Polarized media a challenge to US perceptions of Arab world
We are living at a time of rising global tensions, with fears of new wars and even nuclear conflict becoming more real than at any moment since the 1970s. America appears more isolationist since the advent of President Donald Trump and yet at the same time more willing to intervene fast with military action, defying Russia with a surprise attack in Syria and threatening to confront the unstable North Korea. Whatever one’s views of these situations, everyone surely hopes for an increased understanding between the peoples of the world.
It is in that context that the partnership between YouGov and Arab News has been created: To shed light on what people think within the Arab region and about the region, and why.
With the survey we publish today, we find out more about the sources of news that create the American view of the Arab world. I believe our survey gives three reasons for concern and one for optimism.
The first cause of concern is the low level of understanding about the Arab world. Only one-quarter of Americans who follow international news claim they follow news about the Arab world, compared to 56 percent for news of Europe.
So it was not surprising that when our poll asked them to identify which of three maps represented the Arab world, only 19 percent chose correctly, which is much less than even a purely random choice would have yielded. Although 45 percent of the respondents identified Saudi Arabia as the leader of the military alliance to combat Daesh, 36 percent thought it was Iran. The second concern is that people tend to take a negative view of the Arab world. The main reason given by people who do not take an interest in the Arab world is that “there is a lot of negative news coming out of this region.” Three-quarters reject the idea of visiting the Middle East.
Smaller websites and social media have become important sources of news about the region and these tend to be even more likely to take positions outside the mainstream.
The third concern is the fracturing and polarization of the American news media, which poses new challenges to creating a better understanding about the Arab world. Not so long ago, most Americans got their news from the big TV networks and from their local newspapers, which tended to express a consensual, somewhat progressive view of the world. Now media is much more fractured and Americans are served by sources that take opposing sides in big political debates. Anyone with an Internet connection can be a journalist. The upside is a multiplicity of voices being heard and news being spread quickly and widely. But it has also created confusion about the quality and trustworthiness of sources. For supporters of both of the main parties, smaller websites and social media have become almost as important sources of news about the Arab world and these tend to be even more likely to take positions outside the mainstream.
But there are also some more hopeful signs. By almost two-to-one, Americans think that Arabs who have migrated to the US and other Western societies have made an effort to adapt and integrate. Over half are concerned about Islamophobic statements leading to hate crimes. About a third say they would like to see more media coverage about social, cultural and scientific aspects of the region. There appears to be some readiness to consider broader and more positive types of news.
How to meet the challenge? It is noteworthy that some Arab news sources are gaining traction among the American population and are getting a positive response. And when we asked whether the Arab-owned English-language outlets were balanced or biased, 47 percent said they were “very” or “reasonably” balanced, against 37 percent who thought them to be biased or unreliable. This suggests there is a real opportunity to increase the influence of the Arab voice in America through new media innovations.
• Stephan Shakespeare is the CEO and founder of YouGov.