the Ivory Coast, and South Africa do not seem to reflect purposeful political attitudes on the part of broadcasters, who used those items as received from international newsfilm agencies.
It should be noted that sensational news items on some satellite television newscasts are accompanied by heavy entertainment programming in which central cultural and religious values are ignored. The showing of semi-nude women on LBC and the production and transmission of liberal musical and game shows on ADSC and SSC seem to contravene the basic tenets of Arab-Islamic culture. This outrageous entertainment content was clearly noted on Lebanese channels as well as on ART and Orbit.
b) Technical Features: American television newscasts have traditionally followed a structured format drawing on field reports as the basic unit of the news program. A studio-based anchorperson serves to introduce reports dispatched by correspondents and reporters and to conduct in-studio and remote interviews. Professionally produced newscasts are those with rich visual and graphic materials, short fast-paced items, and timely or live delivery of news. This format has dominated a growing number of Arab world television channels for numerous reasons. First, the conventional on-camera or voiceover formats has proved a failure as viewers began to turn to sleek and visually attractive news programs carried by international television services like CNN, whose Western-style news layout seems to have had a notable impact on Arab world television news programs. Second, a new generation of television executives and practitioners with solid professional training in Western media settings ahs pushed for the opening up of traditionally closed media systems, including news formats and delivery modes. This feature has been quite evident in the news programs of ADSC, Al-Jazeera, MBC, and LBC. The Syrian Satellite Channel continues to follow a traditional format drawing on voiceovers and on-camera items. The introduction of these technical features has been viewed as an integral component of a professional broadcast outlook. The use of digital and computer-based technologies in television news production is thus taken as a craft governed by professional standards that bear heavily not only on message format, but on content as well.
The realization of the visual potential of television in Arab world television programs may fall in tune with an emerging fast-paced life in modern Arab societies. On the other hand, the presentation of news in discrete short news "capsules" may not effectively appeal to viewers who are used to detailed and mostly redundant media messages. LBC's flash news reports, sometimes no longer than 30 seconds, may serve to confuse viewers who are thirsty for news about developments bearing on their personal lives in the region. In the case of LBC in particular, this very short news item format seems to be complicated by the channel's resort to colloquial Lebanese language in some of its field reports. In the other stations, the duration of news reports varies from one minute to three and a half minutes, allowing viewers to gain more information about the event or issue being reported.
On the other hand, for young viewers in tune with computer-based interactive technologies, the sleek newscast formats seem to be the most appealing. Young viewers seem to be attracted mostly to the conversational nature of news delivery, the use of digital technologies and virtual designs and the timely reporting of events from around the world. In the cases of ADSC, Al-Jazeera, and MBC, a good number of interviews were conducted live with personalities in the West Bank and some Arab capitals. Al-Jazeera went one step further by showing live footage of clashes in Jerusalem between Palestinian stone throwers and heavily armed Israeli soliders.
c) Politics as the News of All News: The fact that the Middle East has been experiencing political developments in the past 50 years seems to have created deep consciousness among people in the region of the centrality of politics in shaping their lives. The term politics denotes the activities of national leaders and relations among countries. Because television has evolved as a government institution in the Arab world, political news was bound to top news agendas. In the American journalism model, news is defined in terms of what is fit to print. News is selected on the basis of criteria of worthiness deemed appropriate by gatekeepers according to well-established practices and norms. According to this definition, politics may not by itself be newsworthy unless it deals with issues that are important, relevant, timely, and with significant consequences for the audience.
The nature of Middle East developments over the past 50 years seems to have placed political news on top of media agendas at the expense of cultural and human interest news. One implication of this trend has been the production of elitist news programs that seem to be little concerned with developments relating to grassroots groups and organizations falling outside existing political arrangements at local and regional Arab world levels. The playing up of political news has also come at the expense of human interest news describing ordinary individuals. News about culture seems also to be less visible in newscasts aired by the five broadcasters. This may be due to the fact that such topics are covered in detail in other thematic programs aired by those channels. One implication of this emphasis on political news on Arab world television seems to be the politicization of Arab viewers who, unlike their counterparts in Western countries, consider it an essential part of their lives to be politically educated.
d) Commitment to Issues: Another departure of Arab world television news programs from the American model relates to the Western notion of objectivity. It has been noted in the analysis that TV broadcasters' handling of events and issues seems to be contingent on the nature of the situation at hand. When it comes to issues enjoying pan-Arab consensus, objectivity in the sense of balanced reporting of conflicting views seems to be virtually non-existent. The case of the Palestinian Al-Aqsa Intifada is a case in point. All broadcasters used the term "martyr" to refer to Palestinians killed by Israeli fire in the two-month clashes. The Israelis, on the other hand, were referred to as aggressors. In issues relating to Egyptian elections or the situation in Sudan, all broadcasters were reporting government and opposition groups' positions on the different issues. Although Al-Jazeera and MBC were drawing on Israeli sources for information on developments in the Palestinian territories, the way those sources were handled reflected broadcasters' commitment to the Palestinians as the underdog in the ongoing conflict.
The supportive role of satellite television broadcasters for the Palestinian uprising has been viewed by observers as an important factor accounting for sustaining acts of resistance in the Palestinian territories despite the heavy losses incurred. It has been noted that the 2000 uprising differs from the 1988 uprising in some important features, the most outstanding of which has been the satellite television reporting of the events. In 1988, the Middle East had no satellite television as all world and regional events were reported by government-controlled services on a limited basis. Television broadcasters in 2000 seem to be convinced that in order to attract their viewers' loyalty, they have to be in line with their political expectations about national and regional issues like that of Palestine. When some TV channels were hosting Israeli personalities during the uprising, they came under fire for acting irresponsibly regarding the Arabs' central issue: Palestine.
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Home / Research Article / American-Style Journalism and Arab World Television: An Exploratory Study of News Selection at Six Arab World Satellite Television Channels
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