Arab Journalists Training and Reporting Women
I feel like I have been hit by a blind lorry of ink and my soul is hovering few inches above the ground.
Arab Journalism and Reporting Women
By Iqbal Tamimi
I feel like I have been hit by a blind lorry of ink and my soul is hovering few inches above the ground. This is not a description of a bad accident or an after death experience, rather my way of expressing my excitement as one of the journalists who attended a special journalism training.
Thomson Reuters, the gigantic credible source of intelligent information, which has more than 60,000 employees in over 100 countries, steers the news wheel towards a new logical and ethical destination, by training journalists from developing countries to write national news for an international audience about women’s issues.
I was the only Arab journalist participating in the ‘Reporting Women’ training held in London during the second week of December 2013. My attendance was partially funded by the Anna Lindh Foundation, which has launched the ‘Reporters Across Borders’ initiative as a response to the growing importance of media in shaping perceptions about the current events in the Arab countries.
I have worked as a journalist, contemplating the follies of my fingers for almost 20 years, mainly at Arab media organisations. There, I was shuttled between radio broadcasting, press, online journalism and television production, where talk shows squeeze women into stereotypes tighter than a corset made to dress an anaemic pencil, and where their version of the UK television talk show ‘Loose Women’ has been patronizingly branded as ‘Women’s Soft Talk’, to suit the taste of the Arab male-dominated society which sees a ‘good’ woman as someone who whispers so softly that she can hardly be heard. This is a hint of how bad a woman can be perceived, if she made her voice heard by demanding some rights, let alone writing; aiming at waking the hibernating giant of change.
It was a tailored to fit training course for 12 journalists from different developing countries; from India, Dominica, Palestine, Malawi, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Vietnam, Argentina, Brazil and Iran, a total of 10 women and two men. When the women journalists introduced themselves by talking about their work, painful and bleak expressions about injustice, discrimination, and violence kept popping in. Our two male colleagues on the other hand were optimistic about women’s’ status in their countries. They were wearing extra-large smiles, stretching from ear to ear, that I managed to see easily that they had no teeth fillings. The colleague from Dominica believes women in his country had no problems to mention when it comes to violence. I have asked him whether there are women journalists working for his organisation, he replied yes. I enquired why they have chosen him to attend the training instead of sending a female colleague, especially when reporting about women is not his field of interest as he explained, he replied hesitantly ‘I don’t know’. I had a wicked thought nudging me that another journalist interested in reporting about women has probably missed the chance of benefiting from the training. The second male colleague is from Brazil. He reports on women who achieve unprecedented success in the economic sector, a small number of women CEOs who are too busy even to meet a journalist for an interview, as he keeps a diary, on which his next confirmed interview was scheduled for next year. It seems that journalists from different genders have different angles of interest when writing about the same issue.
Why Should Arab Women Journalists Undergo Training?
The majority of Arab women journalists work behind the scenes in supportive and non-executive roles and are rarely offered the chance to attend professional training to upgrade their skills. Their energy and time are usually milked to the last drop. The exceptions are the lucky broadcasters who appear on the screens, a good percentage of whom read from the autocue, yet they commit unforgivable mistakes because the majority are usually handpicked to please the eye in the first place. Hence their training comes as a necessity to evade public embarrassment. Mature in age, humble in beauty or overweight journalists by fashion magazines standards, are employed to cook the news recipes away from the screens, deprived of enjoying tasting the glamour spoon, media exposure or training opportunities. They are the assets of their organisations and their brains. But who cares about the brains when a good slice of steak is slapped on the infotainment dish.
I was never offered any training while working for 6 years at a television station in the UAE, even though the company I worked for makes revenues from training other organisations’ staff. I was even denied a day off a couple of times to join training funded by other media institutions, thus left to learn the tricks of the trade by trial and error, like walking blindfolded in a mine field. The majority of Arab women working in the media do not join professional training for a number of reasons. One of which is gender segregation policies enforced in some countries such as in Saudi Arabia, and the voluntary hypocrite segregation practice by individuals in other Arab countries.
Women in Saudi Arabia have no clear voice in mainstream media. Their interaction with other male colleagues is still mainly done by fax and emails without face to face interaction. The fact that women have to have male guardians to decide if they can travel or work regardless of their age, education or social status, is an added obstacle hindering women journalists progress and making their work difficult, unbalanced, incomplete, ethically unacceptable and their chances of being offered professional training inside the country or abroad is extremely difficult.
For reasons that have nothing to do with women empowerment, mainstream media reflect a false or exaggerated visibility of women to cover their limited civil participation, by using foreign women’s photos in adverts and posting photos of women from neighbouring countries for local news. One can only imagine the ethical cost of reporting stories where only the opinion of one gender is taken into account, because women can’t interview men and vice versa. Or were women hardly attend the editorial meetings or discuss the lay out of their stories with male colleagues. Trying to become a better journalist in such circumstances is more like expecting of an injured limping horse to compete in a race against stallions who repeatedly won the Grand National championship.
Arab women Online Journalists find it Difficult to Earn a Living
We had an eye opening exercise when Royston Martin, the Reuters facilitator training the group, requested of us to design a front page for an online newspaper. The exercise highlighted how heavily the present news making procedures lean on online journalism, interactive social media and new media tools, especially when time is considered a major factor in delivering the news.
The introduction of the Internet helped to some extent in democratising the Arab media. The notion that everyone can become a journalist became an exciting idea that pushed bloggers numbers in Saudi Arabia, from 2,000 in 2006 to 10.000 in 2010. A study published Monday 10/08/2009 conducted by Harvard University claims that %50 of the bloggers in Saudi Arabia are women, making the proportion of Saudi women engaging in writing via the Internet the highest among Arab countries.
Training women journalists can be a good chance to pass gained skills to other women, especially to those who are working in segregated societies, suffering the language barrier, isolated due to social or health or political reasons, such as journalists in Gaza and the West Bank who can’t participate in media training because they are denied travel permission by the Israeli occupation authorities.
The second course facilitator at Reuters, Mariane Pearl, had extensive experience in reporting women’s issues in different parts of the world. She emphasized the need to network with other individuals and organisation to solve problems shared by women in different communities besides gaining access to credible resources.
The training offers journalists in developing countries who have deep knowledge of their culture and sources better than anyone else, the chance to sunbathe stories hidden inside the dark pockets of corruption, as well the opportunity to improve their chances of employability and making a living without having to migrate in a hunt for a job, leaving behind a black hole craving for news coverage.
Such training can contribute to reducing the journalists carbon footprint, by cutting on the number of unnecessary air flight bookings made for reporters who travel to cover stories without having enough time to do all the necessary interviews and research needed to understand the interlocking aspects of the host’s society, traditions, politics and history, as well as saving the lives of reporters who are flown to danger zones, with little understanding of the native languages needed to gain the trust of local sources.
The mystery guest was Laura Bates. Even though she is not a journalist, she managed to establish a journalism career when she launched the ‘Everyday Sexism Project’ online in UK to encourage women to write about sexual harassment experiences. She was offered a job at the Guardian newspapers because her blogging subject can be a magnet encouraging audiences’ interaction.
Our visit to the Women’s Resource Centre in London and the presentation by the Head of Communications, Natalie Gyte, were the cherry on the top. Her presentation highlights the importance of resourcing, statistics, funding and understanding figures to appreciate the magnitude of women’s need for help, training, and support and explaining the radio active issues in mainstream media that mask certain realities such as unemployment figures among women, mainly within minority groups.
Can Arab Women make a Living of Online Journalism?
Arab women have difficulty making any revenues from online journalism for obvious reasons. Online advertising currently constitutes around just 1% of the total advertising in the Arab region according to the Arab Media Outlook 2009-2013. Women are in urgent need for training to find out how to get a bite of this small cake that is bound to get bigger because of the increasing shift of audiences from press to online journalism.
I have met Hedaya Darweesh at the ‘Women in Leadership’ conference discussing Arab women businesses held in Dubai, December 2004. Hedaya is the first Saudi female journalist to migrate from main stream media to online journalism. She established Hidaya.net in 2004 as a personal website, and then transformed it into an online news website focusing on Saudi women’s activities. Later on she changed the title of the website that used to bear her name to “Kolalwatan” which translates ‘The entire Homeland’. In her next step she deleted her name totally from the editorial information.
The changes she made on her online project reflect a typical submission to the pressures of the society and the media market in her country, because media projects that bear women’s names in Saudi Arabia have little chance of success. Arabs in general and Saudis in particular prefer masculine titles that show men are in charge especially when it comes to news generating. Besides, generally speaking, men are seen as more credible source of news than women.
Darweesh’s shift meant that she had to make serious decisions without having any training or experience on making a living from online journalism, especially that she could not make any revenues from adverts, because she is a woman living in a highly segregated society and advertising calls for meetings with men which is considered a taboo. This led to a setback for her financial independence, because she was forced to become dependent on her husband’s financial support again. Having no sponsors as is the case with many Arab women online journalists, leads most of the time to deterioration in their professionalism and giving up on some media ethics. Darweesh could not cover field journalism. This led her to resorting to the cut and paste procedures from other sources and publishing the ready packed press releases circulated by PR companies without editing the content instead of publishing exclusive reports from the field. These professional concessions exposed her to criticism.
Most Saudi women prefer online journalism because of the high ceiling of freedoms available in the cyber sphere unlike the limitations imposed by print journalism where women’s work goes through many stages of filtering, revision, deletion and editing that high jack their original work, without having the chance to follow how their articles develop in the men’s editorial department. Saudi Journalist Nora Alhoiti talked about the effect of gender segregation on her work:
“We ‘women journalists’ are treated like the readers in the sense that we write our articles and lose touch with them, until after publication, when we first set eyes on them like anyone else when sold. We are unable to follow our article’s production or editing stages done at the men journalists section. We feel shocked sometimes when we see how our articles were changed after publication, such as changing the headlines and deleting some of our interviews with our sources. Such changes break the trust between us and our sources”.She explained
Online journalism provides isolated women means of interaction with others and introduces them to different intellectual trends and writing styles. The Internet has made it possible for women to vent their opinions while withholding their real identities, though I disagree with masking women’s names or hiding behind aliases, because this widespread practice, especially in the Gulf region, has deprived me many times from completing research about women creative writers due to credibility concerns, making the efforts of an army of women writers invisible and unaccounted for.
I believe journalists in developing countries need to be adopted or employed and coached by international media organisations, as much as their need to get journalism courses about writing a good story. Over the years, women have been the guards of their communities’ verbal culture, passing stories from generation to another. Women can still tell the world stories about real life monsters threatening their families and societies.
Iqbal Tamimi is an award winning Palestinian journalist based in the UK and the Director of Arab Women Media Watch Centre