International television and radio broadcasters have battled, especially since 9-11, to “win the hearts and minds” of the Middle East. What they really want then is to woo the eyes and ears of people in the region.
How to do this? This is the pressing question, and it underscores the need to answer others: What is the region's appetite for news and information? Which media do people depend on and trust? In other words, what do we know about attitudes and behavior towards media in the Middle East's diverse societies?
Little quantitative data is readily available, and only some qualitative research has emerged during the last decade illuminating media consumption patterns in this crisis-ridden area. However, media moguls and producers, editors and journalists have been designing television and radio programming based on assumptions that are questionable at best and perhaps no longer valid — among these:
* Domestic media competition is thin throughout the Middle East.
* News coverage is overwhelmingly censored, with reports about the U.S. and the West intentionally skewed.
* Nationalism and religiosity are the predominant themes underlying domestic coverage of local, regional, and international events.
Data collected so far by the InterMedia Survey Institute — quantitative, qualitative, and anecdotal — increasingly refute this conventional wisdom, revealing a growing sophistication among Middle Eastern audiences. The data point to four seemingly nascent trends that deserve exploration by media researchers as they formulate their hypotheses for testing, and attention by international broadcasters as they court the region's viewers and listeners.
* Producers and consumers of TV and radio in parts of the region — Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran, Qatar, the UAE, and Afghanistan — are experiencing political liberalization and experimenting with free expression. Yet the red lines delineating what is and is not acceptable are unclear and seem to shift suddenly.
* Audiences from Morocco to Afghanistan, from Turkey to Yemen crave the “truth” defined as accuracy in reporting.
* Viewers and listeners are skeptical if not downright suspicious of claims to objectivity, seeking instead media that are balanced — or at least honest about their perspectives.
* Audiences want international media to provide an understanding of the world beyond their geographical and mental boundaries while respecting the Middle East's multiple cultural realities.
As some regional governments have recently implemented liberalization measures, producers and consumers of TV and radio are experimenting with free expression. Turkey is the Middle East's only long-standing democracy among the region's Muslim societies, but other governments are also putting press freedom high on their agendas.
The reasons for this development vary. Morocco's and Jordan's monarchs are recognizing the utility of media as a legitimate channel for the expression of popular frustrations. Lebanon's religious sects and political parties all have their own media outlets, and their entrepreneurial spirit is thriving. Iraqi Kurdish media has proliferated, protected by the American-British no-fly zones and likely to fare even better after Saddam Hussein's ouster.
Iran's journalists have spearheaded the reformist movement that elected President Mohammad Khatami in two landslides. Afghanistan's media organizations are re-emerging, starting from scratch after some two decades of civil-international war. Qatar's and the UAE's emirs have pioneered the establishment of pan-Arab satellite television and free-media zones, reaping regional clout and economic rewards for their citizens.
Whatever the reason, local media markets have become quite competitive if not rather chaotic. Gone are the days when state-run television and radio programs were the only viewing and listening options for Middle Eastern consumers. InterMedia's studies suggest that with many options available, regional audiences — particularly those with higher education, identifying themselves as middle class, and living in urban centers — regularly turn to numerous news sources.
Consumers check domestic sources against international ones, and vice versa, to receive a fuller account of major events. International media — BBC World, Canal France International, CNN, Deutsche Welle Radio and Television, Euronews, RFE/RL, VOA, etc. — face stiff competition from the Middle East's domestic and pan-Arab news sources. Regional journalists have improved their professional skills, and with their intuitive grasp of local concerns and sensitivities, are surprising their counterparts in international media with their effectiveness and popularity.
Yet political liberalization and increased free expression have their opponents in the region, and the red lines delineating what is and is not acceptable are unclear, shifting all too suddenly as editors, journalists, and producers find themselves in trouble. Indeed, sectarian bosses in Lebanon, conservatives among Iran's ruling clergy, and Afghan tribal chiefs have challenged free expression, clamping down on domestic media that dare tread on what they deem politically and religiously sacred. Arab governments have likewise restricted coverage by Al-Jazeera and other satellite stations whose coverage they find unflattering.
Media markets that swing like a pendulum between the extremes of competition and control, freedom and fear produce chaos, but also make audiences even hungrier for truthful and balanced reporting. How do regional audiences define and identify the truth? While consumers appreciate the newly free media they have in some countries, they realize that freedom does not necessarily lead to accuracy and fairness. As audiences in InterMedia's in-depth interview studies remark, freedom is the midwife to “warlord media” in Afghanistan and “[Massoud] Barzani and [Jalal] Talabani media” in Iraqi Kurdistan (referring to the Kurdish Democratic Party's and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's leaders).
Truth may prove an elusive concept, but regional audiences seem to define it as the media's best efforts to report all that happened without omission or embellishment and to the best of the journalist's knowledge. This type of accurate reporting does not need to be “objective” as the adjective is commonly used in the West, especially in the U.S. In fact, InterMedia's studies indicate that Middle Eastern consumers distrust if not reject claims to objectivity, whether by the Voice of America or by CNN, because they believe that all news sources reflect and represent politically and/or commercially motivated, vested interests.
Regional audiences value sources that are balanced, examining a story from as many angles as possible, or that are at least honest about their perspective. This sense of balance and honesty enables the consumer to exercise choice. As one interview participant in Iran declared to InterMedia shortly after 9-11, “Political news is like a puzzle. The more complicated the story, the more sources I need to turn to. Each one provides its specific perspective on the event and emphasizes what it sees as being important.” (Female, 25 years old, Tehran resident).
Besides looking for accurate and fair coverage of events, viewers and listeners in the Middle East are curious about the world beyond their geographical and mental boundaries. Studies show that audiences consume international media, even those sources they regard as biased, because they wish to understand cultural, economic, and scientific developments outside their region. This is particularly so in the most restrictive and repressive states — Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Syria, for example. As Iraqi research respondents explain, international media has been a crucial link for Iraqis living under Saddam's terror and international sanctions, with viewers and listeners taking significant risks of official punishment for tuning in.
Consumers want international media to respect the region's diverse customs and faith traditions. Depictions of the region as monolithically Arab or Muslim, uniquely prone to extremism and violence, and drowning in barrels of oil wealth are all too common. Middle Eastern viewers and listeners expect international media organizations to transcend these over-simplifications and offer a more nuanced picture of their and other societies. As regional satellite stations have demonstrated, people are eager to express their views and have them heard. Adopting a dialogical format to culturally sensitive issues is a strategy like to succeed for international media producers too.
In short, a small but growing body of research on media consumption patterns in the Middle East should make producers of international TV and radio think twice about assumptions that have passed for wisdom as they reach out to regional audiences. The complexities of markets and sophistication of consumers should inspire and indeed necessitates the boldness and creativity of media researchers and producers in testing hypotheses among and conceiving programming for regional viewers and listeners.
Winning hearts and minds may miss the point. Wooing the eyes and ears entails earning the trust and respect of audiences — a tall but not impossible order, and one that media researchers and producers not only share but would be wise to accomplish together in the Middle East as soon as possible.
Dr. Haleh Vaziri is the Regional Research Manager for Central Asia, the Middle East & North Africa at the InterMedia Survey Institute in Washington, D.C. This article will be published in The Channel, (April-June 2003), the journal of the Association of International Broadcasters (UK).