Since 2013, Northwestern University in Qatar has conducted an annual survey, Media Use in the Middle East, asking the same questions year on year while adding new ones to capture and authenticate the dynamic state of public communication in the region. In 2018, we carried out our sixth such survey across seven countries, selected to approximate a reasonable representation of public opinion on media use and related topics in a turbulent and complex region. The studies were inspired by the Arab Spring, then in full flower, but later to disappoint, as an effort to listen to the people of the region as they communicate among each other—and the world. As always, we make our findings public and also contribute them to the World Internet Project where they are the only source of such data from Arab countries.
We chose to assess and report on communication in the region writ large as legacy and emerging media have interacted and changed the face of the information ecosystem and landscape. Thus, serious attention to media use itself, as media were transforming themselves, and people’s attitudes toward them have been essential to our storyline.
That has meant a grounding in cultural attitudes, linked to censorship and digital privacy, as our foundational underpinning. We begin with an assessment of media use by platform and then, an up-close look at film, television, music and podcasts, video games, sports and news. In odd years (2013, 2015, 2017) we have paid greater attention to news and information media, while in even years (2014, 2016 and 2018) we add emphasis on entertainment media and its functions. And always, as a tribute to our host country we take a focused look at Qatar. In 2018, we published a five-year retrospective of the work we had done to date from 2013 through 2017, a useful exercise as we prepared to launch this sixth study which is reported here.
Countries included in the study this year are Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates, stretching across the region from North Africa to the Arab Gulf and embracing distinct cultural and national differences.
As always, this journey of discovery points to both the similarities and differences in a region often stereotyped in Western media.
In 2018, the sixth year of this continuing, longitudinal study, NU-Q celebrated its 10th anniversary as an educational institution in the State of Qatar. The year was a time to reflect on accomplishments as we engage in a critical appraisal of them. By any measure, our comprehensive and expansive studies of media use in the Middle East are among our proudest achievements. The public and scholarly attention they have generated has advanced the school’s reputation for rigorous and relevant research. The studies have helped inspire, frame and stimulate NU-Q’s overall research program involving faculty, staff and students. When the survey project was just beginning, the media use studies “bought time” for faculty research deliverables that can take years to come to fruition. This research enterprise demonstrates how such work can be done with dispatch from start to finish, producing a substantial monograph and an interactive website within a few months, despite the complexity of collecting data across seven countries.
The work in Doha has also contributed to our parent university’s push toward global standing and research distinction. The studies are the beneficiary of the efforts of our research team, supportive faculty colleagues and leadership both at Qatar Foundation and on our home campus in Evanston, Illinois. Of course, nothing would have been achieved without support from the Qatar National Research Fund’s National Priority Research Project grants and generous contributions from Doha Film Institute, along with encouragement and endorsement of the Al Jazeera Media Network. Our collaborative work with The Harris Poll, which conducts the field work and provides numerous other services, is also essential.
Logistics, aside, however, the great challenge in doing this kind of research about how people use media, and the relationships between media use and at times sensitive public attitudes in a region not known for a tradition of freedom of expression, is challenging, though we’ve been gratified that in country after country the research has been carried out without incident or onerous censorship. One of the realities of international and cross-cultural survey research is that it must meet procedural requirements of sometimes wary officials in the seven countries who, in doing their jobs, can raise issues about our questions on matters of censorship, politics, government and religion, for example.
This, however, is not unique to the Middle East, as researchers who do cross-cultural research even in democratic states in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere have attested. Even in the U.S. some public opinion researchers report that critiques by government agencies or commercial enterprises also require modification or redaction of specific questions. We have faced that challenge, too. In a few instances, we’ve been asked to omit a locally sensitive question or to modify wording. While that has been rare even in our questionnaire with hundreds of variables, when it does happen we always transparently call attention to reworded or redacted items. We are pleased that academic freedom and freedom to do research unimpeded has been our experience across the region, even in nations where freedom of expression is sometimes limited.
In presenting our findings from 2018, we first issued a news release in November 2018 with a summary of baseline findings to herald the coming of our interactive and searchable website, www.mideastmedia.org, which will be followed by the full print report in March 2019. In that report, the media use findings will be augmented by explanatory and interpretative essays written by leading scholars and experts.
What makes our work distinctive is its range and scope: 7,635 face to face interviews (via phone in Qatar) conducted across seven countries. That this is a longitudinal study and the only one in the region (and one of very few in the world) adds to its distinction. The report is both a public document aimed at a wide range of readers across many fields and enterprises, and at the same time is scholarly work committed to the highest standards of survey research—with the goal of always being accessible to the general public.
Over the life cycle of these media use studies, we’ve seen the work used by students in classrooms both at Northwestern and around the world, teachers, media executives, journalists, and professionals, as well as those in commercial enterprises, diplomacy, and other institutions. The work has been showcased at press conferences and international academic, business, governmental, and NGO meetings. The reports are frequently cited by media as a reliable source produced purely for public benefit without charge. Other researchers have also drawn on this work, using the data sets directly or to produce interpretative and analytical work that, we hope, contributes to public understanding of the changing media scene in Arab countries and how individuals interact with them and also sheds light on the life in the Middle East region and its peoples.
An especially notable consideration, we believe, goes to our original motivation for launching these studies—the political and social upheavals in the region at the time of the Arab Spring especially in late 2010 and 2011. With high expectations that those uprisings would lead to immediate and permanent change, many commentators, especially in the West, presumed the arrival of a new Middle East that did not materialize. With ongoing wars and other disarray in the region, other assumptions about the collapse of the robust communication in the legacy media were commonly made. The media use studies both overtly and in a subtler fashion have tracked the lively communication and cultural patterns across the region, which present a different and more textured picture, one that is not without optimism for change today. At the same time, as this report indicates, freedom of expression and trust in media operates on a spectrum that can shift with the relative optimism or pessimism people feel in the face of their daily lives and conditions in their country as well as the media they consume. At a time when media are under assault in much of the world, it is natural that these studies would reflect that changing temperature—and climate. As we have stated before and reiterate here based on continuing and new data and analysis—voices advancing freedom of communication are alive and well in the Middle East.
We welcome the continuing dialogue and feedback these reports have inspired and are hopeful that this one will do the same.
For any enquiries related to this study, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and 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 associate 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. email@example.com, @Justin_D_Martin
Fouad Hassan is the research study coordinator at Northwestern University in Qatar. At NU-Q he works as a member of the Research Office to coordinate the collection, analysis, processing, and reporting of data in NU-Q's NPRP projects. He also coordinates NU-Q's IRB documentation in compliance with QNRF, Northwestern, and the Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) regulations. Hassan received his bachelor’s of science degree in communication from Northwestern University. firstname.lastname@example.org, @Fouad_hh
Longitudinal studies are all about navigating change, distinguishing between and among trends supported by evidence while accounting for ephemeral fluctuations in the environment. This can be a daunting challenge, but this is our objective in conducting the Media Use in the Middle East studies—to look carefully at individual data and then connect it with the larger canvas to discern meaning as we cope with the complexity of survey research across seven countries. We began these explorations into public opinion at a time when much of the region experienced a mood of euphoria during the Arab uprisings early in the second decade of the 21st Century. We were eager to watch the currents of people’s media behavior, during that turbulent period and beyond.
As we have focused on media use, we recognize that media are part of a larger narrative given their connection to and influence on other institutions and interests. Longitudinal studies require continuity, rigor and considerable resources. Our experience to date suggests that this enterprise continues to generate useful and discerning findings, thus affirming our commitment. We at NU-Q are ideally situated to do this work. In a region that was once media-poor and behind the development of some other locales, we have witnessed great change even in countries where there was limited communications infrastructure development alongside others that are quite advanced. Now several countries in the Arab region exceed many Western countries and others in the global community in internet penetration and adoption of mobile devices. Some nations have leapfrogged technologies, moving from old-style legacy media to modern digital platforms with considerable dispatch. Longitudinal studies are one of the best ways to observe and chart this change and thus our decision to engage this research over the past six years, has been gratifying for us and, we hope, useful for others.
As we consider the findings of this 2018 study, with its focus on entertainment media, the interplay between modernity and tradition is visible. The capacity of people to create their own media and media content is an essential element in understanding the modulations of shifting attitudes and opinions. While people in the region venerate home grown entertainment content, especially films that harken to historical themes, they also want their own cultures to integrate into modern society. This continued tension between preserving the past and honoring traditional values, on the one hand, and the reality of the region’s role in geopolitics and the global economy on the other is also reflected in attitudes about media and media fare.
In the new findings, we still see support for censorship of entertainment content, although there is evidence of some softening. In most countries in the region, there is support for banning films if some people find them offensive, a de facto vote of confidence for censorship even as support for freedom is evident in other findings. Majorities in four countries, for example, agree that people should be able to express their ideas and opinions online, even if they are unpopular. There are mixed views about online surveillance, with concern about commercial intrusions trumping those of government by small percentages. There is a belief among half of respondents that entertainment media challenge rather than strengthen cultural stereotypes. In our earlier studies, respondents were preoccupied with the role of media in communicating sexual behavior and excessive violence versus family values, respect for tradition and the like. And while these points of conflict have not gone away, the notion that entertainment from the Arab region is good for morality—and that western movies are now seen as less damaging to morality and moral standards—perhaps reflect more sophisticated exposure to both local and western media. There are, after all, subtle, quiet and diverse messages found in virtually all media content. The clear preference for films and other entertainment fare in Arabic, as opposed to other languages, still exists, but so does evidence that an increasing number of people say some of their favorite TV shows are in another language, often English or French. Many viewing patterns observed in other countries, such as on-demand viewing and binge-watching, are also common in the Arab region.
The link between programming and other content preferences in the abstract and real-time and stored access is greatly enhanced by technology, from high-speed internet to smartphone and VPN use. Whether in viewing entertainment media or news, there was more support in some countries in 2018 than in previous years for online freedom of expression, at a time when smartphone use and that of other new digital devices is increasing. Notably, smartphone ownership in Qatar and UAE (nearly 100%) exceeds that of the United States (77%). Concurrently, VPNs (virtual private networks) have seen explosive adoption across the region, most steeply in Arab Gulf states. Its importance is seen by dint of increasing access to diverse content offerings, notably in film, TV, movies and sport fare and also by rising concerns about internet privacy.
Social media platforms are again in play, with large declines for Facebook and Twitter amid migration of respondents to other platforms and activities, though these major players are still important in most countries. Use of Instagram and Snapchat has risen in Arab countries in the years that Facebook and other legacy platforms have declined, though the most recent data suggest those services may be plateauing in penetration, too. More nationals in 2018 than in prior years also report doing things online that do not require social platforms necessarily, such as video gaming and binge-watching, and even report greater frequencies of typically offline activities like going to the cinema and playing sports. Social media’s importance, however, has not diminished, and for many continues to play a role in everyday life, school, work and play. Even the traditional majlis or gathering place where Arabs’ practice the fine art of interpersonal communication has been invaded by social media, thus expanding the role and function of that venerable means of communication.
Across the media landscape, film viewing has increased, especially in Saudi Arabia where cinemas were only recently reintroduced to the public. It can be argued that it was social media pressure that gave voice to Saudis who hungered for cinema. The same might be said of other Saudi reforms such as women driving cars, which was also advanced in part by social media. At the same time, TV viewing is down while music use is up, as is time spent with video games. Enjoyment of sport is on the rise both for attending live matches as well as watching on TV or on digital devices. As cities in the region become major venues for international and regional sport competition, the growth of sport content is likely to increase exponentially. Mega-events like the Asian Games, the IAAF World Championship, and the World Cup, as well as world-class tennis, golf, and other sports provide sport content. We see modest increases in audiences’ willingness to pay for this and other content, an indicator of growth and further development.
While overall media use is up across several platforms and internet penetration approaches saturation in most Arab countries, there is greater and greater diversity of available content. As in other locales, trust in mass media in the Arab region is down—and alarmingly so in some countries including Jordan and Tunisia (42% and 39%) where it has dropped below of that in the U.S. (45%), where media are embroiled in constant battle with the Trump Administration. These figures, lower in 2018 than 2013, are likely related at least partly to concerns about fake news, as three-fourths or more of nationals in some countries say they encounter news reports that are made up, either sometimes or often. This is more than a casual observation, but rather one that has considerable currency due to information wars in the Arab Gulf, where content farms and bots are known to generate fabricated reports as part of disinformation campaigns.
Fake news concerns have been heightened by the blockade of Qatar, where false reports, coming from several Arab countries, but notably Saudi Arabia and the UAE, abound. In February 2019, for example, when Qatar won the Asian Cup, defeating the UAE in semi-finals and Japan in the final, several UAE newspapers reported that Japan had lost, but neglected to say who won. This is less likely a failure of journalism per se than an example of self-censorship driven by fear of government reprisal. Such selective news reporting is not unrelated to cybercrime laws common in the Arab Gulf that forbid either positive reports about a perceived enemy or negative reports about one’s own state.
Distortion of fact-based journalism is a worrisome trend and is likely to continue to erode trust in media. Along with attacks on media by national leaders, whether in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, the U.S. or elsewhere, scathing criticism of the news media as “the enemy of the people” is likely influencing public perceptions of media.
As this study confirms, media development in the Middle East continues. So, does audience engagement with an understanding of media and communication. The nexus between government and the private sector seen vividly in regulation and censorship is always worth watching closely—and is almost always in play. Media use studies like this one are ultimately about freedom of expression and the utility of communication infrastructure to facilitate individual use of media platforms and content as well as their spread to interpersonal, group and strategic communication as well as messages that extend to larger audiences across the region and globally.
This study, like those in the past, reinforces our belief in and commitment to longitudinal research that takes the temperature of public attitudes, opinions and media preferences essential to understanding the functioning of society itself.
- EED, February 2019
Dennis, E. E., Martin, J. D., & Hassan, F. (2018). Media use in the Middle East, 2018: A seven-nation survey. Northwestern University in Qatar. Retrieved from www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2018
Dennis, Everette E., Justin D. Martin, and Fouad Hassan. Media Use in the Middle East, 2018: A Seven-Nation Survey. Northwestern University in Qatar, 2018, www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2018.
Dennis, Everette E., Justin D. Martin, and Fouad Hassan. “Media Use in the Middle East, 2018: A Seven-Nation Survey.” Northwestern University in Qatar, 2018. www.mideastmedia.org/survey/2018.