News Credibility during the Iraq War:
A Survey of UAE students

By Muhammad I. Ayish

The Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in March 2003 spawned worldwide debates about how coalition governments handled political and military affairs, and how news media communicated different aspects of the conflict.

As much as US and UK governments were criticized for intelligence manipulation, news media were also taken to task for their perceived one-sided and inadequate reporting of military and political realities in Iraq. US media coverage has been described as "simplistic, unapologetically patriotic, and generally unquestioning of military pronouncements." It was noted that the war's terminology shifted in news reports from war on terror, to an invasion, to a liberation of a people (Sanchez, 2003). Some critics argued that the role of Western news media was to objectively cover the war, but they fell short after a slew of false reports, embedded reporters "playing by the rules" to which they had agreed with the Pentagon, and pro-war sentiment ringing through cable news networks (Sanchez, 2003).
In the Middle East, public perceptions of Western media biases in the war on Iraq seem to have given more credence to regional Arab media players such as Qatar-based Al Jazeera satellite Channel (JSC), Abu Dhabi Satellite Channel (ADSC), Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation (LBC) and Al-Arabiya Channel. Internet-based news operations like and IslamOnline were also important sources of information on war developments in Iraq. JSC's chief Baghdad correspondent was killed during the US army's thrust into Baghdad while crewmembers of other TV channels experienced certain hardships as they covered military developments. Unlike 1991 Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, the 2003 Anglo-American invasion marked the meteoric rise of a select group of pan-Arab media with Western-style newsgathering practices. Broadcast media reporting of Iraqi civilian casualties and destruction as well as daily press briefings from Central Command Headquarters (Cencom) in Qatar and from Iraqi information officials in Baghdad were the staple of daily Arab television coverage. Print media, on the other hand, made up for their relatively "outdated" news by publishing more viewpoints and analyses on the Iraqi crisis, unanimously negative toward the coalition's efforts before, during, and after the war. The daily appearances of former Iraqi Minister of Information Mohamed Saeed Al-Sahhaf with his seemingly credible tone of voice turned him into a popular figure among Arab audiences and a pop culture figure in the West.

Arab media performance during the Iraq war was credited with the flow of information about the developing crisis to a pan-Arab audience in deep shock over the relative ease with which a fellow Arab country was invaded by foreign forces. At least one credible public opinion poll seemed to reflect growing anti-American sentiments in the Arab world in pre-conflict times (Telhami, 2002). Hostile US attitudes towards Iraq and anti-war governments worldwide seemed to have aggravated an already tarnished official US image in Arab minds, resulting mainly from systematic support of Israeli policies in Palestinian lands and unfriendly post-9/11 policies toward Arabs and Muslims. Five days into the US invasion of Iraq, Arab foreign ministers described the attack as "a violation of international law and legality, a threat to international peace and security and a challenge of the international community and public opinion." They also called for "immediate and unconditional withdrawal of US-British invading troops from Iraq" and renewed the Arab world's "commitment not to participate in any military actions that would undermine Iraq's sovereignty and security and international legality." With growing perceptions of the Bush administration's manipulation of American media, Arab viewers seemed more predisposed to trust their trans-national media.

An exploratory study was conducted on a random, convenience sample of students at the University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that found students perceived Arab media as more credible than Western media in handling Iraqi war developments. The study was based on a survey of students in different colleges at the university on their media exposure patterns and media credibility perceptions during the invasion. The writer argued that due to existing public anti-US sentiments and mistrust of Western media reporting of the Iraqi situation, Arab audiences were more likely to trust Arab-based media services. Two research questions are addressed:

RQ1. How do media exposure patterns during the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq relate to audiences' credibility perceptions?

RQ2. How do credibility perceptions vary across different media?

Media Credibility: Literature Overview

The question relating to perceptions of media credibility has been a recurring issue in mass communication scholarship since the mid-20th Century. While Hovland and Weiss's seminal work on this issue (1951) concentrated on dimensions of source credibility, more contemporary literature has highlighted variations in credibility perceptions of different channels (Rimmer & Weaver, 1987). Westley and Severin (1964) are credited with conducting the first comprehensive analysis of news credibility across media outlets. In their classic study, the authors noted that certain demographic variables (such as age, education, and gender) mediate people's perceptions of news credibility. Several analysts indicated that television news was more credible than newspapers (Carter & Greenberg, 1965; Lemert, 1970; Gaziano & McGrath, 1986). Other researchers have traditionally related credibility perceptions to media political and ideological leanings, especially in election times.
Past studies suggest that how credible one views a medium as being is strongly related to how often one relies on it (Wanta & Yu-Wei Hu, 1994) with relationships proving stronger for reliance measures than general use ones (Gaziano & McGrath, 1986). It has also been suggested that people judge their preferred medium as the most credible, with television gaining the highest ranking (ASNE, 1985). Research findings suggest that those who are older, wealthier, and better educated are least likely to view media as credible, while males judge media as less credible than females (Westley and Severin, 1964).

Since the mid-1990s, with the proliferation of new media, credibility research has been broadened to include audience perceptions of Internet-based news. Johnson and Kaye (1998) note that the Internet, with its potential free access features, might affect the credibility of the medium as a source of information. Flanagin and Metzger (2000) pointed out that while newspapers, books, and television undergo a process of information verification before they reach the public, Internet sites do not always use such measures. Abdallah et al. (2002) analyzed news credibility components for a range of US newspaper, television, and online sites and found similarities in how each medium was perceived. The study revealed some fundamental differences as respondents evaluated newspaper and television news credibility more similarly than they did online news credibility.

While traditional news sources and their online counterparts are subject to both professional and social pressures to provide accurate and unbiased information, such constraints do not exist for the Internet. In their study, Flanagin and Metzger (2000) compared perceptions of Internet information credibility to other media. They concluded that the Internet was as credible as television, radio, and magazines, but not newspapers. They found that credibility varied by medium and types of information sought by audiences, such as news and entertainment. Kiousis (1999) found perceptions of news credibility to be influenced by media use and interpersonal discussion of news.
Internet studies also suggest that how credible people judge the medium to be depends on how often they use it. Johnson and Kaye (1998) found that reliance on the Web for political information was correlated with how credible they judged online newspapers, newsmagazines, online candidate literature, and issue-oriented sources. However, hours per week on the Web and on political sites in particular, as well as the number of times the Web has been accessed, were unrelated to media credibility. Similarly, the Pew Research Center found that while 55% of Americans in general rated the Internet as accurate as traditional media, 69% of Internet users considered it as equally credible (Bromley & Bowels, 1998).

The UAE communications scene

The United Arab Emirates has one of the most developed and diverse media infrastructures in the Arab world region (UNDP, 2002). In mid-2003, there were nine television channels (terrestrial and satellite) in addition to 13 local and international radio stations operating from the UAE. Six daily newspapers and four weekly magazines are also published in the UAE.

On the other hand, telecommunications continues to be the sole domain of the UAE's telecommunications service provider "Etisalat," which has enjoyed a monopolistic status in this area since its establishment in 1976. The UAE has over a million Internet users with free access to regional and international online media resources (Etisalat, 2001). A free-market economy has provided media with an appropriate environment for development and expansion.

Television was first introduced into the UAE in August 1969 in black and white from Abu Dhabi. In 1972, Dubai had its first channel, which was followed some years later by the launch of Channel 33, a foreign program channel that combined with Abu Dhabi's second channel to reach out with mostly English-language programming to members of the large UAE expatriate community. In 1989, another television station with mostly cultural programming was launched in Sharjah. In the 1990s, the introduction of satellite television broadcasting was instrumental in changing the face of UAE television broadcasting. In 1992, Abu Dhabi Television began its satellite transmissions, followed by Dubai Television in the same year, and by Sharjah Television in 1999 (Boyd, 1999). The UAE broadcast media scene also witnessed the launch of Dubai's Business and Sports Channels, and Abu Dhabi's Emirates and Sports Channels. In Abu Dhabi, Emirates Media Inc. (EMI) was created in January 1999 by Federal Law No. 5 to succeed the UAE Radio and Television Corporation and Al Ittihad Press, Printing and Publishing Company. The UAE also allows free access to a wide range of regional and global satellite television broadcasters on free-to-air or subscription bases.

As for print media, the first publication in the UAE dates back to the 1950s; however, it was not until 1969 that periodical publications became an established institution with the launch of Al-Ittihad newspaper by Al-Ittihad Publishing and Printing Company in Abu Dhabi. In 1971, Al-Khaleej newspaper was launched, but failed after a year. It was launched again in 1980 by Al Khaleej Publishing and Printing Company and has become one of the most respected publications in the Gulf region. Al-Bayan Publishing and Printing Company in 1980, which has a clear business orientation, established a third Arabic newspaper, Al-Bayan, in Dubai. Akhbar Al-Arab was launched in 2001 as a national Arabic daily newspaper published in Abu Dhabi and distributed countrywide. Two English language publications are also published: The Gulf News and Khaleej Times. UAE residents also have access to a wide range of international and pan-Arab publications.

In terms of Internet-based media, the UAE is the "most wired" country in the Arab world (Ayish, 1999). Data on information technology diffusion in the UAE show that the country is well ahead of other Arab states in terms of Internet availability, computer usage ratios, and information technology applications. For the past few years, the UAE has embarked on a long-term policy of diversifying its economic production base to include non-oil sectors like trade, tourism, media, and information technology. The launch of Dubai Internet City (DIC) in early 2000 marked a quantum leap in the UAE information technology landscape. Residents now have access to a wide variety of Internet-based media outlets such as electronic newspapers and online news portals.


This study is based on a survey of a student sample randomly selected from the University of Sharjah enrollment lists. Data were collected using a 10-item questionnaire distributed to students representing seven university colleges in different study levels, conducted during May-June 2003. A total of 150 interviews, equally divided between males and females, were completed. Twenty students (half male) were selected from each of the seven colleges (except for the College of Arts and Sciences whose share was 30 in proportion to its large student-body size). Each student in the sample was assigned a number that was blindly and randomly drawn.

The survey instrument included a news credibility scale adapted from Gaziano and McGrath (1986). A Likert-type scale developed for this study views credibility as a multidimensional construct. On a scale from -5 to + 5, the survey was based on five items: timeliness, professionalism, objectivity, accuracy, and balance. Respondents were asked, "How would you rate this medium's objectivity, professionalism, accuracy, timeliness, or balance?" Scores for the five measures of credibility were combined into a credibility index for each medium. From each of these credibility scores, a summated mean was computed and the scales were analyzed for similarities and differences. Scale mean summations for three media (television, newspapers, and online news) were correlated with media exposure levels.

Based on respondents' selections of favorite media outlets used during the conflict, media outlets were identified for analysis in each media category as follows:

Print Media: Al-Khaleej, Al-Ittihad, Al-Bayan, Akhbar Al-Arab, and others.
Broadcast Media: Al Jazeera, Abu Dhabi, Al-Arabiya, MBC and others.
Online Media: Al, IslamOnline,, and others.

Media exposure data were broken down into 10 time-range categories (10-28 hours per week or 40-112 hours for the whole period). The number of hours a week spent by respondents in their exposure to different media was coded.

Findings and Discussions

Sample members represented balanced national backgrounds comprising UAE and Arab students attending the University of Sharjah (55% UAE nationals and 45% Arabian expatriates). Following is an overview of the study findings:

Media Exposure Levels

The study shows that during the first four weeks of the military conflict (March 20-April 9), respondents spent a total of 3,452.8 hours a week with different media. Television got the lion's share of that time (39.78%), followed by newspapers (21.47%), online media (12.44%), and a host of other media that included radio, magazines, mobile phones, and interpersonal communications (26.31%) (See Table 38.l). The average exposure time for each member of the sample was 23 hours or 3.5 hours a day. By normal standards, time devoted to following up on war developments was quite high and seemed to reflect rising tensions among Arab populations as they coped with war developments. The fact that television took first place is not surprising since satellite television broadcasting has increasingly become an integral part of daily communication experiences of Arabs (Berenger & Labidi, 2004). In the UAE, satellite television is obtained through subscription and free-to-air services like Al Jazeera, Al-Arabiya and Abu Dhabi television. There are scores of other channels operating in the area, but these three seem to be the leaders.
Lower exposure to newspapers may be because print media are being less timely than TV broadcasts that carried war developments live. Respondents might have read papers for more analysis and insight into what was happening in war. Online media, though gaining ground in the UAE, seem to have a long way to go before they can match the power of television as a source of wartime information.

Perceptions of Media Credibility

Respondents rated television news highest in credibility. Data in Table 38.2 show TV news received a mean score of 68.61 for credibility, followed by daily newspapers (42.8) and online media (20.96). With its timely and visual approach to war developments television news seemed to have won greater trust than print media news. Online news had the lowest credibility with respondents. Among the print media, Al-Khaleej ranked first with credibility mean score of 103.49-over three times more credible than any of its competitors, Al-Bayan (38.23), Al-Ittihad (36.54), and Akhbar Al-Arab (15.62). The remaining newspapers received a combined credibility mean score of 20.12. This variation among respondents' perceptions of newspaper credibility during the Iraqi conflict may reflect different media exposure habits that seem to have a bearing on how readers view their favorite newspaper. All four newspapers, in fact, devoted full coverage to war developments and to reporting both Iraqi and Anglo-American views of the war.

Among television broadcasters, Al Jazeera satellite television channel scored the highest credibility score among respondents (118.74), followed by Abu Dhabi satellite television (105.12); Al-Arabiya (64.99); MBC (24.62) and other broadcasters with a combined mean of 20.12.

JSC as a regional broadcaster with professional capabilities seems to have convinced Arab audiences that this satellite channel was powerful match for CNN and BBC television. In 1991, Operation Desert Storm in Iraq was a CNN news exclusive, but since the launch of JSC some six years ago, the preference among Arab audiences has been shifting to pan-Arab television broadcasters like Al Jazeera. In Operation Desert Fox in 1998, JSC was in Iraq, dispatching live reports about air strikes in Baghdad and other cities. In November 2001, JSC was also a central media player in Afghanistan. Yet, JSC's most reputed role was during the 2003 Iraq war when the network dispatched three television crews to the battlefield. One of its correspondents, Tareq Ayyoub, was killed by US fire as he was covering US marines' push into Baghdad.

Abu Dhabi satellite television has risen to prominence as a leading television broadcaster in recent years with live coverage of regional and international events in Iraq, Palestine and other locations.

Al-Arabiya satellite channel is a newcomer to the media scene. However, its third-place ranking seemed to indicate its growing role in Arab world broadcasting. MBC, a sister company of Al-Arabiya, was launched in 1991 as a variety channel with an important news and public affairs dimension. But with the pooling of its resources with Al-Arabiya, this channel seemed to have scaled down its news operations to enhance its sister news channel's regional standing.

Online media, despite the proliferation of Internet services in the UAE, continued to play a minor part in media usage. Al has been chosen as the most credible source of online news during the Iraqi war, far exceeding similar services like IslamOnline, and It seems that while young generations in the UAE are increasingly using the Internet for different purposes, its use as a source of news and analysis during critical times is still far from being realized. Al received a 65.49 credibility score, far ahead of other online news sites. The fact that exposure to online media requires connectivity to an Internet service could account for low use. Users might have to choose between live audio-visual reporting of war and multimedia presentations. In times of crisis, visual news immediacy dominated as an exposure criterion compared with "outdated" print media coverage or "less than live" online reporting of ongoing developments. Audiences' thirst for news in war times seems to propel them to go for timely news sources, and television seems to be the most favored medium as it combines audio-visual and timely features.

Relating Media Exposure to Credibility Levels

Those who spent more time with different media were more likely to perceive them as more credible, the study showed (See Table 38.3). This finding supports other research projects that have found a positive correlation between media exposure levels and news credibility perceptions. In times of crisis, heavy media usage usually suggests some sort of attachment to media outlets to quench audience thirst for information. Common sense dictates that people ascribe their favorite news medium with having high believability otherwise they could not continue use it. However, one should note that people tend to expose themselves to selected media simply because they have no other alternatives. But in this study, respondents had an abundance of media resources they could draw on for news about the war. UAE audiences had access to over 300 television channels, scores of local and regional radio broadcasts, and hundreds of conventional and online news sources in different languages.

Although extended exposure to media outlets would reinforce audience credibility perceptions, one should note that coverage of the Iraqi conflict invoked considerable patriotic feelings in both Arab and Western media organizations. US TV network logos were draped in red-white-and-blue bunting as anti-war voices were subdued by what could be perceived in the Arab world as a government/media front to promote the cause for war. Given this Arab World perception of US media as propaganda machines in Pentagon hands, they had no choice but to fall back on Arab World media that possessed professional news standards. It was in this context that Arabs rated a TV network like Al Jazeera as the most credible among all media. For many Arabs, JSC, and Abu Dhabi satellite channel were powerful matches for Western networks like CNN and BBC. Arab broadcasters were lauded for their insightful reporting of issues independent of government influence. JSC's reporters who were killed, injured, or roughed up by US forces were viewed as heroes with legitimate professional and patriotic causes.


This study was an exploratory effort to investigate public perceptions of media credibility in times of crisis. University students with different Arabian national backgrounds represented a young generation who reflected their familial and broad societal values and attitudes about the 2003 Iraq war. Western media and governments were viewed with suspicion in Arab countries and hence were perceived as non-credible. This guilt-by-association argument goes back to the mid -1960s when Voice of America broadcasts were received negatively by Arab audiences that considered the radio services as the propaganda arm of what was perceived as a hostile foreign government. In this Iraq war, US and British media were viewed as co-culprits in the conflict with their governments. The rise of pan-Arab media like JSC, Abu Dhabi TV, and Al-Arabiya was a timely development for Arab audiences deeply shocked and offended by the invasion.

Online media, on the other hand, lagged in exposure levels apparently because of the newness of these services. Yet, the heavy use of Al portal seems to auger well for online news media in an Arab world as Internet usage increases. Because of their timely and visual limitations, newspapers trailed television broadcasters in both preference and credibility. Print media were used mainly for analysis and commentary. Although the four UAE newspapers studied have online versions, respondents were more inclined to opt for conventional exposure to print media in paper form. Electronic newspaper versions were transcriptions of conventional papers; therefore they were not as useful as specialized news portals that furnish users with continuously updated news developments.

The findings also support other studies regarding positive relationships between exposure levels and credibility perceptions. However, it would be inaccurate to think of this relationship outside mediating variables like communitarian sentiments on the part of pan-Arab audiences, who were nearly unanimously negative toward the coalition strategy in Iraq. Credibility perceptions might have developed in reaction to antagonism toward both the Bush and Blair prosecutions of the war and Western media that seemed to support those governments. TBS


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