How the media finds ‘people like us’ in the Arab street
Since the 1990s, there has been a constant flurry of interest in investigating what Arabs think about
Since the 1990s, there has been a constant flurry of interest in investigating what Arabs think about, and how and what their likely collective actions might be. This trend of pulsing “Arab public opinion”- if it can be measured empirically - was strongly embedded in Western constructs of polling, understanding the public, the impact of media on audiences and some assumed shared principles of human behavior. Such trends have accelerated as an immediate policy response to the events of 9/11 and as a way of estimating Arab popular reactions about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the United States’ repeated case for “war on terror” and “democratization.” Similarly, a second major wave of interest in Arab public opinion emerged with a particular focus on discovering how and why young people, or Islamists, were mobilized in popular uprisings during the so-called “Arab Spring.”
Aside from policy circles, the media often attempt to gauge and represent public opinion. Field journalists often ask “random” subjects to give their views on a particular topic; these are then presented to viewers or readers as reflecting popular opinion. This practice, known in industry jargon as vox pops, raises questions about changes, freedoms and responsibilities in an emerging media landscape.
Arab television reconfigurations
As we think about the changes whipping through the Arab media landscape, I am intrigued by the increase in the number of local channels using satellite to reach a local audience. In other words, channels emerging in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt (to name a few places) are not interested in audiences across the Arab world - the pan-Arab market - but rather in Tunisians, Libyans, or Egyptians residing in the country or abroad.
Working under pressure, journalists often end up filming in specific places. In highly divisive political landscapes, the choice of location often determines the spectrum of opinionsJoe Khalil
This “satellite in lieu of terrestrial” broadcasting model is not new. Even before the uprisings, Tunisian channels Nesma and Hannibal catered to an audience in Tunis and the diaspora. Elsewhere in the region, satellite broadcasting was the only way to bypass state control over terrestrial broadcasting. In Egypt and Kuwait, channels were beaming up to satellites only to send their signal across the country. This is also a model that characterizes the post-Saddam era in Iraq. As satellite receivers became available and affordable, newly established Iraqi television stations leapfrogged terrestrial television by offering their signals on satellite. Because of investment opportunities, bypassing media laws, or ensuring media diversity, more and more Arab nationals are able to access content produced locally yet distributed via satellite. At the same time, more channels are engaging with their public as a result of increased competition, socio-political vivacity and pressure from social media, among other factors.
‘People like us’
As a result, these channels profess representing “people like us,” not as Arabs but as nationals in the homeland and the diaspora. One interesting aspect of this “people like us” notion is the construction - or perhaps reconstruction - of a particular identity through deliberate or accidental images of who this audience is, what it looks like and what its position is on the contested matters of the day. I will use a simple journalistic practice to illustrate some of the challenges associated with the construction/reflection of an image.
The term vox pop comes from the Latin phrase vox populi, meaning “voice of the people.” Used in many forms of media, the vox pop is a tool to provide a snapshot of public opinion. The practice involves asking the same question to a range of people with the purpose of giving a flavor of “what ordinary people think” about some issue. Answers are selected and edited together to achieve a rapid-fire stream of opinions. Journalists are encouraged to have a cross-spectrum of opinions reflecting the street pulse.
Therein lays the problem! It is one of choice and control: the series of choices the journalist (or the journalist’s editor) makes, and the series of direct and indirect controls over whose opinions are represented or not. Let me illustrate:
Working under pressure, journalists often end up filming in specific places (malls, markets), streets (busy and popular), or neighborhood (poor or middle class). In highly divisive political landscapes, the choice of location often determines the spectrum of opinions. In television, the interviewer approaches people “in the street” and asks them simple questions about the topic. Whom to approach is often determined by how “friendly” and “encouraging” or how “angry” and “colorful” the person is. Between sympathy and empathy, there is a wide spectrum of opinions that cannot be gauged based on looks alone. Once collected, certain opinions are selected, trimmed, juxtaposed and packaged to support the reporter’s piece. At every step in the process, “people” are made to look “like us.”
While these journalistic challenges are not exclusive to the Arab world, or emerging democracies for that matter, there are reasons audiences should be concerned.
Week after week, the seriousness of the divisions between citizens is not only “reported” but also “performed” by a cast of men, women, young and old. The vox pop testimonials are presented as evidence of these divisions. The long list of cast characters (Islamists, liberals, conservatives, Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, etc.) are paraded time and time again. The next time a reporter stops us at a shopping mall or in a busy street, we are most likely to perform in ways that reflect these roles and divisions (just as we identify with them on screen).
There are many reasons viewers tend to watch specific channels that reinforce their beliefs. But the deliberate decisions by some journalists and editors to offer us a selected sample of opinions as “people like us” is nothing short of a democratic setback. The less we are able to know about people who are different than us, the less we are able to participate in nation-building.
History is always present in the minds of many Arabs. They know that the so-called “Arab Street” can be orchestrated. They also know what happened under authoritarian rule when vox pops were doctored and only party sympathizers were interviewed. The lessons of history beckon.
Joe F. Khalil, Ph.D., is an associate professor in residence at Northwestern University and visiting research fellow at the London School of Economics. He has more than fifteen years of professional television experience as director, executive producer and consultant with major Arab satellite channels. He is the author of Arab Satellite Entertainment Television: Opportunities for Public Diplomacy (2009) and co-author of Arab Television Industries (2010).