Arab Media Forum tackles covering the Mideast beyond ‘bombs & bullets’
The session aimed to predict whether coverage of the region will change over the next decade
At a session during the 15th edition of the Arab Media Forum in Dubai, the question of covering the Middle East in the decade ahead and the impact of digital on journalism practices was discussed.
The panel consisted of Saudi journalist and publisher of the first daily Arab independent online newspaper Othman Al Omeir and Middle East News Director for the Associated Press (AP) Ian Phillips and was moderated by Al Arabiya English Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas.
Abbas asked Phillips whether the role of journalists was reduced to simple verification in the era when citizen journalists are able to cover, investigate and disseminate news themselves, thanks to smart phones and social media.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to saying that, and I don’t see it as a threat. It is part of what we do and we can’t be everywhere. There was a time when an international media organization we felt that we owned breaking news. But we can’t be everywhere anymore. We, and everybody, knows it and we use the resources at hand,” he added.
Asked whether AP, as a news agency, will still be relevant in the next 10 years given the answer, he said: “More than ever.”
“Absolutely, and hopefully way past the next 200 years. User-generated content is an integral part of what we do. But I don’t see it in any way as a threat but rather as a must-have component that we will seek out, verify and use as part of our general story-telling,” Phillips said.
‘Progression in the service of regression’
Abbas then turned to Saudi publisher Othman Al Omeir and asked him about a famous quote the latter coined, “progression in the service of regression," in reference to the phenomenon of technology being hijacked for the wrong reasons.
Al Arabiya English's editor-in-chief elaborated that in the past extremist groups, such as ISIS and Al-Qaeda, condemned the use of new technology (like satellite television and the Internet) but are now at the forefront of using it to further their own agenda.
“There has always been the good and the bad when it comes to human evolution and we’ve seen this throughout our history… the same can be said for the digital revolution. There can be lessons learned,” Omeir said.
Elaph’s Othman Al Omeir: Accurate, high-quality news from social media sources contribute to the development of media in the future— نادي دبي للصحافة (@DubaiPressClub) May 10, 2016
For his part, Phillips was asked whether there was a double standard with the Western press when it came to covering the region.
For example, material deemed anti-black or anti-Semitic is frowned upon, however certain candidates like Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump are being allowed heavy coverage despite hate-filled rhetoric toward Muslims.
“There are many aspects with reporting the news with certain media outlets having certain agendas. We can’t control it as that will always happen. But we have to be aware of it as the readers and viewers are becoming more sophisticated,” Phillips said.
Ian Phillips: Accuracy & quality remain top priorities & social media adds value— نادي دبي للصحافة (@DubaiPressClub) May 10, 2016
But the AP executive said there was much less they could do to control Trump coverage, as their philosophy has “always lied with the public interest.”
“No matter who the politician is worldwide, their comments are relevant. We certainly don’t censor what we report and don’t report,” he added.
A digital decade to come
The session also aimed to predict whether coverage of the region will change over the next decade. Much debate around the western media coverage of the Arab world centered on the heavy focus of wars and conflicts and the monopoly groups like ISIS held in gaining column inches and primetime hours.
Faisal J. Abbas highlighted efforts by the Associated Press for launching AP Middle East Extra, a news service launched in 2014 offering unique video content centered human-interest, cultural, economic and technology stories that are so often ignored of the Arab world.
Asked how it has so popular the news service faired with Western audiences, Phillips said the Associated Press were on the right track.
“[Western audiences] do want positive stories from the Middle East and it has been a success. We try to portray a different side of the Middle East and not just bombs and bullets. We want to represent more of the culture, the success stories, and business people and to rightly move away from the negative stereotypes that the Arab world rightly feels they’re portrayed in from the Western world,” Philipps said.
For his part, Saudi publisher Othman Al Omeir cautioned that the next decade will see further developments in news consumers’ behaviors and that the news website desktop model “will certainly die” if outlets don’t learn to adapt.
“News websites, including [my own] Elaph, will die in its current form unless they are able to conform and adjust their model to the changing consumption behaviors,” Omeir said. “It’s the same thing I said 15 years ago when I announced print journalism’s death as we don’t see physical newspapers these day unless you’re on an airplane.”