Credibility during the Iraq War:
A Survey of UAE students
By Muhammad I.
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.
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 Jazeera.net 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on the other hand, made up for their relatively "outdated"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.
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.
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?
do credibility perceptions vary across different 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 Jazeera.net, IslamOnline, BBC.com,
CNN.com and others.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
media, despite the proliferation of Internet services in the
UAE, continued to play a minor part in media usage. Al Jazeera.net
has been chosen as the most credible source of online news during
the Iraqi war, far exceeding similar services like IslamOnline,
CNN.com and BBC.com. 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 Jazeera.net 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.
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.
media, on the other hand, lagged in exposure levels apparently
because of the newness of these services. Yet, the heavy use
of Al Jazzera.net 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.
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
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