Damian Radcliffe
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Damian Radcliffe

10 takeaways for journalists from a conversation with Dr Elisabeth Kendall, Senior Research Fellow in Arabic at Oxford University

Last month the University of Oregon hosted an event with Dr. Elisabeth Kendall to discuss media portrayals of the conflict in Yemen.

Hosted by colleagues in both International Studies and Middle East & North Africa Studies, the School of Journalism was also fortunate to have the opportunity to explore this topic.

In a wide ranging conversation, we discussed media portrayals, access to sources, accuracy and bias.

What’s notable here, is that Dr. Kendall isn’t a journalist, but she is an expert in militant jihadist/political movements and cultural production in Arabic, specifically in contemporary Egypt and Yemen.

Many of the techniques she uses for her fieldwork are transferable to journalists.

Here’s ten key takeaways from our conversation:

1. The best professional sources for reporting what’s happening on the ground are not always journalists

We need to embrace links with experts in other professions/specialisms e.g. anthropology, languages and more — as they may have relationships that journalists do not.

Kendall’s specialism is poetry, but she is often called to comment on developments in the Arab world for mainstream media outlets and governments.

2. There’s a huge value in having language skills

Speaking the language/languages, of the areas you are covering can help to avoid the need for stringers and interpreters (although both are standard practice) and ensure you understand directly what a source is saying.

3. Stories break in unexpected places

Examples highlighted by Dr. Kendall included Al Qaeda WhatsApp/Telegram groups and Al Qaeda’s print newspaper.

In 2017, Quartz highlighted how a pro-Al Qaeda newspaper had put Steve Bannon on the front page. Dr. Kendall, who was interviewed for the article, is quoted as saying: “It shows us is how much Al Qaeda is trying to capitalize on some of the policies of the Trump administration.”

4. Always take screenshots of newsworthy things you see online — they may not be there for long.

The late Steve Buttry wrote about the importance of this in 2014.

5. Many important conversations are increasingly taking place in closed networks

I wrote about this challenge for journalists in 2015, and the trend — of using closed social networks — is becoming more common around the world.

6. If important discussions are taking place in closed online spaces, how do you access them?

Do you identify as a journalist? As a woman, or a minority? What’s your persona in this environment? What are the ethical — as well as safety — considerations?

For more on this topic, I’d highly recommend the BBC’s former Social Media Editor, Mark Frankel, exploration of this subject. It’s a complex topic, which Frankel explores in some depth during a Knight Visiting Nieman Fellowship at Harvard in 2018. Specifically, Frankel set out to study “how journalists can best uncover and report on stories sourced from audiences on “dark social” apps, message boards, and other private, invitation-only platforms.”

7. Know your source

This principle applies not just to sources when they are individuals, but also institutions, including state-run — and state sponsored — media.

Screenshot from a 2016 RT story posted to YouTube about “US plans to put state-sponsored media under full federal control, with BBG CEO appointed directly by US President.” The video is accompanied by a link to Wikipedia’s entry for RT and an tag noting: “RT is funded in whole or in part by the Russian government”

8. Local new sources are not necessarily accurate

Just because you’ve seen footage of something, or read about it, from a local source (e.g. Kendall highlighted a story seen on Aden TV, and picked up by other news outlets) doesn’t mean what they’re reporting it is correct.

9. Websites — as well as social media — are being weaponized to push specific points of view

It’s not just Macedonian teenagers — arguably the best known proponents of this approach — who are taking advantage of the opportunities to spread untruths online (often successfully monetizing their work in the process).

It’s happening everywhere.

In my latest annual report on social media in the Middle East, Payton Bruni and I highlighted (see pages 22–24) examples of websites and bots being used in the region to spread messages and political agendas.

Analysis last year by Reuters, for example, discovered a network of at least 53 websites which, “posing as authentic Arabic-language news outlets, have spread false information about the Saudi government and [Jamal] Khashoggi’s murder.”

The sites, such as Alawatanews.com, published falsified news reports, such as claims that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had been forced out of power. These false stories are amplified by automated Twitter bots.

And the weaponization of bots and websites worked both ways, with Twitter accounts — belonging to real people and bots — helped to stress denials of involvement by the Saudi government.

10. “Always ask the five extra questions”

Never settle for answers which fulfill your existing narrative.

Dr. Elisabeth Kendall addressing journalism students at the University of Oregon.

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Damian Radcliffe

Damian Radcliffe

Chambers Professor in Journalism @uoregon | Fellow @TowCenter @CardiffJomec @theRSAorg | Write @wnip @ZDNet | Host Demystifying Media podcast https://itunes.app