At the Arab Media Forum, the way we approach the news today was one talking point

There has been a change in terms of what audiences believe should be the most important news covered by traditional media outlets – and emotion has a lot to do with it

A newsstand along Kasr Al Aini street in Cairo AFP
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At the Arab Media Forum in Dubai this week, the Mohammed bin Rashid Library gave us a taste of an upcoming exhibition about the history of Arab journalism, displaying the front pages of newspapers from across the Middle East in the 20th century.

Looking at the newspapers from Lebanon and Syria in the 1930s, I found stories about the public funeral of a leading cleric, concerns about an unemployment crisis, coverage of the continuing fallout from the First World War and decline of the Ottoman Empire.

For example, the purpose of government is to help create economic opportunity for its citizens, reminds one article in the periodical Lissan El-Ahrar of Damascus. Syria was still struggling for formal independence from France and 1936 was a tumultuous year that included strikes and protests as part of national resistance against colonial policies. The very future of the Arab people was being shaped during that period amid turmoil in Europe. The brutal Spanish Civil War would begin later that summer and there was also an infamous Olympic Games in Berlin, as fascist forces were in the ascendancy.

The coverage in the Arab press of the early part of the last century was quite intellectual and analytical, while also underscored by an impassioned idealism about Arab self-determination. Through the media’s lens in the 1930s, it was totally understandable to assume that colonialism was the root of all the region’s problems. Some would argue that the region is still grappling with its consequences. Others might also point out that it is alive and well in the 21st century, considering foreign interventions in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Does it matter that the powers in question are not Britain and France but the US, Russia and Iran?

The news about the future of Arab countries, as well as instability in Europe, is not too unfamiliar given the current headlines in 2024, with conflict in both regions ongoing.

We have had watershed stories in recent years such as, for example, the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and the Arab uprisings that began in 2010. The rise and fall of ISIS in Iraq and Syria happened later that decade. How those stories were covered by news and media outlets was shaped by events, and did shape events for many years to follow. What happened informed and influenced those consuming the news.

The coverage in the Arab press of the early part of the last century was quite intellectual and analytical

However, today it seems as if the audience is setting the tone for how we should view events and that could result in history recording them for future generations with little hindsight applied.

We now have a much more emotional style of news gathering that blurs the lines between journalism and activism. The overall sense right now is that the coverage of news will never again be rational. However, it is no accident that it has come to pass, and there are two main factors behind this.

The first is related to society’s altered state since the Covid-19 pandemic. That is connected to the years of austerity and depressed economic opportunity following the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

When you are living in a permacrisis era, the news cycle must be always by definition “hard”, like a siren that is never turned off. “Hard news” is typically related to timely and significant developments rather than the softer infotainment and human-interest coverage that usually gets just as much, if not greater, audience attention, as the so-called “serious” news.

Usually, the particular news judgment of a newsroom would determine the mix of hard and soft news. Digital platforms have also allowed greater audience transparency and a real-time understanding of what they are seeking out. For a time, media outlets became too obsessed with such data, which resulted in everyone chasing the narrowest cross-section of stories, which attracted the biggest readership. It was often true that these were the softest of items, usually involving a celebrity or two.

Today, there has been a 180-degree turn in terms of what audiences believe should be the most important news covered by traditional media outlets. So, it follows, we have become much more sentiment-led as journalists, taking our cues from which stories are emotionally resonating on social media.

At times it is understandable that it should be given the levels of tragedy we are witnessing, especially now in Gaza, and the visible scale of the impact of global crises such as climate change.

The second factor behind the emotional news-gathering style is related to industry trends. The rise in the popularity of content creators, the emergence of Generative AI technology, the impact of tighter regulation of social media and digital platforms, have all been disruptive trends in recent years. The result of all of it combined has been to give the individual more power over what they see and read and when and how they do. The way news is consumed now reflects each person’s own tastes, beliefs and mood much more than the particular brand or outlet that is reporting it.

This is a fact that heavily contours the industry and there is no option but for media outlets to traverse this altered landscape.

The challenge is also well acknowledged. Among the industry discussions taking place at the Arab Media Forum is how to deliberately approach news in a more considered way and move on from a decade driven as much by the volume at which stories are reported as the facts being delivered.

It becomes a battle not for ratings or exclusives, but for which media brand can show the clarity of vision and the strategic consistency to create a new type of news reporting and gathering style that both reclaims the middle ground and rebuilds it in a way that can be sustained for generations to come.

Published: May 31, 2024, 4:00 AM