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Arab News and its Future Trends

Session III-02, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 8:30 am

RoundTable Description
Since the 2011 uprisings, Middle East-focused media scholars have been preoccupied in debates about social media use in the Arab world. This focus has largely neglected technological and political developments in the Arab news media industry and its continuing critical role in the politics, cultures, and security of the Arabic-speaking Middle East. This roundtable seeks to analyse recent developments in the Arab news media industry and in journalistic practices in the region by critically engaging with questions such as: how has the Arabic language news industry developed over the last decade? Does the Arabic news industry have a geographic centre? How have news outlets and journalists adapted to the digital media landscape? And how has the notion of an Arab audience changed in relation to news, particularly considering the news consumption habits of young people in the region? This roundtable convenes experts on the Arab news media industry and on the field of journalism studies in the Arabic speaking world more broadly. Drawing on expertise on Arab media across the Middle East and North Africa and in the diaspora, it discusses the state of Arab news media, by linking political economy, cultural studies, and area studies approaches to journalism and media studies. Accordingly, it structures the discussion around four main themes: political economy, digital technology, audience identity, and future directions for Arab news and its scholarly study. The roundtable builds on prior research on journalism in the Arab world by addressing a gap in the academic literature at the intersection of the impact of digital technologies on news, the role of young people as news consumers/ makers, journalists’ worldviews and practices, and the transnational nature of Arab news making. Ultimately, it aims to understand future trends in Arab news making and consumption and their impact on politics and society across the Arabic-speaking region and its diasporas.
  • A historical overview of the Arab News Industry News media are a major part of the Arab region’s modern history. Beyond the understanding of news as simply about providing information, news in the Arab World has been implicated in the region’s public opinion struggles regarding political and military developments including the Palestinian struggle for independence, the First Gulf War, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, the Arab Spring and post-Arab Spring conflicts. My contribution to this roundtable is in providing a critical historic overview of the nature and role of news media in Arab societies and politics, with a focus on the impact of new technologies. My historic perspective starts in the 1970s and the 1980s, wherein national media in most Arab countries were setting the agenda of political life in what seemed to be monolithic and homogenous public spheres. Since the 1990s, satellite technology revolutionized the Arab news landscape but still fell short of the hoped-for ideal of an open Arab public sphere. With the proliferation of digital technologies, the Arab news industry model was once again disrupted, including in relation to the long-established state monopoly over news creation and distribution. Digital technologies shifted the format of news from rigid text-based and protocol-oriented narrative into a more visual storytelling mode. At the same time, they allowed for news to become a ‘monetizable’ commodity that seeks audience engagement through big data analytics, rather than a public good of free information. While the Internet promised users substantive communication access and engagement, it developed in a way that also reinforced the state clout. In many countries across the region, media regulations have been extended to cyber frontiers with increasing cases of individuals penalized for being critical of governments online. On the economic frontier, the promise of maintaining long-term monetization of independent media in the region’s virtual sphere also remains uncertain as financially powerful mainstream and state-subsidized media continue to dominate the online landscape. Taking stock of this history, I argue, is crucial to understand the future directions of Arab news, as well as the changes and constants in the historic role of news media in Arab societies and politics.
  • Questions about an Arab media audience, particularly about how it impacts public opinion, have long been caught up in larger political discourses. On the one hand, the end of Arab nationalism as a hegemonic ideology is often extended to assume the irrelevance of “Arabness” as a political and social category. On the other hand, vague and outdated terminology in reference to Arab public opinion, such as “the Arab street,” continues to feature in media commentary and scholarly debates. Some political events accentuate the former attitude, others the latter. For example, during waves of protest movements crossing borders of different countries, such as in 2011 or 2019, the idea of a unified Arab mood gains importance in political discourse. While in analyses of geopolitics across the region, the idea of pan-regional affiliation is downplayed. My contribution to this roundtable seeks to address what we mean when we say the Arab audience, particularly in relation to news production and consumption and the formation of public opinion. It draws on an ongoing collaborative research project “Arab News Futures,” which engages in interviews with Arab journalists and conducts focus groups with young Arabic news consumers in London and Dubai (to be conducted from March – December 2022). Drawing on the experiences and practices of media workers in multinational newsrooms, as well as the perspectives of young people in accessing pan-Arab news, I am interested in re-thinking the construction and mediation of “the Arab audience” as a single body despite divisions along location, national belonging, political affiliations and socio-economic status. My contribution to the roundtable is to revisit the notion of the audience in the Arabic-speaking world by dis-entangling it from larger political discourses. Instead, I anchor it in the practices and strategies deployed by news workers to expand audience reach and in the news consumption habits of young people. I conclude by reflecting on the political significance of that news audience, whether imagined or measured, as it relates to transnational public opinion formation.
  • Critical Engagements with News Media Amongst Arab Youth Technological developments during the 21st century disrupted state control over news media in the Arab countries and among the Arabic speaking MENA audiences. Technologically enabled patterns in news gathering, production, distributions and consumptions have destabilized the lifecycle of news and shifted -even if temporarily- the center -periphery positions in power relation within the region. on the one hand, it enabled the some shifts in geographical monopoly over news production and on other, it emboldened citizens to reconfigure their role in relation to dominant news originations and their monopoly over news production and over event framing and interpretation. The practices of news production, dissemination, sharing and reproduction resulted in new ways of audiences engagement with news content across technological platforms. These new practices affected both the reach and the reception of news items and news sources and organizations. New modes of critical audience/ users engagement with news content threatens channel’s control over the lifecycle of their news output. The traditional notion of feedback took new shapes and lives through news sharing, criticizing, correcting, and connecting to other news items and events. In many cases, news channels responded to audience-new modes of feedback and engagement- by withdrawing news items, making corrections, or deleting news content from their social networks accounts. This contribution explores the ways in which news audiences (users) and journalists in the region perceived these changes in role and impact of the new modes of engagement with news content and its futures in the region. It builds on data collected for a larger collaborative research project engaging with Arabic-speaking journalists and audiences in London and Dubai titled “Futures of Arab News”, my contribution draws on six focus groups with Arabic speaking undergraduate students from across universities in the London and Dubai/ Sharjah metropolitan areas to investigate their modes of engagements with Arab news, and aspirations and expectations for the future in meeting their news interests.
  • Can we talk about media independence in the Arab region?   Independence is often seen as one of the core normative professional values in journalism. The notion of media independence as a normative principle has often been linked to the Habermas (2006) ideal of autonomy of the public sphere from the systematic forces of state and economic power. For Habermas, independence is achieved when a self-regulatory media system gains independence from its social environments (Habermas 2006: 411).   Within European context, commercial media actors have actively sought to frame the distinction between commercial and public service media as a choice between private (independent) and state media (Karppinen and Moe 2016). Media scholarship is also largely dominated by this binary discourse. However, other scholars (Bennet in ibid: 106) contested this binary by arguing that media independence functions “as a utopian vision of the media’s role in society” for many including those who own it, work within it “or even study it”.   Studies of media independence in the Arab region echo this binary of state versus private ownership.  Conversely, the complex nature of private news media’s ownership in Arab countries speaks of a different categorisation that is understudied and undertheorized. Several purportedly private news channels are owned by ruling elites. Other alternative online outlets dubbed as independent may be funded by foreign governments and international NGOs. So, what can be considered independent?   My contribution to this roundtable is in critically examining the notion of news media independence in the Arab region. How is it conceived by journalists? Is it a useful lens through which to understand news practices and values?  These are the questions that animate my intervention.    Going beyond the normative and utopian vision of independence and drawing on interviews with journalists conducted in Lebanon and Egypt, I focus on Arab journalists’ views on the state of media independence in the Arab region. I reflect on what media independence means to them, and how they relate it to professional journalism values such as impartiality, balance, fairness, accuracy, and accountability.
  • Counter publics and spaces of agency in Arab news Following the authoritarian backlash to the 2011 Arab uprisings, and the failure to herald a new era of political and media freedoms in the Arab region, it is easy to dismiss recent developments in the media scape. It is true that there has been a decline in the relevance and credibility of journalism among Arab youth, a widespread polarization in the public sphere, and heavy political costs for dissidents. However, that is not the full story. I argue that vibrant independent initiatives continue to make their mark on the Arab news media sphere, producing a politically subversive, and culturally progressive discourse. My contribution to this roundtable is in reflecting on future trends in Arab news by way of examining the continuities and trends at the intersections of activism and news making in the Arab world, particularly Egypt. I make the case that pre-2011 trends have laid the framework for counter-agency for the uprisings and their aftermath in relation to: a) the culture of dissonance in the Arab region and b) an intergenerational disconnect and c) an increasing erosion of legacy journalism’s capital with rising reliance on alternative social media communication. Drawing on the case of Egypt, and employing critical theories that center asymmetrical power dynamics, I analyze the nuanced subversive techniques and discourses that continue to animate the Egyptian public sphere despite political harsh containment strategies and beyond exit or exile strategies. Instead of lamenting the marginalization, I center the active and creative spaces of agency and subtle mainstreaming practices of cultural change. I highlight two iconic #MeToo incidents that implicated newsrooms, human rights NGOs and cultural centers. I focus on how a more vocal feminism and whistle blower trend is reshaping the gender dynamics in media in a way that disrupts the private-public nexus and challenges societal norms. As part of a research project “Egyptian Journalism in Transformation,” my contribution explores the deliberately marginal counter-publics over the past three years that reconstruct public discourses and activism via hybrid media environments, particularly how they use social media to bypass the traditional politicized gatekeeping mechanisms.