MAAS in and on the Media
Graduates of the MAAS program have distinguished themselves in many professional fields, including the media. We hear below from alums who work in the media—as journalists and producers—and on the media—as expert commentators, knowledge archivists, and scholars.
In Newsrooms Today, Agility Is the Name of the Game
By Nadine Cheaib, MAAS Class of ‘05
Nadine Cheaib, Digital Producer at Al Jazeera English, discusses recent shifts in the media landscape—for both news producers and consumers—and the new agility required on both sides.
Technology is developing at lightning speed, and that has both helped and hurt traditional newsrooms. Television newsrooms have become smaller, sometimes existing only on the cloud. Budgets that were once allocated for TV are continuing to shift to support expanding digital divisions and platform teams across the board. We now have news on demand, and a lot of it. This has put a burden on both journalists, who are doing more and competing for fewer jobs, and on consumers, who must now be able to separate fact from fiction, examine alternative news sources to steer clear of fake news, and cross-check sources more than ever. With better connectivity and access, millions of citizen journalists are actively engaging in the news-gathering process. You no longer need a journalism degree to be a storyteller.
News producers have had to adapt as well, both to consumer trends and behaviors, and to the ever-changing policies of social media giants. For example, a few years ago, consumer behavior told us that most people use their phones for their news consumption and that they watch videos with the sound off, so we [at Al Jazeera] began creating social videos with text. Facebook recently changed its algorithms to display less news in users’ feeds and more content from friends and family, supposedly returning to its original purpose, and publishers are now brainstorming ways to get around its algorithms.
The field is constantly changing, and I suspect things will be different two years from now with the expanding shift to VR (virtual reality) and podcasting. Gone are the days when media organizations sent out field crews with a reporter, producer, cameraman, and editor. Now, it’s a one-woman show. The 21st century journalist is expected to know how to shoot, edit, script, post, and schedule their content across all social platforms. Newsrooms expect fresh graduates to wear all of those hats—and be happy about it—and they expect their veteran journalists to keep up with the times, or be pushed out. Anyone considering going into journalism should ask herself: “Would I be happy doing this job for free?” If the answer is no, then you’re in the wrong field.
Nadine Cheaib works in Doha, Qatar as Digital Producer at Al Jazeera English, where she creates social videos, podcasts, and other online content. She has previously worked as media specialist at Al-Arabiya TV and as news analyst at the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington D.C. She graduated from MAAS in 2005.
More Than a Soundbite
By Timothy Kaldas, MAAS Class of ‘08
Timothy Kaldas, who is regularly sought out by major media outlets such as CNN and BBC for his expert commentary and analysis, discusses the pitfalls and rewards of being on the other side of the interview.
I think one interesting challenge in being a commentator regularly interviewed by the press is finding ways not to be a prop. More often than anyone would like to admit, journalists call interviewees not to learn more about a subject, but rather to get someone to express an opinion they want in their piece. With TV, this is made even more explicit with pre-interviews. On one level, it’s an effort to make sure that there is a diverse set of views on any program or in any article, but this often reduces discussions of complex issues to simplistic dichotomies of pro-government vs. government critic or pro-regime vs. pro-rebel. Oftentimes, though, the richest discussions acknowledge the deeply flawed aspects of all sides in any political issue.
I’ve found that some of my favorite interviews were ones in which I failed to live up to the journalist’s expectations. I’m generally called as someone who’s fairly critical of the Egyptian government and that’s certainly true of my perspective. That doesn’t mean, however, that I think everything they do is wrong, and on occasion I’ve had the chance to change a journalist’s perspective on an issue they’re writing on rather than echoing their opinion and just serving as an instrument for them to editorialize their article vicariously through me. Given how little space is available in any article or news package for an analyst’s opinion (generally a sentence or two in a print article, or one to three minutes on TV), it’s always rewarding when you can find a way to use that slim space to add complexity to the reader’s or viewer’s understanding of the topic.
Timothy Kaldas is a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) and former visiting professor at Nile University in Cairo. His commentary and analysis on Egyptian transitional politics and other topics, have been featured on CNN, France24, BBC World, Radio France International, Al Jazeera English, and Mada Masr. He was a contributing photographer for The Road to Tahrir, a photobook documenting the early days of the Egyptian uprising. Kaldas graduated from MAAS in 2008.
Misreading New Modes of Knowledge Production
By Dr. Bassam Haddad, MAAS Class of ’94
Bassam Haddad is Founding Editor of the Knowledge Production Project (KPP), an open-access archive and data visualization platform that catalogues knowledge produced on the Middle East since 1979. He discusses current debates over the role of new forms of knowledge production.
It has become abundantly clear that new modes of knowledge production associated with blogs and electronic publications are not just here to stay, but are also gradually encroaching on traditional forms. The immediate knee-jerk reaction of academic gate-keepers against this “creeping” monster has been to consider such new forms to be sub-par compared to traditional scholarship. This attitude is both correct and shortsighted. It is correct because traditional scholarship adheres to more rigorous analytic and documentation standards. However, the rejection of these new modes of knowledge production is short-sighted because it often does more to marginalize sound scholarship than protect it, and is far more concerned with gate-keeping than with the supply of knowledge.
When we observe patterns of knowledge production and knowledge consumption, we see that the overwhelming majority of readers in virtually any context or country do not read traditional academic publications, such as peer-reviewed scholarly journals or specialized scholarly volumes, and have never done so—even in the pre-Internet era. And while such scholarly knowledge production has grown steadily and somewhat proportionally to population growth, knowledge consumption and accessibility have grown exponentially. This continuing trend shows that there is more demand for knowledge, but not of the scholarly variety.
The proliferation of blogs, electronic publications, and other new forms of knowledge production have thus not advanced at the expense of traditional realms. Simply, they have supplied increasingly larger numbers of lay people with sound alternative narratives and interpretations to mainstream reporting and writing. The yield, or impact, of such proliferation has therefore been more productive than the impact of the steady, but always constrained, production of traditional scholarship—and has played a greater role in creating an informed public.
Dr. Bassam Haddad is Director of the Middle East and Islamic Studies program at George Mason University and Visiting Professor at CCAS. Haddad serves as Founding Editor of the peer-reviewed Arab Studies Journal, Co-Founder/Editor of Jadaliyya Ezine, Executive Producer of Status radio magazine, and Founding Editor of the Knowledge Production Project. He has authored and/or produced several books and documentaries on the contemporary Arab world. He graduated from MAAS in 1994.
Understanding Social Movements through Social Media’s Big Data
By Dr. Laila Shereen Sakr, MAAS Class of ‘98
Laila Shereen Sakr is the creator of R-Shief, a visualizing media system and archive of more than thirty billion social media posts used by researchers from the humanities to engineering to conduct computational and textual analysis on social media and digital activism. She shares the inspiration behind R-Shief and her other groundbreaking projects.
When social media users in the Middle East adopted Twitter and Facebook to push for political change, these digital media captured the imagination of a wide audience of scholars and interest groups. They also captured the imagination of the public, and the Arab uprisings of 2011 were coined “Twitter revolutions.” Arab activists’ use of social media became a model for other social movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, the 12M and 15M movements in Spain, and activist efforts from Ferguson to Palestine. These all quickly adopted similar tactics, enabling people around the world to participate virtually as witnesses to contemporary events. This dramatic surge of virtual and on-the-ground revolutionary activism also inspired corporate interests and government entities like the NSA to hijack social media for a variety of purposes, from monitoring consumer behavior to surveillance. In recent years, social media platforms have been radically transformed by under-served publics and governments alike, and the Arab world has been “ground zero” for some of the most dramatic and influential of these changes.
This research on global, emergent media analytics became my doctoral scholarship and a guiding focus of my career as a scholar: understanding digital communication as an indispensable component of living in the twenty-first century, and the importance of accessing information across borders and languages. In 2009, I created R-Shief to archive and visualize internet content in Arabic, most notably in relation to the 2011 Arab Uprisings and Occupy Wall Street movements. R-Shief now contains over 30 billion social media posts (from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and other popular sites) in more than 70 languages. The challenge now is not in collecting content, but in producing data analytics and visualizations that address the structure and practices of the security states in crisis. My latest project is creating a Virtual Reality (VR) world of social media. The “2018 Arab Future Tripping VR Prototype” features a cyborg running through a media landscape animated by tweets from more than 60,000 users, with each tweet generating the shifting landscapes (trees, frogs, deer, a sunrise, etc.) I am considering new design approaches to data visualization while expanding our understanding of how the logic of digital computation influenced twenty-first century global social movements. I hope to contribute to our understanding of contemporary political speech, rapid social change, and data science by drawing on emergent media and using the Middle East as a starting point.
Dr. Laila Shereen Sakr is Assistant Professor of Media Theory & Practice at University of California, Santa Barbara, where she co-founded Wireframe, a digital media studio, a digital media studio that supports critical game design, data visualization, VR/augmented realities, digital arts and activism. She is the creator of the databody VJ Um Amel and the R-Shief software system. Sakr graduated from MAAS in 1998.
Mamfakinch: A Case Study in Citizen Media and Internet Surveillance
By Samia Errazzouki, MAAS Class of ‘15
Journalist Samia Errazzouki shares her experiences as a former member of Mamfakinch, a citizen media site that was targeted by the Moroccan government. Her later research on the group has been widely published and cited as a case study in government surveillance.
When the Arab Spring reached Morocco, the citizen journalism site Mamfakinch emerged as the media arm of the February 20th Movement, the name by which a series of protests starting in early 2011 came to be known. Publishing statements from the movement in different languages, mapping protests across the country and in the Moroccan diaspora, Mamfakinch served as a unique source on Morocco’s popular uprising. Inspired by the content and reach of Mamfakinch, I submitted a research paper I had written on King Mohammed VI’s role in the country’s private sector, which Mamfakinch subsequently published. Afterward, the team asked me to join to help bolster their English-language content. Mamfakinch’s momentum and readership grew, leading to international recognition.
It was at the height of this success in 2012 that the Moroccan government targeted us with malware that could activate users’ phone cameras and microphones without their knowledge. Clearly, we—an alternative voice to dominant pro-regime media coverage—were seen as a threat. The situation further deteriorated when one of the founding members of Mamfakinch, Hisham Almiraat, was charged with “threatening national security”—charges that have been widely condemned by international rights groups. Political disaccord within Mamfakinch’s editorial team led to fissures and, ultimately, the site’s self-imposed hiatus.
The University of Cambridge, in cooperation with the Al Jazeera Center for Studies, later asked me to research Mamfakinch as a case study of internet surveillance and citizen media in Morocco. Using my insider knowledge as a former member, I explored the ways in which media theory can help us understand the how’s, what’s, and why’s of what happened to Mamfakinch in relation to the Moroccan regime. Ultimately, my paper concluded that the shifting landscape of citizen media in Morocco over the past few years was largely driven by the state’s policies and actions aimed at stifling critical news coverage in the country.
Samia Errazzouki (above left) is pursuing a PhD in history at the University of California, Davis and is a co-editor with Jadaliyya. Samia has worked as a journalist in Morocco, reporting for the Associated Press and Reuters, and as a research associate with the University of Cambridge. She published the article “Under watchful eyes: Internet surveillance and citizen media in Morocco, the case of Mamfakinch” in the Journal of North African Studies. Samia’s research will also be featured in a forthcoming Routledge volume and the docu-series “Truth & Power.” She graduated from MAAS in 2015.
This article was published in the Winter/Spring 2018 CCAS Newsmagazine.