Journalists shouldn’t cross the line from reporting to activism by publicly taking sides in conflict situations, which may endanger them and their media organizations, and undermine their credibility.
Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil argued that journalists covering battles in their backyards shouldn’t cross the line from sympathy to active support of causes.
Two wrongs don’t make a right
“Two wrongs don’t make a right: Truth is our most important weapon when covering conflicts,” she headlined an editorial published by Deutsche Welle Akademie in a manual on media and conflict.
The 2021 publication “How close should we get? Media and conflict” covers a range of topics from across the globe including photographing conflicts, interviewing a traumatized person, newsroom diversity and its impact on coverage, and disinformation.
How close should we get?
While not advocating detached coverage of conflicts, given their complexity, need for deft handling and understanding of the context in which they exist, Abu-Fadil said advocacy defeats the purpose of disseminating untainted solid news, which the audience needs.
Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil trained Lebanese journalists and media professors on how to detect false information using case studies and various tools in combating the infodemic.
Fact-checking workshop for Lebanese journalists and academics
She introduced the trainees to visual illusions and misleading pictures employed to trick viewers and brought up disinformation about Covid-19 vaccines that spread virally on social media to dissuade people from being vaccinated.
She conducted the three-day workshop, organized by UNESCO and the Lebanese Ministry of Information, in March 2021, and hosted expert Nayla Salibi from Monte Carlo Doualiya Radio to launch the coaching with a review of cyber security and how information disruption can cause great harm when people fall prey to manipulated data.
Monte Carlo Doualiya’s Nayla Salibi explains online risks
The sessions included participants from Lebanon’s Ministry of Information and National News Agency, Saudi 24 TV channel, Kuwait TV, Lebanon’s OTV, Radio Liban, Télé Liban, LBC TV, Al Arabi Al Jadeed, Univérsité Saint Joseph and Univérsité Saint Esprit Kaslik, among others.
The participants were shown a doctored video that former U.S. President Donald Trump had re-tweeted to attack CNN by falsely claiming it was “fake news” and why critical thinking was an essential tool in combatting disinformation.
Donald Trump retweeted a doctored video to attack CNN
She pointed to the need for media ethics and directed them to the Ethical Journalism Network’s website that provides valuable resources in multiple languages, including Arabic.
The Ethical Journalism network is an integral part of fact-checking
Abu-Fadil broke down the various types of egregious behavior leading to mis-, dis- and mal-information and provided tips on how to avoid them while showing examples with videos that drove home the point.
She also directed their attention to less prominent cases such as satire and parody that can be mistaken for real news and lead to damaging consequences.
The participants viewed a video of on a program to detect distortions in digital photographs that was adopted by Agence France-Presse as well as a video of AFP’s active fact-checking program.
AFP’s Fact Check program
Abu-Fadil presented a case study of pre-digital information verification from her experience as a foreign correspondent and editor with AFP and how the principles of ensuring that information is correct had not changed but that technological tools had made it both a blessing and a curse in trying to avert information disruption.
She provided tips on how to verify user-generated content and what types of questions to ask to ascertain its veracity with several case studies to emphasize the point.
Abu-Fadil further explored the historical background of propaganda and showed a video on the meaning of this news genre.
Adolf Hitler was a master propagandist
The participants were briefed on Media and Information Literacy with all its sub-divisions and how journalists should become familiar with it to better understand the implications of what they produce and disseminate.
She told them she was the first person to introduce the concept in Lebanon in 1998-99 through a distance-learning project with the University of Missouri School of Journalism when she headed the journalism program at the Lebanese American University.
Lebanese journalists should pay attention to details and not take things for granted if they’re to maintain their credibility, Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil said in a podcast interview.
From simple matters like accurately identifying interviewees to expressing themselves in grammatically correct language without any factual errors, Abu-Fadil said journalists who fail to do so undermine their trustworthiness.
“I get very upset because it’s proof of negligence, laziness and lack of professionalism,” she said about seeing her name misspelled in media reports.
Speaking to students producing youth-oriented broadcasts entitled “Radio Talk” marking World Radio Day (WRD), she said the coronavirus had been a blessing and a curse for journalism.
A curse because of constraints on people under lockdown conditions, but a blessing because it’s provided journalists with opportunities to acquire knowledge about public health issues, medicine and how to deal with a devastating pandemic.
“I conducted a workshop on how to cover the coronavirus in a professional, scientific way, and learned a lot while preparing for the training” she said.
Habib Akiki, a student from a nine-member multi-university team, interviewed Abu-Fadil as part of UNESCO’s WRD activities in February 2021, under the supervision of lecturer and communication expert Rouba El Helou.
Asked whether journalists in Lebanon can report on Covid-19 without adding their personal views, Abu-Fadil said she doubted it as they flavor their coverage with politics and sectarianism.
Turning to investigative journalism, Abu-Fadil said this type of reporting is difficult to produce for radio because it isn’t visual.
“People tend to believe more what’s tangible and visible, what they can read, what’s on TV,” she said, noting that reporters in Lebanon still haven’t mastered data journalism, and how to obtain information from documents to formulate their stories.
Journalists must combine that skill with well-written copy and good visuals like infographics, videos and attractive digital elements, but Abu-Fadil cautioned they can’t press buttons and automatically produce investigative stories since that requires hard work that could take weeks, months or years.
“Do Lebanese media have the ability and budgets to commit to good investigative reports?” she asked rhetorically.
On whether the press in Lebanon was sustainable, Abu-Fadil said many newspapers and magazines that existed in the once vibrant media milieu had disappeared and been replaced by websites with advertising revenue taking a direct hit.
“But there are alternatives, there’s financing from NGOs, and there can be crowdfunding, where money is raised through donations from different sources,” she explained.
Due to health safety concerns and remote work requirements, the student radio team was selected from different areas in Lebanon as part of a collaborative digital approach.
UNESCO’s Regional Office in Beirut celebrated WRD in collaboration with three local stations: Radio Lebanon, Voice of Lebanon and Sawt el Mada. The three programs can be heard here.
The radio stations’ managements provided the students with support, and allowed them to choose topics and guests for the shows’ various segments.
Since 2011, UNESCO has celebrated World Radio Day annually to honor the founding of United Nations radio in 1946.
Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil conducted a two-day virtual workshop for rookie journalists and recruits in the basics of the trade with the first session focusing on exercises to test their knowledge, power of observation, capabilities and skills.
Basic training for recruits
The training for Saudi Arabian daily Arab News in December 2020 examined the journalists’ grasp of basic grammar, their ability to write and edit, to write photo captions, and their knowledge of geography, history, economics, politics and culture.
Identify the missing capitals or countries in the white spots on the map
On the second day Abu-Fadil covered the definition of news, news story structures, grammar and punctuation rules, the lede (lead), the nut graf, the importance of context and background information in stories, the use of quotations, how headlines are produced, the essentials of picture captions, the use of news sources, interview skills and media ethics.
Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil led an intensive workshop for mid-level staffers at Saudi-based daily Arab News covering a basket of legal, editorial and newsroom management issues that challenge most journalists.
Saudi laws in review
The first segment of the four-day training in September 2020 focused on the complex subject of defamation, libel and slander laws as general concepts and delved into how their countless nuances and permutations require journalists to tread carefully.
The trainees from bureaus in Riyadh, Dubai, Cairo and London were coached on ways to protect themselves from defamation claims (against them and the newspaper). They were given scenarios requiring them to solve editorial and legal problems.
What’s defamation in the UAE?
Abu-Fadil reviewed defamation laws in Egypt, France, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the UAE and the UK and the trainees were advised to learn about legislation in the countries in which they work, and where Arab News has potential reach.
The English-language daily launched a French edition aimed at Francophone readers across the Middle East/North Africa region and beyond, and has Japanese and Pakistani editions.
Commissioning, pitching and editorial judgment
On the second day, the trainees tackled the complexities of commissioning stories, dealing with internal pitches and articles from freelancers or different types of subjects from citizen journalists providing user-generated content.
They also addressed the topic of regular and kill fees, editorial judgment and how to exercise it, and learned from case studies that tested their skills.
Freelance pitches and kill fees
On day three, Abu-Fadil emphasized the need for collaboration across bureaus and platforms and reviewed the latest newsroom trends. The journalists watched a New York Times clip on the incorporation of 360-degree video into newsgathering, storytelling and the ethics of disseminating information in such a format.
Remote management failures
The trainees were shown how leaders fail their remote teams, notably with the ongoing need for distributed newsrooms. Managing people and staff development were major topics during that session.
The New York Times’ 360-degree video “Displaced”
The journalists also examined how Financial Times editor-in-chief Roula Khalaf is running her 600-strong dispersed newsroom with journalists, editors and others working remotely after the outbreak of the coronavirus. Abu-Fadil also discussed the roles of various editors in different newsrooms.
Exercise on covering tragedy
On the final day, the participants went through four exercises (scenarios) requiring them to solve problems on accuracy, a tragic event, media ethics, and integrity. They also delved into individual issues they had raised prior to the training and tried to find workable collective and individual solutions for them.
Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil used an apocalyptic series of explosions that killed and injured thousands in Beirut as a vivid case study on how to cover hard news for rookie reporters during a virtual basic journalism masterclass.
Using the Beirut blasts as a case study in hard news coverage
The training in early August 2020, grouping six journalists at the Saudi daily Arab News’ Dubai and Saudi Arabia bureaus, involved covering the basics in a digital, multimedia environment and how to operate under both normal and Covid-19 lockdown conditions.
It was a day after the monstrous blasts at the port of Beirut left over 300,000 people homeless, untold businesses ruined and livelihoods lost from damage to countless buildings in a radius extending well beyond ground zero that was heard as far away at the island of Cyprus 200 kilometers west of Lebanon.
Abu-Fadil had been asked to help with the live coverage and updates leading to her landing on the front page in a double byline story in the paper on the day of the masterclass.
She kicked off the mini course by telling her charges journalists aren’t novelists, they should report straightforward facts in a language understood by their audience(s), they must use research and investigative abilities, as well as the right tools and skills to build their stories, they must distinguish facts from dis-, mis- and mal-information, and, they must learn to multitask in a digital multimedia, often online/distance environment.
The training began with a definition of news and what makes a news event important enough to be published, broadcast and disseminated widely.
Abu-Fadil then delved into story structure, how to cultivate one’s niche and provided practical advice about reporting. But equally important, she said, are the elements of grammar and punctuation, which can either make a story stand on solid ground or sink it.
She then focused on the lead, nut graph and quotations, adding that good leads convey the most critical information, which is important for readers in a hurry and reminded them that stories are increasingly being read on small screens.
Writing a good lead
The next step is the nut graph (or graf), in which journalists must tell readers not just what happened, but what it means and why they should care – the “so what?” question.
Strong quotes bring a story to life and engage the reader, Abu-Fadil said, adding they should be dispersed through the narrative.
In a component on headlines and captions, Abu-Fadil said journalists should know their audiences and tailor their headlines to appeal to readers they’d like to attract.
A video on the hajj to test trainees’ sense of observation
She said captions were often the first elements of a publication to be read and should provide readers basic information needed to understand photographs and their relevance to the news.
She used case studies, videos and other visual elements to discuss news sources, media ethics and interview skills.
Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil conducted a mini-course on strategic communications and media crisis management for Yemeni members of NGOs aimed at promoting their respective peace-related messages and mitigating crises.
The intensive three-day virtual workshop in July 2020 required participants to first think like journalists, operate like “mobile journalists” (mojos), and meet pressing news deadlines to appreciate what media needs are.
Elements of a news story
They also learned about the elements of news stories, how not to fall for misinformation, disinformation and malinformation, and, the art of writing news releases for various platforms.
One session was dedicated to organizing news conferences, briefings and events, with all the logistical, technical and editorial details involved in putting them together.
Trainees cautioned about disinformation
A key element in dealing with the media is the interview, and Abu-Fadil demonstrated the skills needed to handle questions under pressure, ground rules for attribution, what to wear, how to sit and act in front of a camera, tone of voice, body language, and the need for excellent preparation before any encounter.
Interview ground rules
The drills included media ethics, setting up a media office and what the role of a spokesperson is.
Another major element of the training was establishing a strong visual identity and using social media effectively to engage with one’s various audiences across traditional and other platforms.
Using fact sheets
The most critical part of the workshop was devoted to handling negative news and crisis communications by being transparent, not disseminating unreliable information, maintaining one’s credibility and multitasking under extreme pressure.
The training ended with tips on how to build a strategic media plan.
The workshop grouped participants representing a number of organizations across Yemen.
It was organized by the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies under the umbrella of the Yemen Peace Forum and was sponsored by the Netherlands government.
Arab News journalists sank their teeth into an intense online reporting, writing and editing masterclass to beef up their skills under extended coronavirus lockdown conditions.
Arab News masterclass in Online Reporting, Writing & Editing
Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil conducted three video-conferenced classes in June 2020 involving reporters and editors from the Saudi Arabian daily’s Riyadh, Dubai and Pakistan/India bureaus that covered a range of topics they incorporate in their work.
Among the reporting tips were the basics of accuracy, fact-checking information, scrutinizing numbers and statistics, questioning assumptions, and following the money.
The journalists were also advised to look for questions in online content, listening more carefully to people, cultivating their niche, using social media monitoring tools to help land stories, and tracking official inquiries for potential topics.
On the language front, Abu-Fadil told the trainees to avoid hype in their headlines and copy, and to show, not tell, the story with the facts by also avoiding subjective judgments. Other pitfalls she cautioned against were clichés and jargon that seep into one’s writing.
Advice to journalists: don’t hype, show, don’t tell, avoid oxymorons
While the basics of leads, nut grafs and context are constants in all stories, how they’re packaged online and how information is dug up to disseminate them may vary according to the platform.
Abu-Fadil discussed open source tools, filters and user-generated content to uncover facts. She showed a video on Google Earth Pro and how to capture geolocated photos and videos for inclusion in their content.
Trainees watch a video on how to use Google Earth Pro in their stories
The masterclass involved writing photo captions, tips for writing better headlines, media ethics, online interviewing techniques and covering virtual events.
The art of writing photo captions
Abu-Fadil provided the journalists with a series of writing and editing tips to fine-tune their copy. They included proofreading tools to clean up clunky phrases and grammar mistakes and online plagiarism checkers.
Journalists are provided with proofreading tools
She also demonstrated how to edit a news item by tightening the headline, deleting redundancies, maintaining verb tense consistency and simplifying the language.
Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil helped Arab News editors and managers navigate the choppy waters of distributed newsrooms brought on by the coronavirus.
Newsroom & Media Management masterclass for “Arab News” journalists
In two intensive virtual June 2020 masterclasses on “Newsroom and Media Management,” she discussed how participants from the Saudi newspaper’s Riyadh, Jeddah, Dubai, Islamabad and London bureaus can maintain productivity while physically separated from their traditional desks and beats.
The key is good management of distributed teams in various locations and time zones through strong communications, clear duties, “deep listening” to staffers, and proper coordination among various editorial, production and managerial components.
Shifting from news desks to news hubs
It’s also important to look out for staffers’ physical and mental well being, she said, notably in extended lockdown situations that can take a toll on their psyche and productivity, to say nothing of the pressure of being connected at all hours due to guilt or looming deadlines.
Drawing on the “Fathm Distributed Newsroom” model, Abu-Fadil spoke of handling editorial, technical and management-specific virtual meetings to keep the newspaper running smoothly but cautioned against virtual video-conference overload.
She showed a segment of a World Editors Forum webinar on how newsrooms are coping with the Covid-19 crisis that has forced many journalists to work mostly from home.
Trainees view video of World Editors Forum webinar on working from home during the Covid-19 crisis
The masterclass focused on how the pandemic has disrupted digital workflows that are being reconfigured for distributed teams, with traditional news desks becoming distributed news hubs.
Abu-Fadil shared an illustration of distributed newsroom teams with the different hubs mapped out, a more detailed diagram with the communication channels added between teams, and then asked the trainees to build their own Arab News framework on a plain template based on the model they saw.
Fathm’s template of a distributed structure with communications channels
In another segment she stressed the importance of leadership in unsettled times of scattered energies and cross-border editorial functions while working from home.
Lessons in newsroom leadership
Abu-Fadil tackled the issue of editorial content from the paper’s own reporters as well as various information providers, including crowdsourced news, and said the journalists should be ethical when publishing material shared on other platforms.
She made the case for regular training and went through the different scenarios available to distributed newsrooms to keep staffers up to speed. She also examined training tools available to media organizations.
Abu-Fadil urged “Arab News” managers to set up a verification and fact-checking hub
Another key element is audience engagement, to which Abu-Fadil said her charges should give more attention, adding that they need staff dedicated to acknowledging public interactions and answering user questions.
Advice on how best to capitalize on social media
She discussed technology and tools needed for team communication and wrapped up with advice on how to avoid the pitfalls of social media excess by prioritizing quality over quantity, diversifying to meet audience needs, re-evaluating how platforms are changing, and keeping track of changes in the audience’s habits.
Journalists from bureaus of the Saudi-based daily Arab News took active part in a virtual masterclass on how to cover COVID-19 as the pandemic continues to grip the world and demand effective media attention.
Media Unlimited director Magda Abu-Fadil conducted three sessions in May 2020 for the reporters in Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Pakistan/India, with one journalist joining Saudi colleagues from London.
The teleconferenced training tackled working from home and how that has morphed into the journalists’ distributed newsroom. The masterclass emphasized the importance of the reporters’ mental and physical safety in lockdown situations, or on their occasional trips out.
Dubai-based journalists shown the dangers of viruses spreading on a plane
The class delved into the medical aspect of the coronavirus by first making sure participants understood and conveyed the proper terminology in their coverage, to seeking advice from medical experts, to the role of the World Health Organization and other medical institutions, to learning how to filter through medical journals and studies.
Abu-Fadil also cautioned the journalists against being misled by dis-, mis- and mal-information disseminated through traditional and social media, or regular contacts with other people. She shared several case studies of dubious information and pressed upon her charges the importance of fact-checking, spotting and debunking deliberate or unintentional lies.
Tips on debunking disinformation
The reporters were armed with useful resources on where to obtain reliable data about COVID-19 and tips on protecting themselves.
The masterclass further explored the future of offices and activities while social distancing.
Of key importance was focus on the media in the COVID-19 crisis and how to cover the story ethically.
On the business front, Abu-Fadil discussed the impact on the world/regional economy, with a particular nod to the ever-growing gig economy. There were references to the supply chain, food shortages, hunger, poverty, social revolutions, border controls, and refugees.
Getting the medical details right
A touchy but important subject is how to cover major religions’ handling of the coronavirus for which Abu-Fadil showed ample examples.
Other sub-topics were art, culture, education and kids with distance learning presenting the biggest challenge to educators.
But entertainment under lockdown has also taken on new meaning and the trainees were shown options to virtual cultural trips to museums and concerts, and, the ability to download free books and obtain free subscriptions for kids’ publications to keep them occupied.
Pakistani and Indian journalists asked to change newspapers’ COVID-19 headlines
Last, but not least, Abu-Fadil turned to humor, saying Arab News journalists should infuse their coverage with some jokes to make light of COVID-19 in a bid to overcome the grim reality and used the example of a Lebanese newspaper that dedicates a whole page to funny items on the virus.