How Journalists cover the Middle East in a Social Media Age: Lessons Learned and a Look Ahead - Full Text Summary

We must maintain a strong commitment to teaching and practicing the enduring basics of quality journalism as exemplified by honest reporters on the ground who seek to tell the full truth of a story as they can best determine it, AUB Beirut-New York City seminar concludes.

   Experienced journalists and educators, whose lives have spanned the past half century of reporting on the Middle East, gathered at the New York City office of the American University of Beirut (AUB) recently to analyze the effects of fast-changing media in an increasingly digitized landscape. They concurred that the legacy of the late Arab-American correspondent Anthony Shadid reminds us of the importance of publishing reports that allow ordinary people to share their feelings with the world, especially in situations of conflict when so many innocent civilians suffer in silence 

   The Briefing on media coverage of the Middle East included presentations in New York by internationally recognized columnists David Ignatius of the Washington Post and AUB professor and journalist-in-residence Rami G. Khouri. They interacted over a live video-link with a group of faculty and student participants in Beirut that was moderated by AUB Media Studies Chairperson and Professor May Farah.  

   Khouri and Ignatius discussed the groundbreaking work of the late Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Shadid, who sought to capture the voice of ordinary people living in conflict areas. This approach is rare among international journalists reporting on the Arab world, where headlines still tend to focus on the latest violence by a wide range of local and foreign actors, without providing sufficient context for the causes of the violence.  

   Khouri, who leads a project at AUB Libraries to analyze Shadid’s personal papers that have been deposited in the archives, noted how Shadid blended hard news and feature reporting by using techniques of narrative writing that captured individual personalities and ordinary yet profound human sentiments; his work allowed the voices of everyday men and women in local communities across the Middle East to speak to the world, without the filters of their own governments or foreign editors. 

   One participant noted that Shadid purposefully did not interview people who represented a cause or constituency. Instead of sound bites and messages developed for media consumption, he recognized the value of a nuanced story that only ordinary people can tell, and he showed the impact of big political events on the lives of ordinary people who increasingly live in vulnerable conditions.   

   AUB media studies professor Nabil Dajani commented that in his more than 50 years analyzing and consuming media in the Middle East, Western reporting has continually neglected to tell the full story of the events on the ground; this omission has promoted more conflict and misunderstanding, widening the gap between the Arab world and the West, he said 

   Farah and Ignatius commented on the transformative effect of digital media in disseminating and altering news content. Though a powerful connector, social media is also a force for polarization; and the Internet, which allows startling images and stories to instantly span the globe, can be a rage accelerant. Social media is frequently fueled by extreme content which does not draw on a common platform of fact.  

   A challenge for today’s journalists writing about controversial subjects is to withstand an increasingly common harsh backlash. Journalists need courage to fully embrace their role in speaking truth to power and to hold powerful people and governments accountable for their actions. Ignatius cited AUB adjunct professor Nora Boustany, an award winning former Washington Post columnist, as an example of a courageous, farsighted reporter who was one of the indigenous reporters who opened the way for other Arab women to join the international media. During the discussion about why news outlets should do more in-depth news analysis despite a public preference for sensational stories, Boustany offered BuzzFeed as an example of a news site that delivers both lighter human interest stories as well as serious investigative reporting.  

   The Briefing discussion among the New York City and Beirut participants touched on the merits and drawbacks of embedded reporting, when today’s sophisticated military firepower and often undefined battlegrounds have made embedded reporting a must for security reasons. Yet traveling with the military limits reporters’ access to only one side of the story.  

   Khouri and AUB professors spoke at length on how the global media tends to underreport some of the most important Arab world issues, including weak leadership, a lack of democratic institutions, human rights denials, the lingering effects of colonialism, resistance movements, religious militancy, and the prolonged conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Khouri suggested that global reporting has improved markedly over the past five decades in a few arenas, such as Israeli and Palestinian perspectives on their conflict; yet reports on the Middle East tend to remain well below the nuanced, balanced, humanistic reports most global media produce on their own societies’ contentious issues. Khouri gave the contrast between how most Western media – with only a few exceptions – covered the underlying causes of the police brutality and demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, and how they covered violence related to Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian lands.   

   Despite the challenges of digital media, the speakers agreed, today’s reporters, columnists, and analysts must do what they’ve always done: get the facts, make sure they are accurate, and put them in a context that’s fair to everybody. Covering news like a sports event with a play-by-play narrative does not fulfill the role of a journalist.  

   Khouri and Ignatius concluded by highlighting the need to bring together educators, editors, and reporters from around the world to analyze complex issues that transcend individual societies, which is one of the goals of AUB’s Beirut-New York Briefings.