It is obvious that the news media are a formidable force for change in the Arab World. More specifically, it seems like media whose coverage is inspired by a pan-Arab point-of-view are the most potent agents of change -- as protagonists or antagonists, depending on one’s own perspective.
Lawrence Pintak, an expert on communication and journalism in the Arab World, recently argued in Foreign Policy that
Unlike the bland, state-owned Egyptian station… Al Jazeera has captured the hopes of the crowds gathering on the streets of Cairo… There is no chance that the world would be watching these extraordinary events play out in Egypt if Egyptians had not watched the Tunisian revolution play out in their living rooms and coffee shops on Al Jazeera.
Corollary to this, The New York Times reported that Google exec. Wael Ghonim’s online media strategy
… took special aim at the distortions of the official media, because when people "distrust the media then you know you are not going to lose them", he (Ghonim) said.
It is reasonable to suppose that at least some citizens will use news media sources as inputs toward cultivating and reinforcing a strong view on important issues of the day. It is also quite likely that of these people, a significant percentage will be misinformed by skewed reporting. But having a strong position can (but not always) lead to meaningful citizen participation often required for democratic change.
So setting aside questions on whether “objective” journalism can even exist, should we perhaps reconsider universal claims made on its behalf? To be clear, it’s one thing to detect a point-of-view in news coverage and try to explain why this exists, it’s quite another to argue that this is necessary for the development of political culture. Pintak gives us perspective:
Journalism purists in the West may object to the idea of news organizations overtly helping to foster revolution. But the history of American journalism is replete with media activists: Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Samuel Adams, to name a few. The state of politics in the Arab world today has much in common with 18th-century America; the same is true of its journalism.
Previously, in an edited volume published by CommGAP, the same author tells the story of the rise of Arab satellite TV over the past 15 years and the ways in which this medium continues to be a game changer in the region: “Before the advent of Arab satellite television, the idea that media might drive public opinion in a direction other than that directed by government was essentially unthinkable”.
I think one of the chapter’s subtitles, referring to two of the roles the Arab media can play, sums it up rather well: “Watchdogs and Lapdogs.” Perhaps when citizens only have access to the latter, there is a special need for the former.
Photo credit: Flickr user Paul Keller