No. 6, Spring/Summer 2001
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American-Style Journalism and Arab World Television: An Exploratory Study of News Selection at Six Arab World Satellite Television Channels

By Muhammed I. Ayish

This article is based on a presentation at the conference "The Ethics of Journalism: Comparison and Transformations in the Islamic-Western Context," under the auspices of German President Johannes Rau (Bellevue Palace, Berlin, 29-30 March 29-30, 2001), organized by the German Institute for Middle East Studies (Deutsches Orient-Institut), Hamburg, and the Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius Zeit Foundadtion, Hamburg. The article will be published in Kai Hafez (ed.), "Negotiating Global Media Ethics"

The development of Arab world television in the past two decades has been marked by increasing awareness among government information officials as well as TV executives and practitioners of the potential role of television as a credible and influential source of news. Until recently, the concept of television journalism was virtually non-existent in Arab world television services, which for three decades had functioned more as government propaganda machines than as independent sources of information. nightly newscasts were not only the major components of television journalism but they were themselves dull and monolithic in their format, content, and delivery orientations. Television news gatekeepers selected their topics with a view guided mainly by existing political, social, and cultural arrangements. Political news dealing with leadership speeches, official visits, and protocol activities was always topping Arab world TV news agendas. Opposition groups had less access to government-monopolized television and so did large segments of the population living beyond urban centers. In the 1970s and 1980s, a single-channel environment provided viewers with limited exposure to regional and international television from neighboring countries and around the world.

With the new political, social, and technological developments sweeping the Arab world since the late 1980s, a new version of television journalism has evolved as a distinctive programming genre on Arab world television. The political democratization and socio-economic liberalization of Arab societies, coupled with accelerating advancements in information and communication technologies, seem to have created a new environment conducive to the utilization of television as a powerful force of public opinion formation. The rise of commercial satellite television alongside government-controlled broadcasting has brought about a new public sphere marked by varied news agendas. More than ever before, previously suppressed political perspectives and orientation have become more visible on Arab world television. According to Alterman (1999), the rise of regional information organs has reinvigorated a sense of common destiny among many in the Arab world. Regional broadcasting has created regional news organizations-both in terms of news coverage and delivery-that far surpassed what had previously existed.

The evolving Arab world television environment owes its development to numerous factors, the most outstanding of which has been a new generation of television executives and practitioners, with professional training in the United States and Western Europe. They seem to believe in the potential role of Arab world television in the age of globalization and media competition. New television journalism practices drawing on news work as a professional rather than a political domain, have also become more common with the rising popularity of live talk shows, panel discussions, and interviews. An American-style journalism drawing on exposure to global and national U.S. television news practices seems to be gaining new ground in Arab world television. Alterman (1999) credits satellite television channels like Al-Jazeera for launching a regional dialogue among intellectuals in the Arab world on a range of issues. Al-Hail (2000) and Amin (2000) note that such dialogue contributes to fostering civil society practices in the Arab region. In government broadcasting, competition from global television networks such as CNN seems to have brought further pressures on government television organizations to modify their news programming contents and techniques (Ayish, 1995).

This study explores newscasts broadcast by five Arab world satellite television channels: Abu Dhabi Satellite Channel, Al-Jazeera Satellite Channell, Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC), Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC), and Syrian Satellite Channel. Based on the analysis of newscasts aired by the five broadcasters, the study identifies professional journalism features that seem to lend themselves to American TV news practices. The objective of the study is to shed light on evolving television journalism in Arab TV news environments and to relate that to ethical standards dominant in Arab Islamic societies. Although the findings include numerical data about sample newscast features, the study derives some of its significant conclusions from a qualitative analysis of news materials.

The Arab World Television Scene
The history of television broadcasting in the Arab world goes back to the mid-1950s when on-governmental broadcast operations were launched in Morocco, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. In the early 1960s, taking note of the medium's power in political mobilization and national development, Arab governments in newly independent states instituted television as a government monopoly (Boyd, 1999). In almost all Arab countries, television services were subordinated to ministries of information or other government bodies, thus turning into official mouthpieces of government policies as well as into outlets of national cultural expression. In the 1970s, television systems in the Arab world were constrained by three major problems: insufficient local program production leading to external television imports, mainly from the United States and Western Europe; close government scrutiny and control, leading to prohibitive working environments, and shortages of human and financial resources, leading to dull and low-quality programming output.

One of the remarkable developments in the Arab television scene in the 1990s has been the breakup of a 40-year government monopoly model of broadcasting in the Arab world. The model traditionally derives from the notion of broadcasting as a tool of national development that should be placed under government control. Although this model drew partly on broadcast systems dominant in former colonial nations like Britain a France, a greater government control of television organizations had deprived broadcasters of editorial discretion and autonomy. Operating within ministries of information, television organizations for the most part were funded exclusively from national budgetary allocations and their employees were viewed as part of public-sector bureaucracy.

By the end of the 1980s, the Arab world TV monopoly model began to experience major cracks with the creation of more autonomous television organizations in several Arab countries and the rise of commercial television service alongside government broadcasting. The liberalization of government television in the Arab world seems to have taken place in tune with new global trends in public broadcasting around the world. Achilles and Miege (1994) note that since the mid-1980s, public service television in Western Europe had to confront competition from new commercial and for the most part generalist television channels, and to take up cultural, programming, and financial challenges.

The entry of commercial broadcasters with huge technical and financial resources into the Arab world television scene has been an important development. In September 1991, Arab audiences had their first taste of private satellite television when MBC went on the air from studio facilities in London with Western-styled programming. More private broadcasters followed suit: Orbit in 1994, ART in 1995, LBC and Future Television in 1995, and Al-Jazeera from Qatar in 1996. These services brought to Arab homes not only a wider range of program choices, but new programming genres that continue to be distinctive features of Arab television screens. The main implication of this development has been a dwindling government television audience and fiercer competition with print media for a limited advertising pie.

American-Style Journalism
Over the past 100 years, American journalism has evolved around two central concepts of the communicator as an advocate player in events and issues and as an independent professional reporter of news and information. For economic and political reasons arising from purely historical American developments, the professional model of journalism dominated the American media scene. The professional perspective on American media work draws on the notion of the communicator as a gatekeeper, operating with professional and organizational contexts. Though the term "gatekeeper" originated with sociologist Kurt Lewin, it was first applied directly to journalists by White, who studied the choices made by a wire service editor at a small Midwestern newspaper (White, 1950, 390). Subsequent studies have indicated that the journalist's self-perception as the person who decides what people need to know is deeply ingrained. Indeed, it has been suggested that the identification and dissemination of what is worth knowing is the journalist's most basic and most vital task in a democratic society, in which information plays a central role (Janowitz, 1975).

Another perspective of the professional communicator derives from organizational research. In his discussion of mass communication models relating to the understanding of media work, Hirsch (1997) notes that the organizational perspective takes the organization as a whole and its administration as the basic unit of analysis. According to Sigal (1973), the organizational perspective of news production suggests that news gathering and news reporting are routine practices as reporters follow fixed procedures in information gathering. He also points out that the division of labor within news organizations reflects some sort of bureaucratic politics where editors and reporters are perceived not as monolithic, but as holding conflicting views on news. In her study of news as a construction of reality, Tuchman (1978) notes that the structuring of newsgathering, as an organization feature, suggests that news is defined mostly in accordance with the way news media are organized. Tunstall (1972), who conducted detailed studies on international news agencies, observes that news organizations are non-routine bureaucracies always under pressure towards routinization.

American media draw on a range of professional axioms to guide their operations. One of them is the concept of objectivity which denotes reporters' detachment from the information they report. The concept has come under fire because it suggests a preclusion of responsibility and nurtures reactive attitudes on the part of media workers. Priority is given to sources' statements to the exclusion of reporters' insights and firsthand observations. Objective journalism differs from advocate journalism in the active role accorded to the latter in the surveillance of the environment and the interrelation of its parts (Janowitz, 1975). Schiller (1979) notes that objectivity seeks to legitimize the role of the commercial press as the "protector of the public good." American media have also been criticized for playing up sensational and entertainment-oriented content at the expense of serious political and cultural issues and social problems. In international affairs, American media have been taken to task for playing up negative news and information about wars and natural disasters while ignoring "developmental achievements" in Third World nations. As gatekeepers strive to cope with successive deadlines, they have been criticized for compromising news thoroughness and accuracy.

The Radio-Television News Directors Association (RTNDA) Code of Broadcast News Ethics, which was adopted August 31, 1987, has been the most outstanding frame of reference governing news work practices at U.S. radio and television newsrooms. The RTNDA code notes that the responsibility of radio and television journalists is to gather and report information of importance and interest to the public accurately, honestly, and impartially. It calls on RTNDA members to strive to present the source or nature of broadcast news material in a way that is balanced, accurate, and fair; evaluate information solely on its merits as news, rejecting sensationalism or misleading emphasis in any form; and guard against using audio or video material in a way that deceives the audience. continued

Next page: Broadcast News Between Politics and Journalism


Copyright 2001 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo