LONDON: “Don’t believe what you read” is the main takeaway from a poll of attitudes toward UK media coverage of the Arab world.
Some 22 percent of respondents to an Arab News/YouGov survey perceived UK media coverage of the region to be accurate while 39 percent thought it was inaccurate. Another 39 percent did not have a view either way.
Media experts said that while the poll results reflect an often sensationalist and reductionist rendering of events by the UK media, outlets in the Arab world also need to tell the story of their own region better.
More than 2,000 people were polled in the “UK attitudes toward the Arab world” survey conducted in August — a month when many news sites were busy covering a string of attacks across Europe perpetrated by extremist groups such as Daesh and so-called “lone wolf” terrorists.
Such terror attacks on the streets of London, Paris and Madrid increasingly represent the prism through which people in the UK and Europe see the Middle East, according to media experts.
But there is more to see in the region and Arab commentators have a part to play in that, according to Noha Mellor, professor of media at the University of Bedfordshire.
“There are not many Arab voices in the British media save for very few who are usually interviewed about issues pertaining to terrorism,” she said.
“Unfortunately, stories about terrorism have come to define the whole region, which means few nuanced stories about daily lives in Arab societies.”
Fawaz Gerges from the Department of International Relations at the London School of Economics agrees that as consumers of media, we have all become “obsessed” with terror at the expense of other themes which touch the lives of more people in the Arab world.
He highlights the symbiotic appeal of sensationalist headlines based on the media’s need to write them, our desire to read them and the willingness of Daesh and other such groups to ultimately and ironically benefit from them.
“We are terrorizing ourselves,” he said. “This plays into their hands and provides the social oxygen that allows them to exist.
“As bloody as the Middle East is, terrorism is still a tiny fraction. In a sense it is not the most important topic. Think about the poverty, the civil wars, the fracturing of the post-independence states — or youth unemployment, which is the most significant challenge facing the region.”
Mellor believes Arab media outlets also need to change their approach.
“Despite the proliferation of pan-Arab outlets since the 1990s, Arab media outlets also need to do more in order to project a new image of the region and appeal to British audiences’ unsaturated interest in knowing more about the region.
“There could be more English-language outlets in the region to feed Western news outlets with new stories which otherwise will go unreported in Europe,” she said.
While UK media coverage of the Middle East may suffer from terror overload, it could also be collateral damage in the wider depletion of newsrooms worldwide.
The migration of advertising revenues from newspapers and broadcasters to technology companies such as Facebook and Google has forced publishers to cut costs.
Foreign news coverage often suffers as a consequence.
“Not every British outlet can afford to send a foreign correspondent to every Arab city,” said Mellor.
“The result is that most reports will originate either from international news agencies such as Reuters, which means a unified version of the same story circulating to many British outlets, or from a handful of correspondents sent to one location in the Middle East, usually Jerusalem where life can be drastically different from surrounding cities and countries.”
Despite the findings of the survey, Gerges believes the UK media is comparatively sophisticated and its audience discerning.
“The British public is highly educated. There is a big difference between British readers and their American counterparts. They are very much interested in the world and particularly in the Middle East — so in that sense I think the British public demands more.”
• For full report and related articles please visit: How Brits view Arab world