Arab Television Channels and Debates On Education: a Dilemma of Neglect

By Rawan Damen

1.0. Introduction
Research into the effects, both positive and negative, of communications revolutions on society remains the most prominent concern within the field of media studies. Though it is to some extent true that in most cases the simple cause and effect relation, or what is known as the 'magic bullet theory,' has gradually lost its luster, the search into the dynamic relations between communications and societies—not the flow in one direction—has not been fully developed.

This paper stands on a theoretical foundation that sees all sorts of meaning-making acts related to television watching. The researcher here tries to look at the malfunction of the communications revolution in the Arab World by dealing with a specific vital social issue and the range of "intervening" variables in between. She examines the hypothesis of the absence of debates on education on the main pan-Arab television stations. The study illuminates some of the key aspects of this phenomenon (historical, structural, cultural, political and communications concerns/policy) including the relations amongst them. A script content analysis has been applied to Al Jazeera TV channel talk shows for five months (between August 1 and December 31, 2003). The station was taken as a horizontal case study, and the results verified the proposed hypothesis. Methodological and theoretical limitations are also discussed.

Unfortunately, this lack or even absence of debates on education has mostly gone unnoticed or ignored in mainstream research. Hence, this paper argues that this deficiency has seldom been recognized by Arab media analysts or even civil society activists. This is a matter which may be indirectly connected with the lack of diversity of content which leads to questions regarding the implications for democracy.

2.0 Significance of Television Debates on Education

When the Polish leader Lech Walesa was asked what caused the breakdown of communist control, he pointed to a television set. It is widely accepted that "television is likely to have some influence upon viewers' perceptions of social life and the world in general." (Gauntlett 1996: 75) Those media representations of issues stimulate public attention and discussions which help to crystallize individual opinions on major matters. (Yanovistzky 2002: 422) Ultimately it is argued that public-media attention to issues is instrumental in attracting policy-makers' attention.

In the Arab World since the early 1990s, new and emerging delivery systems like satellites and the Internet continue to push the control of television beyond the power of national governments. (Lisosky 2001: 821-822) Much had changed in the broadcasting climate and industry structure.

Taking this into consideration, this paper argues that the lack of real and thought-provoking debates on education on Arab screens plays a vital role in the transmission of issue emphasis, giving the false impression that educational issues are not a priority or not important enough for Arab viewers to know about or debate.

It is also usually assumed in literature that with the widespread use of televisions, TV has become a new family member. Therefore it seems natural to see TV debates on education as vital within the family life as a means of bringing about domestic harmony and a better quality of life. It might also help in accelerating the learning revolution to match the revolution in communications and technology. One might claim that this absence is a way to keep undemocratic practices in the Arab countries as they are.

However, saying that communications (television in this case) has a social role to play does not mean it is the only factor. It works always in conjunction with other forces and structures and can never be singly and aberrantly determined, as explained later.

Before looking at what is on the screen itself, a quick overview of the news subsections on some TV stations' web sites will show the absence of titles like "education news" or "school news" or "stories on education." For example, the Al subsections for its stories are: Business, Science/Technology, Health, Sports, Culture and Arts. On, the sections are: Sports, Kids (mainly cartoons), Social, Entertainment, Weather, News & Weekly Archive, Clips, Caricature, Politics, and Special Events. It is easy to note that "Education" is not there!

One third of the Arab World is made up of students. Their daily lives are built around schooling and education. Therefore, it is logical that their issues and problems should be fully or at least partly represented. Yet, this is not the case in the news. But are talk shows—at least—concerned with the issues and problems of students, teenagers, and children?

3.0. Content Analysis Case

For a concrete answer to the previous question, an empirical approach was used to fulfill a methodological assessment. Script Content Analysis was used. The program-type (format) chosen was the live talk shows (with or without audience and/or phone-ins) as it is assumed that such programs are an open window for debating issues whether on the news agenda or not. On the other hand, a script (Wordings) analysis and not a visual analysis was conducted because most Arab talk shows are based on guests' arguments and not on visual proofs or investigations. Though this is a major setback for Arab talk shows, it is an issue that is beyond the scope of this research.

The study of the whole script of all the talk shows included questions, answers, and phone-in contributions (when available) for five months between August 1 and December 31, 2003. The study was carried out with the help of the Al web site. The researcher went through all the programs and also used the "search" tool in the web site's database. The proposed hypothesis of this paper-"that there is a lack of debate on education"-was verified.

There was not a single talk show or debate oriented specifically to an educational issue, nor was there one that used Education/Learning/Schooling/Teaching in its main title at all. There was no debate to discuss any educational issue, problem, or dilemma.

However, there were three talk shows during that period that included in one of their sub-themes an "educational issue." These talk shows were:

1. "Open Dialogue" (Hewar Maftooh) - November 22, 2003: the main title was "The Islamic World: Challenges and Priorities" with a number of Malaysian students. There was some discussion about the weakness of the educational curriculum in the Islamic world.

2. "For Women Only" (Lel Nessa' Faqat) - September 7, 2003: the main title was "The Mother and Her Teenage Girl." One of the themes was the absence of sexual education in Arab schools.

3. "Without Frontiers" (Bela Hudood) - August 11, 2003: the main title was "The Depression and Powerlessness of Arab Society." One of the main themes of the discussion with a leading intellectual focused on the educational system and how education can play a vital role in the development process.

On the other hand, the "political" fever following the USA's criticism of some Arab educational curriculum was a sub-theme of three other talk shows during that period, especially in December 2003. Those talk shows were:

1. "Religion and Life" (Al Shari'a wal Hayat) - December 20th, 2003: the main title was "Curriculum in the Islamic World." The content, however, was specifically related to discussing the extent to which some Islamic religious curricula shaped children's views of other religions.

2. "Open Dialogue" (Hewar Maftooh) - December 10, 2003: the main title was "Political Reform in the Arab World." A minor part of the discussion was targeted towards how the USA aims to weaken Islamic Culture via reforming some of the Arab curricula including deleting some parts related to Islamic Culture.

3. "Without Frontiers" (Bela Hodood) - October 12, 2003: the main title was "The Future of Arab Identity and Character in the Midst of American Pressures." The discussion was with a psychologist. One of the themes was the effect of educational curriculum on Arab identity and the USA's attempts to change some components of the curriculum.

It was interesting to see how, especially in December 2003, TV, Radio and Press coverage discussed 'educational curriculum reforming' when it became a political issue, i.e., when it became part of the debate over globalization and the "Americanization" movement to reform education in the Middle East and some Gulf countries. This was also reflected in local and pan-Arab newspapers and some audio-visual coverage. Placing the "educational curriculum" face to face with the "USA criticisms" ironically led most programs to defend the educational curriculum rather than to be critical towards it. Hence, the deficiency was not only in discussing the curriculum in the light of a political (not an educational) framework, but also in focusing on the curriculum in separation from the whole educational system, as if the child learns from formal books only rather than from the whole educational system, whether inside or outside the school.

To put this in context, it is important to say that Al Jazeera, with its slogan "free trade in ideas and attracting all the opinions," has failed to devote one single talk show during five months to any educational issue. It should be noted here that Al Jazeera is known for being "critical of Arab Regimes and governments" (Bahry 2001: 88) and it is claimed that "there are few red lines in its programming, reporting, and commentary" (Bahry 2001: 97).

4.0 Methodological and Theoretical Limitations

The availability and free access to the web site is a helpful tool for Arab researchers to conduct content analysis research on the channel's programs. The absence of such comprehensive online databases for other pan-Arab stations like: Al-Arabiya, Abu Dhabi TV, Future, Nile Cultural, MBC, ART …etc. limits the ability to draw comparisons across the different stations. This is a major methodological limitation facing this kind of research. Therefore this paper chose a horizontal study of educational debates content on Al Jazeera while vertical scientific research within different channels, which might have produced more generalized conclusions, was not possible.

Although the results drawn from analyzing the Al Jazeera case cannot be generalized to all Arab televised debates on education, the researcher argues that looking at prime time talk shows in most pan-Arab TV stations can help to demonstrate that the analysis of Al Jazeera reveals a common trend of a much larger phenomenon. There is a lack of interest in debates on education. This lack of interest is important in explaining the absence that is found in this particular case.

Another potential theoretical limitation of this study should be noted before the implications of the research are discussed. Most communications studies' theoretical backgrounds are based on Western studies. Hence, as the West does not have a similar problem of the lack of audio-visual educational debates, there are limited comparison studies that would motivate Arab media researchers to look at this area. One can easily find in many European and American news bulletins a leading news story on education. Consequently, many televised debates will arise from that and focus on educational issues. This is why this paper started with the question on educational news in the Arab World.

In fact, some Western countries (e.g., the UK) have moved from educational debates on education to reality shows on education. The first program, broadcast in September 2003, selected 30 teenagers and made them survive four weeks at a fictitious replica of a 1950s state boarding school. It sparked a national debate about the perceived decline in British educational standards over the past 50 years. (For more information, look at, last accessed January 15, 2004)

5.0. Debates on Education Needed

The debates on education this paper argues for are not the same as those offered on the Egyptian TV stations that are described as "specialized educational stations" or ART's curriculum stations. Those stations see their goal as mainly to teach the lessons of the formal school curriculum to students at different stages. Even within their target, these stations are not utilizing the real audio-visual potential of TV to deliver the information/facts in a stimulating way and to get in daily touch with students in a way that could contribute to the learning environment. Yet this is also beyond the scope of this paper.

This paper tries to make the point that the debates on education that are needed are different from curriculum-based programs. In addition, the necessary debates on education should not in any case be merely talk shows for "educators" to debate with each other, in imitation of "political" talk shows on pan-Arab TV channels.

In fact, the direct opposite is needed. What is necessary are educational debates where academic researchers, industry leaders, government agency representatives, children, children's advocates, teachers, parents, educators, media professionals and health professionals all contribute. The targeted audience should be clear as well. Such debates must have in mind that they are multilevel "family" programs, capable of being "understood" and "enjoyed" by family members of different ages.

Such debates ought to be based upon serious, in-depth research and should use consistent visual attractions. Technical advances and satellite-video conferencing facilities make it possible to establish these things. We need to move beyond a talkative approach, and to find new, informative ways of empowering students to become Arab citizens who actively participate in the democratization process.

While working on this paper the researcher has discussed the issue with a friend, a well-known journalist, who is not convinced that debates on education are needed and made the remark that there are no "hot" educational issues that deserve to be discussed and covered.

It is worthwhile, therefore, to try to define the meaning of "hot" for our societies. Educational issues are always"hot" issues because they daily affect our children and, ultimately, our society. I do not believe that one president's phone call with another is more important than the many learning problems affecting our children.

There are numerous important issues that deserve to be discussed and addressed. For example, the private/public schools dilemma, private lessons, quality of university education, university student's fees, curriculum changes, what needs changing, the need for counselors at schools, teachers' problems, why students hate history, education stratification, the discrimination against the arts stream and vocational education, inappropriate homework, behavior problems at schools, access to educational resources, test-taking skills. And, in addition, a discussion of the educational policies where the school "reproduces the social inequalities and authoritarian patriarchal systems" (see Mazawi 2002: 60)

Here, some may say that Arts and Cultural issues are also marginalized in comparison to politics, economics, and sports issues. Nevertheless education is the most neglected dimension though I see it as the most important because it is the most influential. Also, a number of programs are devoted to cultural and artistic topics-books, fiction writers, poets, cinema and actors, and even painters.

6.0 Why the Lack of Debate on Education?

Looking at the well-known importance of education and the "crisis" situation of contemporary schools, it is hard to understand why the current Arab communications revolution is not playing a significant role in developing this aspect of its programming and why educational fields are one of the most vulnerable dimensions in television talk shows, debates, and news programs.

As the medium itself is capable of providing a diverse range of programs, the answer to the preceding question, which might appear simple at first glance, proves to be surprisingly complex. Different factors play a role in the lack of debates on education on Arab television stations-historical, structural, cultural, political, and communications concerns and policies. This paper will quickly try to address some of these.

Historical - Since independence, the middle classes have tended to focus on studying education. More and more university and college graduates became teachers, and education was traditionally the first field to allow entrance to women. With the modernization that occurred at the end of the last century, this heritage gave the superficial impression that education is a 'traditional' field that is outdated and old-fashioned. This led to the conclusion that educational topics are traditional in comparison to modern topics such as politics, scientific innovations, fashion, and the latest business news.

Structural - It is not a secret that all our pan-Arab stations depend on (AP, AFP, Reuters, etc.) to a varying extent. The global wire services are also the main source for our news agenda, which in turn shapes our talk shows to a great degree. As the wires services' agendas for the Arab World are not related to educational news, such issues are ignored and only raised when they are connected with "political stories," as discussed earlier.

Cultural - It seems that one of the reasons for ignoring students' issues is our tendency to "look down" on children and eventually "look down" on their issues. This sidelining of students and their issues has had a dramatic effect on educational debates. Again, although this point is beyond the scope of this paper, it is worthwhile mentioning it.

Political - While "Politics" in the general term colors all our TV screens, journalists do not look deeply into the "political culture" that is built into the schools at the very first step: teaching each citizen "the values, norms, beliefs, sentiments, and understanding of power and authority" (Amin 2002: 127). Education is Politics and Politics is Education, but people do not want to see it like that, and authorities do not want to admit that.

While journalists seem interested enough in discussing political issues some of which go back thirty or even fifty years to understand who is responsible for certain outcomes and how certain events happened, they seem to lack a similar enthusiasm for finding out who is responsible for the educational crisis in which we are living now and its historical and political roots.

Communications Concerns and Policies - This naturally brings us to the journalists themselves. To say that Arab society needs debates on education is obvious. To create such debates is another thing. One cannot put all the blame on the journalists. In any talk show or interview, two people are involved; the journalist needs a good interviewee. There are very few Arab critical contributors who have the passion and the vision to change a traditional talk on education into a modern innovative discussion.

Traditional interviewees for such talk shows are mostly from the ministries of education (MOE) and/or from universities or education departments. There are few private sector educational institutes or critical NGOs that can contribute different activists. Therefore, there is no lobbying for children's educational issues. Children can't lobby and adults don't lobby for their children.

This might be altered by having many parties contributing to the debates so people might no longer regard educational talk shows as closed intellectual academic meetings that the ordinary citizen is incapable of interacting with.

On the other hand, among the Arab media institutes, there are professionals specialized in politics, in economics, in culture, and in sports. Yet there are no educational correspondents, reporters, or editors. In other countries, it is common to have journalists and educational editors specialized in education. Gordon Dryden, who for many years was New Zealand's most popular radio talk show host, is a bright example. He has spent many years searching for breakthroughs in learning. He is the author of The Learning Revolution and has produced twenty-two television programs on the subject (for more information, look at, last accessed February 1, 2004). In addition, a quick look at The Independent, The Guardian or The New York Times reveals the daily writings of educational journalists and educational editors. This is something that is completely absent in all pan-Arab newspapers and TV stations.

One of the factors that contribute to the lack of an "education journalist" specialization is the higher education system. In the universities and colleges that offer media programs in the Arab World, those programs are rarely designed to allow or encourage a combination between Media or Communications Studies and Education (major - minor or double major). However, in many prominent and not so prominent universities, there is a traditional major/minor combination linking Media and Political Science or Media and Arabic or English Literature.

7.0. Conclusion

This paper aimed to shed some light on the hypothesis that there is an absence of debates on education on pan-Arab TV screens, a matter that has been ignored by mainstream Arab media researchers and critics. The researcher took Al Jazeera for a horizontal case study. It applied script content analysis to all talk shows during the last five months of 2003. The hypothesis was verified. There was not a single talk show on an educational topic. It was also interesting to note how an educational issue became a "media" topic when it became connected with a "political" fever, e.g., following the USA's criticisms of some Arab educational curricula.

In addition, this research conceptualized and examined the connection between television and debates on education as a dynamic process and a multi-factoral phenomenon and not simply as an effect association. Historical, structural, cultural, political, and communications concerns and policy were highlighted. Methodological and theoretical limitations were also discussed. The study also tried to look at the various aspects of this absence to establish an analytical framework which future research can develop.

This is not merely an issue of balance, where political debates are everywhere and debates on education are nowhere. It is a core social issue where diversity of content is vulnerable and, therefore, democracy is in danger. Educational debates can be widely influential, especially as the current schooling system already faces many "rotten" aspects. Such educational discussions need to be down-to-earth and visually attractive to help the communications revolution play its role in achieving a learning revolution. TBS

Rawan Damen: MA in Communications Studies from Leeds University/UK, Dec. 2003. TV Documentary Maker, Anchor and Researcher. Part time Instructor at the Media Department - Petra University/Amman. Children Rights Activist. Co-author of four books on children issues. Participated in several international and pan-Arab conferences and workshops on Communications and formal/non-formal educational issues. Toured twelve states in the USA (2001, 2003) to promote women's peace efforts. Worked as a communications consultant at UNICEF and UNDP School Net Project. First one-woman-show documentary "Waiting for Light" participated in Milano Film Festival, Italy (Sep. 2001), Chicago Film Festival, USA (April 2003) and IAMHIST XX Conference, UK (July 2003). E-mail:


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