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Judgement call

“I have no trust in them [social media platforms such as Twitter]; I don’t want to publish false news.” Egyptian TV presenter and host, Moataz Al Demerdash, didn’t sugarcoat his views on social media and citizen journalism when he spoke at the two-day long Arab Media Forum, which opened its doors on May 12 in Dubai. Under the theme of “New Perspectives”, the event – endorsed by a number of local authorities – addressed many crucial issues, starting with ethics in an age where social media has impacted the definition of journalism and credibility of news.

The panel discussion on the “Chaos of Ethics” recognized the freedom and accessibility of social media as the leading factor in the inaccuracy of news. Moderator Sahar Al Mizari, TV presenter at Dubai Channels Network, mentioned some broadcasted videos that were supposedly from Syria, but were actually shot in Afghanistan, while the editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, Alain Gresh, touched upon citizen journalism, which he admitted is done with a positive intention, but ends up spreading false news. One such instance was a report showing the Iraqi army giving toys to children to train them to use arms, that turned out to be false.

Indeed, cases abound of manipulated news and images doing the rounds on social media – such as that of Hurricane Sandy around the Statue of Liberty – and media outlets oviously need to be careful in using such material. And things get a bit more complicated when doctored images are released not by anonymous web surfers but an official entity – as was the case when the Cuban government published an image of Fidel Castro in which his hearing aid was blurred out. AP deleted the image when it realized that it was manipulated.

No wonder then that a workshop on “Reporting in the Middle East” was set up to highlight the importance of verification of news – text or images. Each media outlet finds its own process, sometimes through painful experience. Zeina Karam, bureau chief of AP in Beirut, said that the agency receives several fake videos and pictures, as well as authentic ones, but it’s impossible to tell the difference without subjecting them to verification. AP relies on experienced journalists and its social media unit in London to verify the information. When getting a clear confirmation is impossible, AP runs the story, with a disclaimer.

Agence France-Presse’s (AFP) Middle East photo manager, Patrick Baz, warned photojournalists against another temptation: tampering with photos – during and after shooting – for a political purpose, propaganda, or simply in a different context than what the facts would suggest. In the end, Thomas Kent, standards editor of the Associated Press (AP), tackled the whole issue in the simplest way: there are two perspectives – what’s right and what works –but eventually what’s right is what works.

The growth of digital was another recurring theme of the forum. In the main panel discussion,
“Arab Media 2015: A GCC Perspective”, Sheikh Salman Sabah Al Salem Al Humoud Al Sabah, Kuwaiti Minister of Information and Youth, said that 75 percent of the youth reads news on the Internet. He added that Arab youth can be guided to use media for positive initiatives and to “rescind the negative image under which we [the Gulf] are viewed”.

Speaking on “Innovation and the Future of Digital Publishing”, Meredith Artley, editor-in-chief of CNN Digital, said that it’s all about reaching users on their various devices, which is why CNN has evolved to reach people on Facebook, Twitter and even Snapchat, rather than waiting for users to tune in to the CNN TV channel or website, even though TV is its core business. Similarly, in a workshop on “The Rise of Video and New Storytelling Formats”, Hristo Guertchev, video product manager at Reuters, pointed out three online media outlets – The Guardian, BBC and Al Jazeera Plus (AJ+) – that have adapted to new formats in order to cater to a new and evolving audience. For instance, AJ+ creates bite-sized, mobile-friendly content that is linked to their social media channels.

On a separate note, amid the numerous talks and workshops, The Government of Dubai Media Office and Google announced their collaboration to boost digital journalism in the UAE. The objective of the initiative is to train media across areas like research, visualizing data and engaging with audiences.

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