Comprehensive Approach to Media Needed

Jul 102008

By Daoud Kuttab

During my free time while teaching journalism at Princeton University, I agreed to a request from the International Centre for Journalists to create and supervise an online course teaching interested Arab journalists how to set up their own news website. The course was an interesting experience in gauging the status of the internal workings of the Arab press as nearly 40 journalists (in two rounds) participated in the six-week online course.

I thought of this course as I read on my way home to Jordan about the offer that His Majesty the King made to the Jordan Press Association to support the training of journalists. While much has been said about self-censorship that has become the hallmark of many journalists as a result of years of state control over the media, I was struck by the negative role that editors in many Arab countries are playing.

In one of our training sessions I asked the participants to write a story about the state of traffic in their cities. The assignment requested the journalists to interview and quote at least three different individuals, whether citizens, drivers, traffic police or city engineers. As a trainer, my directions focused on the need to quote those interviewed verbatim. I even explained that I wanted to see the words within quotation marks. When one Egyptian journalist sent a story without a single quotation mark, I inquired about it. The response really surprised me. He said that while he had learned in journalism school about the need to use the interviewees’ words within quotation marks, his editors had told him that there was no need to use them.

This negative role of editors can be seen in many manifestations in most of the Arab media, which lack professionalism, except for stories reprinted from international wire services. I noticed this lack of professionalism in many other cases, including lack of attention to sourcing reports and the general weakness in using professional criteria when making local reports.

A few years ago, a major Jordanian newspaper hired a well respected Arab journalistic trainer for six months. The trainer had to quit her jobs half way through her assignment due to the numerous cases in which editors slashed well researched reports that journalists had worked hard on. Such actions tend to de-motivate journalists and certainly increase the levels of self-censorship, as journalists give up on professionalism and try to figure out the topics or even the slant the editor wants.

Columnists, as well as their senior editors, are also to be blamed for the lack of professionalism that can be seen in today’s media. While a columnist is certainly free to write his or her opinion, he/she is not free to base opinions on clearly proven false or fabricated information. A good editor will not approve a column is he/she feels it is based on falsehood.

A case in point happened a few weeks ago, when the Jordanian media fell in the trap of a fabricated report about the political outlooks of the US presidential campaign. Not only did the media (by and large) fail to apologise for printing this fabricated report, many columns continued to be published even after it became clear that the story was totally untrue. One columnist writing in a Jordanian daily even began his column with the statement “irrespective of whether the quotations are true or not”, followed by his opinion on the content of the statement that was never uttered!

The state of journalism in the country requires a fresh look. While the law identifies journalists only as those who are members of the Jordan Press Association, the reality is that there are many individuals who are outside the JPA for a variety of reasons. Mandatory membership in Jordan’s one and only syndicate includes journalists, editors and publishers, while excluding journalists working for electronic websites, private radio and TV, as well as Jordanian journalists working for Arab and international media.

The National Agenda headed by the former deputy prime minister, Marwan Muasher, issued a 19-point media reform plan that included ending mandatory membership, but that plan, although approved by the government, was never translated into law or policy.

While the journalists’ association is naturally the correct place to organise any training of journalists, the Jordan Press Association had shied away from journalistic training and even attacked independent attempts to organise media training despite the substantial fund collected as part of the 1 per cent fee on advertising income Jordanian dailies are asked to turn over to the association.

Like the process of commercial privatisation, changes in the media sector are painful but necessary. The calls of His Majesty for training of the Jordanian journalists, therefore, must take into account the need for a much wider media reform policy. Such a policy must balance the need to divorce government from the media, ensuring respect for professional standards through voluntary self-regulation of the media sector while, at the same time, guaranteeing stability and protection of the common good. This is a tall order that requires a comprehensive approach and cannot be limited to the training of reporters.