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Media Use in the Middle East is an annual survey that studies media consumption and cultural and political attitudes in Arab countries. More than 6,000 respondents across six Arab countries were selected and interviewed via randomized sampling procedures--in Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates. The 2015 survey is the third iteration in the life of the project.
Tracking people’s use of and attitudes about the media in the Middle East is a systematic means of understanding the region itself that goes beyond news headlines and subjective commentary. How people use media—and what they think about them—offer insights about the social and political climate itself as well as the state of freedom of expression.
Since 2013, Northwestern University in Qatar has conducted survey research on media use in the region to better know, appreciate and work with these vital social institutions. This annual study, conducted in January and February 2015, is the third such effort by NU-Q. See mideastmedia.org.
As a school that educates communication, journalism and media professionals, it is our obligation to “know the territory” within which we teach and study. Moreover, how people use media in everyday life, and what they think of their relationship to society and government, is a barometer for assessment with useful cues for charting change. Such intelligence is vital in an era of massive media disruption in which the online, digital world has challenged and surpassed what we now call legacy media.
Of course, the whole concept of media keeps changing with the flurry of new social and digital media in which any person can be a communicator with less “mediation” of what they do, see and create. Between 2013 and 2015, the media landscape globally and in the Middle East changed significantly, with new players and brands now being used by our respondents.
NU-Q’s second media use study (2014), tracked entertainment media in the context of changing use of leisure time in the internet era, thus broadening our view of media and people in the region. Now with a commitment to long term media tracking or longitudinal studies, we present the latest findings in this series: Media Use in the Middle East, 2015.
As with the 2013 study, this project is contributes to the World Internet Project and adds importantly to that global effort by ensuring that the Middle East is not skipped over as in many other multinational research projects, and by providing points of comparison with other parts of the world. And this time, our work is generously funded by the Qatar National Research Fund, in addition to our own resources. As always, we have excluded countries like Syria and Iraq, where the ability to conduct survey research is difficult to impossible. However, in probing media use in Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar, we examine large and small countries from North Africa to the Gulf, some that are quite stable, some more turbulent; media-rich and media-poor with different regimes and degrees of freedom of expression and media regulation.
We recognize, of course, that the mood in any country is conditioned by current developments there and in the region. With roiling civil wars in Syria and Yemen, the high profile of ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), with its barbaric beheadings of journalists and humanitarian workers, and dustups among some GCC members, many factors affect media habits, attention span, and attitudes. Within the realities of access and funding, we’ve tried to present a representative picture where norms across the region can be compared with data from each country. Thanks to an interactive website, users of this study can do their own probes and comparisons.
This is rapid-response research, something rarely attempted by academic institutions, in which we frame our study, settle on emphasis and questions, then go immediately into the field in the six countries, gathering data, analyzing it and preparing it for publication in less than four months. We are concerned with fresh information, and in connecting that information to the academic and professional media communities, as well as others, with dispatch. Changes in the field suggest that this is necessary to avoid perishable information. At the same time, we recognize that radical changes over a two year period are not likely, so it is the incremental contours of the study that tell the story of new developments. Even subtle changes, however, can be instructive as they will likely affect tens of thousands, if not millions, of viewers and users, not to mention the economic impact and social consequences that a small movement of the media metric dial can have.
This study has a trove of new data, some analyzed here, and some that will benefit from the secondary analysis of others who are welcome to use these findings.
Some of our findings are striking and might seem counterintuitive, while others are not remarkable on the surface, but can signal stability or subtle change that is important. Especially notable in the 2015 study is that most people access the internet on their phones rather than by laptop or desktop computers. That’s true in every country in our sample, except Egypt, where an ailing economy has slowed the adoption of new technologies common elsewhere in the region and most dramatically in the Gulf states of UAE and Qatar. In a few short years, people now spend more time on the internet than any other media, including the all-powerful television and radio (the most popular medium worldwide). The gap between the internet and other media grew from 2013 to 2015. Another dramatic change since 2013 is that the internet application WhatsApp has soared in use as some 93% of those in the study send direct messages to 84% who use e-mail, which is clearly losing ground.
In 2013, we reported that respondents across the Arab world said the quality of news reporting in their country had improved in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Perhaps, we thought, that was the massive coverage of the uprisings and regime changes by local and international media might be the cause. This time, results were more mixed. When asked whether “the quality of news reporting in the Arab world has improved over the past two years,” people in Egypt, Tunisia and the UAE said it had not, while those in Lebanon, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia were affirmative. At the same time, watching news and commentary was eclipsed by viewers who prefer comedy, thus suggesting a modest, but important, migration from hard news. The equation grows more complex as the study shows that believe in the statement “news media in your country are credible” is on the rise. Overall these data suggest more discerning readers who attest to credibility of news, but they are still not satisfied with the trajectory of change and improvement in a region not known for quality journalism.
As in other countries, Arabs are sensitive about how their country and the region is portrayed in international news coverage, especially so now that major networks from Al Jazeera to BBC, CNN and many others from Iran, Russia, and China broadcast in the region. By and large, people in the region believe that international news coverage of their country is either favorable or fair while the belief that they are “biased against” varies widely. Countries where there is more turmoil seem to have less confidence in international media as witnessed in Lebanon, Tunisia and Saudi Arabia while tiny percentages in Qatar and UAE assert that global media are “biased against” them. This will seem ironic to close observers of elite attitudes toward international news coverage in both countries were international incidents and controversies about labor issues and the World Cup (in Qatar) have driven negative news coverage in major outlets such as The Guardian and the New York Times. While the leaders in both countries may seethe about such coverage, most Qatari and Emirati citizens don’t agree; just 7% in Qatar and 3% in UAE lament negative bias against their country. Why this is so deserves a deeper dive and analysis than quantitative data can provide. Whether citizens agree with the tone and nature of international coverage of their country, or simply don’t watch or care, is not known. We suspect, sans more knowledgeable news consumers, this is probably the case.
The state of support for freedom of expression, a central feature of multiple Arab uprisings, seems to have cooled somewhat across the region; where in 2013, 59% agreed that people should be able to express their ideas on the internet, “even if they are unpopular,” the figure dropped to 52% in 2015. Only in the UAE and Qatar were slight increases reported. Decreases of 10% and 20% were reported in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, respectively, while declines in Egypt were modest and Lebanon was flat. At the same time, support for internet regulation has dropped since 2013 while people still worry about “government checking what I do online.” It is possible that the latter concern is related to a wave of cyber-crime laws that have been enacted across the region, some with draconian provisions that prohibit the spreading of negative news about a country even if it is true. These laws have been widely publicized as have some high profile prosecutions in Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt.
In a region so long constrained by authoritarian governments and wary of media intrusions, the rise of social media is truly remarkable. But since these disruptive social media were instigators of action in Arab uprisings, some of whose victories have gone south, it is understandable that unfettered freedom is sometimes met by caution and pulling back. That’s true globally, too, including in the West where cybercrime laws and concerns about children, sex, and violence also lead to support for more regulation.
This study is not meant to take sides or push political agendas, but simply to report on what the citizens and residents think about their media—and how they use them. “Their media,” however, are no longer confined behind national borders, but extend everywhere and embrace almost every form and source of human communication. This study, those that preceded it, and those to follow represent our institutional appointment at NU-Q and our commitment to report what we see for our students, colleagues, media industries, government ministries, institutional leaders, leaders, and anyone interested.
We are ever grateful to our colleagues at The Nielsen Company, especially Kerry Hill, David Krane, Nira Colonero, and Adam Gross, who have not only orchestrated the fieldwork, but have been invaluable participants in the year-round conversation about how we collect and report these data. We are proud to have worked closely with Column Five Media since 2013 on the survey website, including a signature element of the report, the interactive display of the findings that has made these data accessible and useful to academics, policymakers, industry professionals, and the general public.
My thanks to the Qatar National Research Fund and its National Priorities Research Program for their support, as they accorded this project one of their highest and most competitive awards, selected by outside referees. I am grateful to my colleagues Justin Martin and Robb Wood who do the lion’s share of the work on this project over many months. Special thanks to Najwa Al Thani, a member of NU-Qs Class of 2015 who has been a research assistant on this project. And always, this work would not go forward without the interest and support of members of the NU-Q community—students, faculty and staff.
Everette E. Dennis, PhD
Lead Principal Investigator
Dean and CEO, Northwestern University in Qatar
This report was made possible by NPRP grant #7-1757-5-261 from the Qatar National Research Fund (a member of Qatar Foundation). The statements made herein are solely the responsibility of the authors.
Everette E. Dennis is dean and CEO of Northwestern University in Qatar. He has extensive international experience with media in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and East Asia as having had assignments in Africa, Russia and Western Europe. He is a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations and has served as a trustee of the International Institute of Communications. He has held professorships at four US universities and is the author of some 45 books on media industries, media law, freedom of expression, journalistic practice and related topics. He was senior vice president of the Gannett and Freedom Forum foundations and is a past president of the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication. He holds a PhD from the University of Minnesota and has advanced fellowships at Harvard, Stanford and the East-West Center.
Justin D. Martin is an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern University in Qatar who studies media and politics in the Arab world. A Fulbright scholar, he speaks multiple dialects of Arabic and has lived and worked in Jordan, Egypt and Qatar. He is a former columnist for Columbia Journalism Review, who reported on journalism and freedom of speech from the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Martin's PhD is from the journalism school at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Robb Wood is director of strategic partnerships at Northwestern University in Qatar. At NU-Q, he builds partnerships between the university and leading private and public institutions, including large-scale research collaborations and strategy workshop programs with industry executives. He has previously served on the launch teams of Al Jazeera English in Washington and New York, and Doha Film Institute. Mr. Wood was a university fellow at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs, where he received his master's degree.
Dennis, E. E., Martin, J. D., & Wood, R. (2015). Media use in the Middle East, 2015. Northwestern University in Qatar. Retrieved from www.mideastmedia.org
Dennis, Everette E., Justin D. Martin, and Robb Wood. Media Use in the Middle East, 2015. Northwestern University in Qatar, 2015. Web. 15 April, 2015. <www.mideastmedia.org>.
Dennis, Everette E., Justin D. Martin, and Robb Wood. “Media use in the Middle East, 2015.” Northwestern University in Qatar, accessed April 15, 2015, http://menamediasurvey.northwestern.edu.
Robb Wood, Director of Strategic Partnerships
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