International Affairs-Forum: Your organization, Just Journalism, researches and analyzes how the UK media portray the Middle East. What have you found to be one of the most common problems with media coverage of the Middle East?
Rafael Broch: One of them is over-concentration on certain subjects, on certain organizations, governments, individuals, and the consequent affect on the public opinion of that concentration. Of course it’s not incumbent on journalists to be concerned with how equitable their coverage is. They don’t have to give equal coverage to every issue. But it can be to the detriment of important issues that do arise in the Middle East. An example: We only very rarely hear about instances of political dissent in Syria in the UK media. That’s not to say they’re not happening, it’s just we don’t hear about those. And of course, some of that is explained, to be fair, by the different levels of access journalists have in those different countries. But there’s very little recognition of that.
IA-Forum: Regarding media coverage of the most recent conflict between Gaza and Israel, can you tell me about some of the trends you have noted and their implications?
Mr. Broch: A lot of these observations are documented in the report we published in February on the subject, which is available online. The first thing to say is the coverage was obviously massive. One of the most positive trends we noted was the approximately equal balance of editorials in the British press on the scale of hostility and favorability toward the military offensive that was going on, which is a good indicator. There were problems; amongst them the failure to distinguish between opinion and factual news reporting. This, of course, influences readers and viewers of the news and can make it difficult sometimes for audiences to reach autonomous or independent views on the subject, so I’m sure you’ll agree that’s relevant.
A couple of other examples were the relatively high levels of reporting that involve the humanizing of individual sufferers in the conflict. Eyewitness accounts and so on. And that obviously has an important emotional consequence for the audiences of the news. A final example is the certain consistencies in the subject matter and also the messages of the political cartoons that were appearing in the British press at the time.
IA-Forum: What is your organization ultimately hoping to accomplish by reporting on the media’s coverage?
Mr. Broch: As a research organization, what we’re trying to do is to collect an evidence base that can hopefully advance the public discussion and debate in the UK, and internationally, about reporting on Israel and the Middle East. Some of the trends we identify and describe in our research raise very important questions about the role of journalism and journalists, what influence they have on public thought, the challenges journalists face in their reporting about the region. And a great deal is written and said on these subjects, but we feel that taking a research-based approach to these important questions and also involving journalists and other media stake-holders too as often as possible in these discussions, their views are obviously essential, is the most valuable approach.
Ultimately, to answer your question, we’d like more awareness of these questions by news consumers and perhaps greater recognition of them by journalists themselves.
IA-Forum: Do you hope to change the behavior of journalists at all?
Mr. Broch: Journalists act independently, and so they should, that’s a very important feature of free media and that’s something to celebrate. So we don’t intend to, I’m not sure how you put it, affect their behavior. We do want to make them aware of some of the issues and we’d like to see them reflect that awareness in their reporting at times.
IA-Forum: Many of Just Journalism’s articles mention the danger of bias in the media. To what extent do you think society is affected by bias in the media? Or is it that the media is affected by bias in society?
Mr. Broch: That’s a good question and I think the short answeris it would have to be that both dynamics here are obviously at work. The interplay between society and the media is deeply complex and to approach the question, it depends on which area and which form of media we’re talking about as these obviously differ widely in terms of their influence and their responsibility. In general, Just Journalism does not address “bias” as a concept, as we think it’s rarely a useful term. People use bias as a detrimental term; but this rarely address the nuances of the questions at stake. For example, do they mean neutrality? Or do they mean balance? Or perhaps they’re making a point about relative concentration by journalists. Bias is used for all of these terms and that’s probably not a great situation. Journalists obviously have a huge influence and a great responsibility in terms of shaping public opinion on the most important questions that society faces, and to a degree they’re of course responding to the societal agenda and what people feel are the priority issues. But they’re also simultaneously shaping it as well. And that’s why collecting data on their outputs, which is what we do, is a small but valuable step to take.
IA-Forum: A June 23 article on the Just Journalism Web site discusses the role of citizen journalism in the recent political protests in Iran. It said journalists were right to use the cell phone videos and tweets they could get because the Iranian government was prohibiting mainstream media coverage. In countries that enjoy a free media, can outlets such as blogs and tweets still be justified as legitimate news sources?
Mr. Broch: Of course. These sources make the media a more democratic place and they give previously unheard voices a platform which is really important, too. These sources also add to the number of channels of information that journalists have. But, this development over the past five or ten years does represent a serious challenge for the mainstream news outlets both financially and professionally as they’re increasingly sidelined by the direct availability of this information. But two of the characteristics of the free media are obviously the availability of these kinds of resources, including blogs and tweets, and also the unrestricted conditions in which journalists can use their resourcefulness to collect and arrange these sources.
But I think your distinction is an important one. In places where the media is systematically restricted, as we saw in Iran, the relative importance of citizen journalism sources grows, and the difficulties of relying on these sources become more pronounced. I can’t think of an argument why they shouldn’t be used in these conditions, but you can argue that their shortcomings ought to be recognized by journalists who use those sources. I’ll give you examples:, the identity of the sources is more obscure than more traditional news sources. Their reliability can be harder to verify and, as we pointed out, they may emanate from communities of a narrower profile. News audiences probably need to know this.
IA-Forum: Mainstream journalists have set guidelines they must adhere to regarding ethics and reliability, such as the National Union of Journalists Code of Conduct. As newspapers decline and the popularity of blogging continues to rise, do you think similar guidelines should or will be imposed on bloggers?
Mr. Broch: It’s difficult to know, very hard to predict, because the media landscape is obviously changing so quickly. In truth, I don’t know enough about some of the interesting proposals that are out there about how this might work. It’s likely that there will be large barriers of enforcement and jurisdiction to overcome as the production and consumption of blogs is totally international. So I don’t think we’re very close to that at this stage, but it’s very hard to know.
IA-Forum: To what extend does Just Journalism research blogs that cover the Middle East? Does the organization have any plans to increase the amount of attention it pays to these media outlets?
Mr. Broch: We probably don’t do enough. One of the things we struggle with is the resource level we have. It’s obvious that the amount of news outlets and stations and blogs and all other kinds of platforms for news is just massive and I can’t think of a number of people who would be sufficient to engage with all of them. But the answer to your question is yes, we ought to be doing more on blogs. We’re certainly in contact with them a great deal but in terms of more analytical monitoring and research, we’ve got one project in place which we’re hoping to turn over in the next three months or so which is directly focused on this subject, but the more we can do on this subject, the better.
IA-Forum: The Chinese government is currently attempting to stop civilian journalism by blocking social networking and micro blogging sites. How long do you think this block will last and will it be successful at stopping civilian journalism?
Mr. Broch: It’s a very interesting question. I’m not an expert on the political conditions in China, so, it’s very, very hard for me to know how long the block will last. From the little information I do have, I understand that the challenges faced by citizens hoping to blog and report freely in China are great and conditions there are very restrictive. I’m not confident I can say more about how likely it is those obstructions are going to be lessened or even grow as time will pass. I think the Olympics are probably an interesting example because the spotlight was very much on China at the time. I’m not sure there’s been a great deal of change since then so I can’t think what would catalyze a very drastic change in increasing the level of freedom of journalists in China. But again, I’m really not an expert.
Rafael Broch is Director of Strategy forJust Journalism, , an independent research organisation focused on how Israel and Middle East issues are reported in the UK media.
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