Media literacy in the Arab world is still “nascent,” but building awareness of critical-thinking skills can help fight fake news and hate speech, an expert in the field has said.
Arab News interview with Magda Abu-Fadil
Seasoned journalist Magda Abu-Fadil — who has worked for international news organizations like Agence France-Presse (AFP) and United Press International (UPI), and now runs workshops for journalists — was lead editor of “Opportunities for Media and Information Literacy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).”
The book, published late last year, is a group effort by media experts to document the state of media and information literacy — and, said Abu-Fadil, “often the lack, or scant application” of it — in this region.
The complete May 16, 2017 interview in Arab News is available here.
Media education in Lebanon needs revisiting as faculty members and curricula are often well behind the times leaving graduates unable to meet market needs.
“The gap begins with curricula that resemble poems of the Jahiliyya (pre-Islamic) era,” said Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil who spent years trying to upgrade courses at two universities in Lebanon but was often met with academic and bureaucratic obstructionists.
Al Jazeera Journalism Review
She said many of the instructors teaching journalism and media courses had never worked in the field and had never run newsrooms, leading to a disconnect between academia and the media to fulfill job requirements.
Abu-Fadil, who was interviewed by the Al Jazeera Journalism Review, said journalism and media studies graduates who do not acquire the necessary skills may latch on to superficial manifestations like the latest technology and social media, rather than pay attention to news substance regardless of the platform.
“Sadly, there’s a big drop in the command of languages (stressing the importance of mastering several in a globalized world), a shortage of critical thinking, little grasp of general knowledge, not to mention media ethics that’s almost non-existent, and, a problem of accuracy, balance, and verification in light of everything that’s published on social media,” she noted.
Asked whether the media weren’t also to blame for promoting journalists and presenters who were ill qualified, Abu-Fadil replied: “Everyone is responsible because media want to attract audiences, but in an era of cutbacks, sliding revenues, a switch to online/mobile/interactive digital media, there’s a great need to change employers’ mindsets.”
She said media’s role should be to benefit and enlighten readers, listeners, viewers and browsers, not just owners, adding that Lebanese media are also constrained by political, sectarian and economic factors.
“In the Arab Spring’s crisis, it is hard to provide a stamp of innocence to exonerate Arab media from responsibility in the spread of hate speech, since most are co-conspirators in their practice, or in their silence,” wrote CDFJ Executive President Nidal Mansour in the book’s foreword (page 9).
It plunges into case studies of hate speech in Jordan, as that is manifested against Syrian refugees, but it may as well have been addressing the issue in Lebanon, where a host of similarities exist…
Read the full article that appeared in a newspaper supplement on peace building in Lebanon produced by the United Nations Development Program in English for The Daily Star [PDF], in Arabic for Annahar and Assafir [PDF] and in French for L’Orient-Le Jour [PDF].
Today’s journalists are expected to have multimedia digital skills but must also abide by the principles of accuracy, fairness, balance, humanity and ethics, Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil told French magazine Défense.
“Today’s journalists are required to do more because of the available technology, because of budget cutbacks, and because of the 24/7 news cycle,” she said, adding that in the old days jobs were clearly defined – there was the reporter and there was the photographer or video cameraman/woman.
Interview with Abu-Fadil in Défense magazine.
There’s a crisis of confidence in both traditional and other media due to a lack of professionalism by many journalists as well as the political and economic pressures they face, Abu-Fadil noted in the March/April 2016 issue of the publication.
Citizen journalists – ordinary people with mobile devices like smartphones – are often the first on the scene of a disaster or event and transmit their content like photos, videos, texts – immediately through social media before traditional journalists can cover what is happening.
So it’s imperative for journalists to be able to interact with their audiences through social media and to produce high quality content using mobile devices to get the message out in a timely fashion across different platforms, she said.
The ax is falling fast on Lebanese journalists as word of newspapers going fully online or facing shutdown spread this week amid a sea of political, financial and social turmoil in the country.
Lebanon Files’ Rabih Haber and Al Liwa’s Salah Salam
Besides sharp drops in advertising revenue, competition from newer local print and online media (not to mention social media and citizen journalists), rising production costs, measly subscriptions, and readers who would rather get their news in snippets on the move, Lebanese media have also been heavily dependent on political patronage and outside funding over the decades.
VDL talk show host Khaldoun Zeineddine
All dailies have online versions but the big question is whether the paper editions would survive.
Newsrooms have failed to keep up with the times. There’s no real integration of key elements of digital multimedia newsgathering, editing, distribution and interactivity or engagement with consumers.
Magda Abu-Fadil on Voix du Liban talk show
Editors and publishers exist in bubbles of denial or believe that imitating certain foreign media’s tactics of a race for clicks and unrealistic analytics will help achieve their goals of monetizing online content.
Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil discussed Lebanese print media’s slippery slope in “Al Safha Al Akheera” (The Last Page), a radio talk show on Voix du Liban, in March 2016.
Rabih Haber, Salah Salam, Abu-Fadil, Ahmad Zein El Dine, Khaldoun Zeineddine
Other guests were Ahmad Zeineddine, a media professor at the state-run Lebanese University, as well as Salah Salam, editor of the daily Al Liwa’ (The Banner) and Rabih Haber, publisher of the online news site Lebanon Files.
Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil spoke with Arab Media and Society, the magazine of the American University in Cairo, about how the migration crisis has been covered in Lebanese media and beyond, as well as issues of media ethics in the Arab world.
Two recent articles and a report chapter by Abu-Fadil are mentioned in a podcast and can be found here:
Arab media have made progress but some still need work to overcome issues of journalistic professionalism and ethics, Magda Abu-Fadil told Dubai TV in May 2015.
“We see too many examples of unethical behavior in broadcast outlets, online and in print,” the Media Unlimited director said during an interview at the Arab Media Forum.
Magda Abu-Fadil interviewed by Dubai TV
Given the highly charged environment in several Arab countries, media have been reflecting the political and sectarian splits by fanning the flames through sedition, unsubstantiated news reporting and slander, she added.
She also noted that schools of communication and journalism should do a better job of equipping their students for the ever-changing job market by providing them with flexible skills and not just focus primarily on outdated theories or research that have little practical application.
Freelance journalists, notably in Lebanon, face countless difficulties, not least of which are steady assignments, benefits and proper protection in conflict zones.
“Print, broadcast, online and multimedia news organizations in Lebanon are cutting down on field crews for various reasons, notably economic shrinkage and reduced administrative budgets, in addition to political pressures making freelancers more attractive and cheaper than their full-time counterparts,” said Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil.
Old fashioned freelancer
Media prefer such an arrangement to avoid paying social security, transportation expenses, medical costs, education benefits, life insurance and end-of-service indemnities, she told Al Modon.
As media increasingly employ contractual reporters, photojournalists and multimedia journalists to cover events, there are a growing number of journalism school graduates every year facing a tight job market and low salaries.
Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil weighed in on a hot ethics topic following a Twitter slugfest during which a journalist and an activist carried on battling during a Lebanese TV talk show.
Journalist Ghadi Francis in a controversial tweet described the Syrian city of Douma as “meshwiyyeh” (Arabic for grilled or barbequed) by barrel bombs dropped on it that kill untold numbers of civilians.
Screen shot of Twitter shouting match over Douma
When her label struck a raw nerve with opponents of the Syrian regime that’s accused of using these weapons, Francis then tweeted “if grilled doesn’t cut it, then it’s ‘maslouqa’ (boiled).”
That prompted activist Sara Assaf to lunge back: “This is what idiotic @ghadifrancis, a ‘journalist’ at @OTVLebanon had to say about #Douma massacre. WLEK TFOUUU (I spit on you).
Enter Paula Yacoubian, host of the political talk show “Inter-Views” on Lebanon’s Future TV, who, also in a tweet, invited both women to further expound on the matter on her program in February 2015.
Asked if there were guidelines to follow in social media under pressures of war and conflict, Abu-Fadil replied: “There are standards. While we have freedom to express ourselves through social media, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a sense of responsibility.”
Paula Yacoubian Inter-Views Magda Abu-Fadil on social media ethics
Abu-Fadil also referred to the five core values of journalism, expounded by Ethical Journalism Network director Aidan White in a video: as accuracy, independence, impartiality, humanity and accountability.
She argued that they apply equally to bloggers, activists and non-journalists using social media.
“What we’re seeing a lot on social media are reflexive answers, where someone tweets something and another person replies reflexively, with no consideration for critical thinking,” she said.
Abu-Fadil added that one has to stop and think about the repercussions of tweets and whether they could cause harm.
“What’s this incredible accomplishment of contributing to hate speech? It’s disgraceful. We’ve reached a level of unprecedented degeneration,” she noted.