SKeyes Statements | Lebanon
“Election Coverage – New Challenges, New Trends”
The Storytelling of Politics in the Digital Age
SKeyes’ third annual conference on Election Coverage took place while the Arab world is engulfed by a unprecedented historic momentum. Those who have been suppressed for decades are taking up the polling stations for the first time in their lives. An elderly woman in Libya beams into the camera as she walks towards a polling booth for the first time in her life. At the same time, the United States is getting prepared for its November elections, leaving the world in wonder if Americans will break with the historical pattern of electing a President for a second term. In Europe the French elections brought back the first Socialist into the Elysée Palace since François Mitterrand, shaking up the political landscape in Europe in the midst the crisis.
Day 1: Learning from international experiences
The conference kicked off with a subject that may seem less challenging than the turmoil of elections in the Arab world; the French presidential elections of 2012. Nonetheless, the French elections were host to crucial evolutions the media world is witnessing. The electoral campaign debates largely marginalized international issues, making it an ultra- French campaign, as Léa Salamé from i-Télé put it. The Euro crisis and national qualms stood at the forefront of the debates. Philippe Dessaint, director of International Events at TV5 Monde, spoke about the importance of explaining local particularities to their international audience, stressing the fact that TV was still the major media tool of the French elections. The ultra-French was married with ultra-controlled, as the campaign was marked by stringent regulations, whether those imposed by the regulatory authorities regarding polling and announcements, or by the campaign teams, leading to the loss of spontaneity.
The digital media undoubtedly played its role in countering this rigidity, by bringing in its chaotic, although structured trait. The future of the media is digital, and long standing papers in the French landscape, such as Le Monde, have adapted to this reality. Patrick Jarreau, head of the political section of the print and web editions at Le Monde, explains the structural association between the paper and the web site, created in 2001, in order to better coordinate the chasms between print and digital.
The importance of finding a specific position that matches the reality is a fact stressed by the all the participants of the first panel concerning the French elections. Over are the times where the strictly controlled campaigns of the French elections can only be followed solely on the TV screen, and where the print press holds a quasi monopoly. A dialogue created through digital media has challenged these unique positions. The ‘marketing’ power of politicians and the media outlets has been eroded, with a chaotic, however creative debate challenging the official institutional image. A cultural revolution, as the co-founder of Rue89.com Pierre Haski dubbed it, is taking place in the French media landscape.
This creative debate that spanned the media world during the French elections boasted Twitter as a pioneer. These digital tools allowed the public to become navigators of the truth, throughout a campaign marked by a highly technical narrative opening the Pandora box for the fact-checking trend throughout the elections. Facts presented during debates where challenged by the public in an unprecedented form and rapidity. This public-led fact-checking is a stark reminder to the participative culture the digital media has rushed in, and was presented by the panelist as the real novelty of the 2012 French election campaign.
The conference proceeded by leaping across the pond to discuss the 2012 American elections. Rebecca Cooper, anchor at ABC7, explains the evolutions in election coverage, marked by an increasing difficulty in access to candidates, partly due to a surge in the number of players and reporters. Journalists often outnumber voters at campaign events, contributing to the increasing magnitude and complexity of the media landscape. Interviews with candidates are thus highly controlled, with a lack of spontaneity, a trait also witnessed in the French elections, as recounted by the former panelists.
Digital media may have countered this lack of spontaneity to a certain extent, but Rebecca Cooper points out the negative consequence in form of information shallowness. With the advent of Twitter and other social media tools, there may be many new ways, but much less depth of information. The echo chamber that is created is growing at an unprecedented scale, while the window for independent journalism is shrinking. As former CNN correspondent Kelli Arena said; “If Watergate would happen nowadays, no one would know about it.” In a society where time is money, no one has the muse for real investigative journalism anymore. Kelli Arena is convinced that it takes an “awfully proactive” person to challenge this echo chamber.
Richard Dunham, the Washington bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle and Hearst Newspapers, talked about the trend of retreating back to local in American print media. Major newspapers such as the Washington Post are focusing more and more on local news, reducing the space dedicate to international and even national coverage.
Sirene Abou-Chakra, working as a Digital Media Strategist for Google’s Elections and Issue Advocacy Business, highlighted the fact that no matter how much information might be losing substance, the future of the media is digital. Election campaigns are undoubtedly aware of this reality and Google has the tools to identify the target voter with an incredible ease and pertinence. The digital age, while it has proved to increase accountability, has also provided candidates with tools to reach a wider audience in an exceptional way.
The first day of the conference concluded with an account on the relation between politicians and media. This complex relationship takes a crucial importance when looking at the electoral campaigns that span across the Middle East, Europe and the United States in the past months.
Roughly 30 million people clicked “like” on Barack Obama’s Facebook page, hundred thousand voters followed François Hollande's Twitter account, while almost half a million follow Abdel-Menem Abol Foutouh’s on Twitter.
Benoit Thieulin, founder of La NetScouade, and Sam Graham-Felsen, blog director of the Obama campaign in 2008, cleared the myth of candidates personally engaging in their social media websites. However, whether in the US or in France, the candidates are aware of the sway the social media holds over their campaigns. Sam Graham-Felsen is convinced that under the traditional rules of politics, the outcomes of Obama’s campaign in 2008 would have been different. Benoit Thieulin stressed how the web, as a platform for debate, has revolutionized electoral campaigns. The desire of citizens to engage is served through this two-way interactive tool, whereas TV cannot begin to compete on an interactive scale. Jonathan Karush, CEO and founder of Liberty Concepts, emphasized the crucial importance of this engaging factor. The difficulty for him however lies in translating the engagement into action. Liking a candidate’s Facebook page is only a small step along the road, a road that should end with a knock on the voter’s door.
The question of the power of these social media tools during electoral campaigns has been widely discussed in relation to the Arab Spring. “As much as we should not fantasize about Obama tweeting himself, we should not assume that social media led to the revolutions in the Arab world”, media and communications expert Mazen Hayek said. Social media came to an already fertile ground, it served as an organizational and structural tool, building up on already existing foundations. The revolution took place on the street, and not on Facebook. By the same token, the Obama campaign in 2008 profited immensely from the former Bush years. While digital is the future, a notion stressed throughout the first day of the conference, monopolizing its power would be erroneous. Not every aspect of the electoral campaigns was marked by the digital media aspect. A number of factors influenced election outcomes. The important aspect of the social media in the newly nascent democracies of the Arab world lies in the eagerness of newly emerging parties and candidates to engage with their populations through these digital tools. Accountability through those tools is still largely amiss in the Middle East; the challenge will be to gradually build up accountability mechanisms through those digital media tools.
Day 2: Arab elections, a political and media novelty
The second day of the conference focused on election coverage in the Arab world through the eyes of international and national journalists. Mary Fitzgerald, foreign affairs correspondent for the Irish Times, pointed out one of the major flaws of international news coverage, the ready-made narrative that negatively influences coverage. Covering the elections in Libya, she found herself, alongside her international and national colleagues, on uncharted territory. The relative ease of access to polling stations, the enthusiasm of people wanting to share their joy over being part of their nation emerging out of the rubble of dictatorship, proved to be a moving aspect of the election coverage.
International predictions of Libya following suit with its Tunisian and Egyptian neighbors proved erroneous. A more liberal alliance led the vote, although its leader Mahmoud Jibril sternly rejects that label. This highlights the need for an overhaul in the narrative of the Western media. What is a liberal in the Middle East? What exactly is a moderate Islamist? By the same token, Raphael Thelen, a freelance German writer, emphasized the miscalculation by the international media concerning the election outcome in Egypt. “How did the international media get it so wrong?” he asked.
Xavier Mas de Xaxàs, foreign correspondent for Spain’s La Vanguardia, recounted the diffculty of access to Islamist candidates in Tunisia, who were forbidden to engage with foreign journalists in order to avoid public confrontations; or one may say creative dialogue. A worrying trend witnessed personally by Raphael Thelen in Egypt is the rising xenophobia against foreign journalists. A further issue that was discussed was the need of international journalists to leave their comfort zones of Cairo, Tunis or Tripoli, and embrace different layers of society across the respective countries. All panelists emphasized the eagerness of people to get their stories out. Their recent liberation has instilled fervor of letting the world know the truth, or as Raphael Thelen noted, fervor to let the world know a truth that wants to be heard.
The coverage of Arab elections through the eyes of Arab journalists resonates some challenges that are at the very core of the Arab Spring: building democratic structures and freedoms from scratch. While having the advantage of language and a different narrative than international journalists, the lack of structure spanned through the second panel as one of the major obstacles during election coverage. Journalist for the Tunisian state TV for over 3 decades, Moufida Hachani talked about how in Tunisia, where the media was silenced for decades, a whole process of structuring, organizing and learning has begun. Moufida Hachani emphasized the dire need to train journalists in order to become more efficient. People in Tunisia are slowly and steadily starting to trust local news again. Teaching people how to vote, and how to watch the news, is a societal project, in which journalism plays a crucial role. To provide those who have been robbed of their trust for decades, with accurate and objective news is one of the hardest and most noble projects Tunisian journalists have now to confront.
Sana Ajmi from Tunisia Live, the first internet platform in English in Tunisia, is a perfect example of the media revolution taking place. The eagerness of a younger generation to provide objective and accurate news through digital forms spans across the region. Imad Mesdoua, Algerian Political Analyst working for Pasco Risk Management explained how in Algeria national TV was slow to report on elections, and citizens were looking at digital means for information. A new generation of Algerians are thriving to make information accurate and free. The lack of structure and the learning process for providing objective, non-dictated news by journalists, is mixed with the intense eagerness to provide and gain information in newer ways. Thus the old, traditional media is not just reborn; it is married to the social media. Salma Shukrallah, a reporter for Egypt’s Al-Ahram online website, outlined the special features that were offered online for people to have the most comprehensive insight on the country’s recent parliamentary and presidential campaigns.
One of the central elements of the Arab Spring was the surge and dynamic of citizen journalism. The third panel of the day evolved around Citizen Journalism initiatives around elections. The panel emphasized the role of such initiatives to hold officials accountable. “Ordinary people engaging in the debate add an extra layer of accountability on politicians,” said Sam Graham-Felsen. Citizen journalism cannot stand on its own however, and needs to work in tandem with professional journalism.
The U-Shahid project, launched by the Development and Institutionalization Support Center (DISC), engages citizens through a special mapping system. It uses crowd-sourcing in addition to blogger sourcing, in order to monitor elections. Observations about issues such as violence, fraud and denial of access to polling stations were gathered and displayed on a live map during elections in Egypt. Kabil Nabil, founder and manager of DISC, stressed the importance of verification, done at U-Shahid with the help of a trained journalist from Thompson-Reuters, and thus repeats the importance of a tandem work between citizen and professional journalism. The U-Shahid model was then replicated in Tunisia and Libya.
Think Media Labs tracks the most active players in the Lebanese political landscape. Following them on Twitter is a public interest mission, says Ayam Itani, manager of Think Media Labs. The accountability aspect, as stressed by Sam Graham-Felsen, increases with the rising eagerness of politicians to be present in social media in Lebanon. This tracking software does not only display activities of Lebanese politicians on social media websites, but also the concerning issues of the general public. Think Media Labs will play a crucial role in the 2013 parliamentary elections in Lebanon, undoubtedly following the trend of the increasing importance of social media tools as political tools in the region.
Traditional journalism and citizen journalism are both constructing themselves through new and innovative ways in the Arab world. In the nascent democracies of the post revolution countries, traditional journalism is catching up with the rapidly expanding citizen journalism. However, recent events have stressed their dependency on each other, much needed in order to construct a vivid media landscape, specifically in those countries where this critical media has been amiss for decades.
The second day of the conference concluded with a focus on Media Monitoring Reports during the recent elections spanning the Middle East. Robert Gizbert, presenter of Listening Post on Al-Jazeera English, discussed the speed of current events taking place in the Middle East. Drawing a parallel with Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he explained how the problems the media and activists are facing are due to the simple yet potent fact of the speed at which events are taking place. Richard Gizbert echoes the problems journalists discussed earlier in the day, during the panel. In order to effectively monitor elections, tools need to be in place. Alongside the lack of tools and structure, time is one of the most substantial challenges. In the Middle East, where tools are still being formed, where there is no tradition of critical journalism, the evolution of digital media has had its share in aggravating this time challenge. The reliance on social media is growing, and thus, as Kelli Arena and Rebecca Cooper already mentioned, news organizations are more and more pressured to provide information as fast as possible; often with the outcome of quantity over quality.
Mona Nader Fouad, the head of the Media Campaign Unit at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, explained how media needs to be made aware when it errs. She further discussed the necessity of halting the public spread of campaign information, such as polls, at a certain point during elections. Resonating with the thoughts of international journalists covering elections, Mona Nader Fouad talked about the importance of considering every society layer of the electoral public. TV, a view echoed by all the participants of this panel, is still the most efficient and influential mass media tool. Due to the high number of illiteracy in Egypt, the majority of the population with access relies heavily on audiovisual media. Mona Nader Fouad reminded us that we often do forget the population’s lack of access to media, least of all social media.
Yara Nassar, the executive director of the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, talked about the highly opinionated ‘Introduction’ of each media channel preceding the news bulletins on Lebanese TV. The paramount importance of media neutrality, specifically during election campaigns as stressed by Mona Nader Fouad, becomes apparent when regarding this unique feature of Lebanese media.
While digital media has proven to hold a paramount position during election campaigns, a feature stressed by the overwhelming majority of the participants was the skepticism of how that translates into real action. Journalism however, has the tools, and the Arab world the hope, to become the driver for real action. A position it has already bravely and slowly adapted. With all the speed, complexity and diversity of media tools, patience is often amiss. We have to remind ourselves how far we have come in the past decades. Sometimes it just takes a little patience, and a reminder that the world does not function along the same pace as media does.