News | Lebanon
On March 27-28, 2014, the SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom and the Global Center for Journalism and Democracy (GCJD) organised a training workshop on cultural journalism at the Riviera Hotel in Beirut. Journalists, artists and other professionals from Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Palestine, the UK, the Netherlands, France, Spain and the US attended the event, which was held with support from the European Union.
To begin the event, Elsa Fenet, head of the political section at the EU Delegation in Lebanon, and Kelli Arena, executive director of GCJD, offered opening remarks to the assembled participants. Following the opening, Gisèle Khoury, president of the Samir Kassir Foundation, moderated a panel discussion on the importance of cultural journalism in Lebanon. The panel consisted of Akl Awit, chief editor of An-Nahar’s Cultural Supplement, Iskandar Habach, cultural journalist at As-Safir and Bissan El-Cheikh, reporter at the pan-Arab daily Al-Hayat.
The panellists discussed the dangers currently facing cultural journalism in Lebanon and the need to persevere as supporters of cultural reporting. The first challenge addressed revolved around culture, a broad subject by its nature, being turned into a niche, overspecialised topic in Lebanon. Awit argued that culture is inseparable from other aspects of society. He cited culture as the driving force behind many political movements and also said that it is affected by financial constraints. El-Cheikh added to this point by saying that the failure to turn art and cultural concerns into public concerns is one of the main reasons behind the decline of interest in these topics in Lebanon. El-Cheikh also spoke strongly against the damage caused by the overspecialisation of arts and culture, which has turned them into marginal and luxury features of life in Lebanon.
Cultural journalism is also facing increasing pressure due to the media industry’s move to the Internet, according to the panellists. This shift has caused a financial squeeze because cultural journalism is not a large profit generator for media organisations.
The lack of cultural education among the Lebanese public also poses a threat to cultural journalism, the panellists said. “We need to re-educate the people on how to watch a cultural programme,” Habach added. However, media executives in an industry dependent on sponsors are not eager to invest their time or resources in risky or public interest programming. Sponsors are interested in funding events that appeal to a general audience and have little motivation to fund niche programming.
Cultural journalism across the Middle East is also under threat from an increasingly conservative mentality and the pressures of self-censorship. The panellists cited examples of a play being banned in Egypt that depicted the country during the freer and more sexually liberated decade of the 1930s and the tremendous pressure exerted by religious and judicial authorities in Jordan on artists to self-censor their work. This type of censorship serves to isolate countries across the region from their culture and history. In Lebanon, however, lack of public support, instead of outright censorship, is the biggest challenge facing arts and culture, according to participants.
In light of these challenges, the panellists were united in stressing the importance of continued support for cultural journalism. According to Awit, keeping the public informed about arts and culture is a responsibility. “[I am] still loyal to the idea of having a heritage we need to preserve,” he said. El-Cheikh also emphasized the importance of cultural pages where journalists can express their opinions more freely than in the other sections of their newspapers. The panellists suggested that an effective way to grow interest in arts and cultural would be by advertising and promoting cultural issues, articles, programmes and other related events on social media. This would give them a larger potential audience and expose new people to arts and culture in Lebanon and the region.
First training session: Don’t be a critic
Following the opening panel, Jack Morgan from Texas Public Radio delivered the first training session. He began by telling participants that arts and culture play the role of holding up a mirror to society and “remind us of our shared humanity.”
In his workshop he played a series of short radio clips that featured interviews with artists and information for the public regarding cultural events in Texas. He said that he designs his reports to inform audiences rather than present a particular viewpoint on a work.
Morgan said that the best way for him to stand out in radio is to “cut through the clutter.” People appreciate the opportunity to learn about and experience new things while being given the platform to investigate further. When asked about how he performs the inescapable role of a filter for the public, Morgan replied that he tries to look for interesting and unusual things or marginal people that the public may have missed.
The discussion following Morgan’s presentation turned to the issues of the relatively small art circle in Lebanon. In Lebanon, very often, the same people are the artists, the curators, the journalists and the collectors. Therefore any report on an art piece, a gallery or a play has a very hard time being seen as objective because there is always some conflict of interest. The discussion addressed this as a significant obstacle that needs to be overcome if cultural journalism is going to shake off the frequently levelled accusation of subjectivity.
The second topic of discussion that derived from Morgan’s presentation focussed on the Lebanese media’s reporting on arts and culture. Participants discussed the tendency for coverage to depend more on who the sponsor and how aggressive the PR is for an event rather than its quality. For instance, the recent 48-hour Film Festival or the Beirut Photo Marathon both contained some outstanding work and garnered substantial coverage in social media and international outlets. However, traditional Lebanese media institutions largely ignored the two events. The participants also added that, among older generations, journalists can be quite lazy when it comes to reporting on arts and culture. Instead of going out into the field to find out what is happening, veteran cultural reporters expect artists to seek them out. Finally, participants agreed that journalists reporting on arts and culture should be more engaged with social media by live tweeting events and promoting stories online.
Second training session: PR hounds and celebrity gossip vs cultural journalism
The second training session was led by Ginanne Brownell, a London-based freelance arts and culture writer. The session focussed on the difference between cultural and gossip articles. Brownell emphasized that gossip reporting is characterized by the constant referencing of celebrities to generate more hits on search engines combined with quotes from isolated sources and a lack of proper interviews and objective facts.
The session moved on to discuss ethics in cultural journalism. Here, Brownell shared two stories that demonstrated the need to maintain professional integrity. Once, she was offered a Jimmy Choo bag as an unconditional gift for a story that she had written and, another time, she was offered a flight to Lesotho to get an up close look at a topic that she was writing on. In both of these cases she refused the gifts because she did not want there to be any grounds to question her professional objectivity.
Participants discussed other examples of ethical debates in cultural journalism, including attempts by sponsors to influence journalists’ tweeting at major cultural events to promote their brands. The session concluded with a discussion about whether journalists should allow their interviewees to check their quotes before publication. On the one hand, it was argued that interviewees, particularly if they gave an interview in their non-native language, should be allowed to check if what is being reported is what they meant. On the other hand, quote checking provides an opportunity for interviewees to tamper with an article before publication.
Third training session: Cultural journalism in video
Eric Gonon, Vice-President of Digital Media at Louise Blouin Media, conducted the third training session. It focussed on the importance of video in journalism and how to produce effective and visually interesting footage.
“In the modern world of journalism having the capacity to produce videos is absolutely necessary,” according to Gonon. Incorporating video with an article automatically increases the number of views the article receives. Videos help online cultural publications meet the demands of a changing group of media consumers and, once again, underline the obligation for media organisations to be active on social media.
In his presentation, Gonon gave several tips for producing a good video. For example, in the editing stage, Gonon edits out his questions and leaves only the answers from the interviewee. He also suggested making sure the caption [VIDEO] appears in the title of an article accompanied by a video to attract more hits.
Gonon concluded by sharing links to online libraries of royalty-free music that participants can include in their videos, various examples of successful uses of images and videos in cultural reporting and online shops selling filming and editing equipment that can be connected to smart phones and tablets.
Fourth training session: Cultural journalism in print writing
Katherine Boyle of the Washington Post conducted the fourth session on cultural journalism in print media. Boyle said, although “arts and culture exhibit the spirit of a community,” it is a multi-faced field. Journalists must be aware that culture, in addition to its humanistic value, is an economic field with huge amounts of money at play.
To demonstrate the required versatility of cultural journalists, Boyle gave several examples of the types of knowledge that must be used for good art and culture reporting. For example, if an art collector is selling large portions his or her collection, a journalist must be knowledgeable of the laws pertaining to the sale of art and taxation in order to effectively report on the story. The cultural sector can also be strongly linked to politics, Boyle said, citing a story she followed about the donations of fashion designers to the Obama campaign in 2012.
“Art and culture reporters need to look in a variety of places to unearth diverse stories,” Boyle continued. Rather than waiting for PR agents to approach them, journalists need to contact and visit museums, arts organisations, performances, galleries and other art and cultural institutions and events to uncover interesting stories. Increasingly, Boyle added, social media is emerging as a useful source to find stories or track developments. Journalists can use social media to tap into the vast amount of public knowledge and find interesting angles. Academics and experts can also help journalists by adding extra information to stories and providing leads to investigate further.
Closing panel debate: managing arts and culture publications
The two-day workshop ended with a panel debate focusing on the challenges facing managers of cultural publications and the place of cultural journalism in traditional media outlets. The panel included Emile Nasr, director of the French-language Lebanese culture magazine L’Agenda Culturel, Nayla de Freige, manager of L’Orient-Le Jour, and Eric Gonon. SKeyes’ director Ayman Mhanna moderated the discussion.
The panellists highlighted the difficulties they face working in the field of cultural journalism. De Freige mentioned that the culture page only attracts 0.47 percent of L’Orient-Le Jour’s website traffic. Nasr spoke about the difficulty of finding advertisers for L’Agenda Culturel.
The panellists also mentioned accessibility as one of the challenges facing art and cultural reporting. The publications that still produce high quality content often have a dense writing style that isolates the general public. While this appeals to a specialised readership, it also serves to drive away a broader public that might otherwise be interested in the stories. Still, the panellists expressed hope that a new generation of journalists, in-touch with the emerging cultural scene, will be able to overcome this difficulty.
The conversation then shifted to the challenges of traditional media competing with other online sources of information. Nasr referred to the Internet as an “ogre that needs to be fed every moment of every day.” The Internet, he said, placed his small publication “in direct competition with media organisations across the world.” On the flip side, it has also helped media organisations open themselves up to an entire world of new, potential consumers.
Finally, the discussion focussed on successful business models for cultural publications and media outlets in general. Many media organisations are finding themselves short on funding as greater competition and the Internet compel them to provide free content. Gonon explained that Louise Blouin media mainly relies on sponsors’ advertisement. The panellists concluded by expressing concern about how the need to provide free content for the Internet has degraded standards of reporting by making it difficult for media outlets to pay for good art and culture pieces.