Can New Syrian Media Confront Yellow Journalism?
Enab Baladi’s Investigation Team
130 years ago, press was at the very peak of its prosperity around the world. Perhaps this great spread, which brought the necessity for competition among the international newspapers, was the first spark to signal the emergence of Yellow Journalism as a reflection of the desire to be prevalent. This was the first announcement of the breaking of the professionalism lines and abandoning absolute perfectionist journalism.
What is strange is that Joseph Pulitzer, whose name is given to the most important press prize today, was the first to open the door to Yellow Journalism to the entire world. In the 1880s, he sought to increase the sales of his newspaper, The New York World, through adopting serial stories “The Yellow Kid” starred by a kid dressing in yellow. He linked it to a range of social issues and made use of it in order to analyze and study the problems of the United States at the time, which made of it an influential figure gaining widespread public interest.
With the increasing popularity of The New York World newspaper, Pulitzer’s rival, William Randolph Hearst, was unhappy with the decline of his own newspaper The New York Journal, which is caused by the presence of “The Yellow Kid” in the rival newspaper. Therefore, he bought the cartoonist who was behind the creation of the famous cartoon character and adopted it into his newspaper. However, Pulitzer kept on producing “The Yellow Kid” serial stories too.
With two major newspapers publishing the series “The Yellow Kid,” the rivalry between Pulitzer and Hearst has been intensified and the two sides devoted more pages to it. Critics also referred to the conflict between the two parties as “The Battle of the Yellow Kid.” It has become very representative of the degradation of journalistic integrity, by The New York World and The New York Journal, in favour of proliferation and increasing sales amid the fierce competition, which paved the way for the term “Yellow Journalism.”
The mania proliferation contagion has gradually shifted from the United States to various parts of the world. Yellow newspapers have become characterized by a number of features which distinguished them from traditional newspapers, such as the different number of issues and pages, as well as low prices and the focus on scandals, pornography and crime stories.
Although “Yellow Journalism” seemed very tempting during the last century, it was transmitted to the Arab region only at the end of the twentieth century, after the decline of socialist regimes and the vast possibility of licensing and publishing newspapers.
Yellow Journalism has taken two forms in Arab media: “specialized yellow” and “undeclared yellow.” The first type was that of crimes and artists’ scandals and the other one was embodied in the leakage of the characteristics of Yellow Journalism to press material in the major newspapers and the most widespread TV channels in the Arab World.
Arab press criticism currents disagreed over the way to determine whether the partisan and official press, which was almost in control of the media market until the beginning of the 21st century, had saved the Arab media from the proliferation of Yellow Journalism, or was a yellow press of another kind that relied on lies and misinformation through the use of professional ways and solid press templates.
With the outbreak of the Arab Spring revolutions and the widespread use of the Internet, websites and social media have become important tools for expressing the transition from governmental press repression to “excessive press freedom” that satisfies all desires, and the expression of all intellectual as well as political currents and classes of society in an unorganized way.
As for the Syrian context, the outbreak of the revolution was followed by an explosion in media, the majority of which expressed “revolutionary tendencies” at the beginning, and then dispersed into different directions. Some of them tried to remain independent and others headed toward expressing partisan currents or political orientations, or resorted to supporting specific figures. Thus, the Syrian media arena started receiving Yellow Journalism without realizing it, being driven by the desire to express oneself and ignore the other, and the need to proliferate amid the congestion of social media, as well as the difficulty of achieving financial independence and satisfying the wishes of the supporters.
“Yellow” Indications in Syrian Media
Syrian media experience was not mature enough at the beginning of the Syrian revolution, at a time when the historical situation needed the details of events on the ground to be conveyed to the world.
Media activists started filming events with mobile phones, then with more professional cameras, and transferred the video clips to information offices associated with revolutionary work coordination, which was not often managed by specialist. Eventually, the produced media material would derive its importance from the event rather than press value.
During the following periods, political and military transformations were largely reflected on media institutions, which were rapidly multiplying and becoming private platforms, personal platforms, or intellectual defence fronts.
According to the statistics of the “Syrian Prints Archive,” the number of Syrian newspapers which emerged after the revolution is about 300, in addition to dozens of radio stations, television and media organizations, 50 of which are still active today.
In the midst of this “media labyrinth,” the race to the arrival and spread was heated and often “blind.” Thus, Yellow Journalism was allowed to find many places for itself in the Syrian media, which were provided by the lack of experience on the one hand, and irresponsibility on the other.
Political Media Bump
The Syrian revolution triggered Syrians’ desire to engage themselves into politics, or at least talk about politics, which used to frighten them before the revolution. Indeed, the freedom of expression became accessible to a large portion of Syrians abroad, through several platforms.
However, this frank and direct expression was not in favour of the speakers or platforms, and has remained a subject of debate for the Syrian media institutions, which kept raising the following questions: “Do we have to hide our flaws and reveal only the regime’s?” “Do we need to admit our mistakes?”
The association of some institutions with political or military bodies has also played a role in promoting differences between the opposition parties, for platforms have become “war tools” far from being cognitive stimuli.
Farouk Mustafa, Bercav newspaper editor-in-chief, stated that “the majority of Syrian newspapers are involved in Yellow Journalism, including when TV channels host a political analyst who is compatible with their policies. Some newspapers only interview the person who lies and falsifies the most.”
In an interview with Enab Baladi Mustafa pointed out that this matter has become a media “dilemma.” He added that these media policies were “wrong from the start.”
Attitudes of military factions also contributed to the degradation of press professionalism through the predominance of personal views in dealing with field-based issues. This will lead to overlooking some facts or attacking others in a non-professional way, through the dissemination of information that is far from being accurate and certain.
Arwa Abdul Aziz, editor-in-chief of the Syrian newspaper al-Ahed, agrees that subjectivity may reduce the introduction of issues on the ground related to military factions, asserting that some institutions are biased in their media coverage in favour of one faction over another, which opens the door to “Yellow Journalism.”
Threatened Community and Negative Media
The social coverage in the Syrian media is distributed among various sectors, including coverage linked to refugees and displaced people, and others related to the crises of Syrian society in areas controlled by the opposition factions. The control areas of the Syrian regime and the Kurdish forces appear to be either marginalized in the work plans of the majority of the Syrian media institutions or their negative images being highlighted.
Murad al-Quwatli, the editor of Alsouria.net website, stressed that addressing social issues is “closer to defamation” in the opposition’s media, especially regarding refugees’ issues and social problems such as prostitution, excluding some journalists working in the social field.
Al-Quwatli believes that the difference is in the way of dealing with social issues; either the journalist deals with problems and tries to find solutions, or raises these issues in an ill-considered way.
As for the miscellaneous news and the light news, al-Quwatli thinks that some ideas seem necessary to debate for the media, but this assumption is sometimes wrong. Actually, some focus on sexual allusions and publish videos that are not supposed to be published on the media.
Regime Areas … “Defamation Coverage”
Part of the Syrian opposition media deals with the news of the regime areas in a negative way based on capturing the dark aspects and focusing on topics related to “the decline of the ethics of society” and “the collapse of the public morals’ structure.”
Given the social changes that affected the Syrian society as a whole, the regime areas were certainly not immune to the effects of the war and were not aloof from the deep rifts and shifts in the general moral concepts. However, while ignoring the positive aspects and dealing violently with civilians as followers of the regime, media coverage has taken the “defamation” and “abuse” forms.
The Syrian writer Khatib Badla, editor-in-chief of Kesh Malak, believes that some Syrian journalists justify using Yellow Journalism in this context as part of the “war and revolution” and they may seek to spread fake news about people affiliated to the regime.
“When they attack someone affiliated to the regime, they abuse his mother for example and describe her using bad words. The whole matter turns into offending women in order to insult a certain person,” Badla added in a meeting with Enab Baladi.
Women Stereotypes in Yellow Journalism
Media has contributed to setting the image of women in specific contexts and patterns, which have led to the construction of a prejudiced and superficial image of women that has not changed over time despite the role played by women in society. The perspective was limited to a particular image that prevented many from expanding it or to look comprehensively at women’s issues, which had specific patterns ready to be placed within.
The reality of women has been closely related to the mental image formed by various media since the 20th century, which has devoted the culture of the body and women’s secondary roles in life.
In Yellow Journalism, the stereotype about women is used to the fullest extent, where this type of press depends on exaggeration, sexual seduction and scandals.
Commercials, television dramas and caricatures also contribute to the stereotypical portrayal of women, which directly affects the formation of public opinion and the level of awareness of the target audience.
Women in Yellow Journalism … Stereotypical Models
Khatoun Haidar, doctor of Development and an expert in women issues talked to Enab Baladi about the “stereotypes about women” that are used by Yellow Journalism in media. She identified stereotypes as the “mental image that we have regarding a person or a group of people, without referring to an
objective knowledge or even a desire to know, but only to prejudices and patterns within which we put this person or this group.”
The stereotypes include generalizations, without reference to numbers, information or statistics. Haidar asserted that the stereotypes negatively affect both men and women. Besides, Advertising Standards Authority reports point out that gender stereotypes can lead to mental, physical and social harm. These stereotypes can also limit the ways people see themselves and the life decision they take when trying to abide by the stereotypes.
The majority of advertisements, even in Western countries, show stereotypes about both men and women, as man would be an inventor, a doctor, and an engineer, whereas there is a focus on the beauty, the femininity and the physical features of woman.
Media helps shaping both women’s and men’s awareness regarding what they can do. Studies show that women and men are not born thinking of what they can or what they can’t do.
Advertisements in particular contribute to the entrenchment of women stereotypes in the public opinion. Women’s image is usually used in a commercial manner for advertising, or it would be used as a commodity given her beauty and attractiveness.
In our Arab world, women spend more on makeup than women in the west do, according to economic statistics that Haidar talked about. This is due to the Arab media stereotypes showing women as a commodity.
According to Haidar, Yellow Journalism focuses on the shape of women rather than their value. It also uses sexual seduction and works on using women for this end, through emphasizing women’s beauty and showing them as sexy and attractive but in a “humiliating” way in order to achieve commercial goals and gains.
This type of journalism rarely focuses on news of successful women in scientific, literary and political fields. Coverage is usually limited to family, fashion and recipes issues. Haidar also pointed out that a big sector of media coverage can be described as traditional in dealing with women issues.
Concerning the influence of women stereotypes, which are supported by Yellow Journalism, on society, Haidar pointed out they usually affect minorities and vulnerable people. Since women are always vulnerable even among minorities, the stereotype about them in society is very important.
She added that the exploitation of women does not only occur in “Yellow Journalism,” but also in media in general and the means of advertising. In fact, using this image does not take into consideration the fact that it will represent women’s roles, which will always be entrenched in the minds of kids and youth. Haidar pointed out also that the issue of equality between men and women is not as important as when they have a logical role they play in the society.
The issue is not women and their rights, but rather their social roles. For example, the stereotype shows her as the married, indecent, movies-like woman, even when she is in the kitchen or doing their homework.
This entrenches in the memory of men the image of women having to be always stylish, and in the memory of women that they must adopt this image otherwise they would suffer a low self-esteem crisis.
In addition, Yellow Journalism links all scandals to women’s moral status, which are widespread and mainstream matters among people, but they highly affect society. This type of journalism focuses on peripheral and marginal issues that are not important, but attract readers because they are scandalous.
Women Have Roles that Must Be Emphasized
Rozana Radio’s director, Lina Shawaf, considered that journalism in general holds a stereotypical image about women, not just Yellow Journalism.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, Shawaf pointed to the importance of paying attention to the way in which women’s issues are presented and to the questions that will be addressed to them, as society often shapes the way media deals with women’s issues.
Razan Ameen, journalist in the Syrian Journalists Association, also stressed the need to present women in their real image as revolutionists, educated and doctors. This is the image that journalism must strengthen.
Conflicts and Wars… Rich Rnvironment for Yellow Journalism
The conflicts period forms a rich ground for the spread of Yellow Journalism that conflicting parties use to promote their policies, spread their ideas and influence the public opinion.
Yellow Journalism relies on the exaggeration of events, the policies of exclusion and getting events out of their context and on an idealized speech, aiming to achieve the political interests of a certain party.
Media faces many challenges in the way of finding a balance away from political rivalries that impose themselves in periods of war and political instability.
Yellow Journalism contributes to creating crises and fuelling them instead of appeasement amidst the conflict of interests. It uses the methods of blackout, negligence, speech censorship, deletion and fabrication, lies, slander and rumours.
In the period of conflicts, there are many violations that emerge in the form of Yellow Journalism, through falsifying or using events out of their context, referring back to archives and claiming that they are recent, or using photos in contexts not related to the origin of the photo.
Polarization and “Non-independence” Complex
The period of conflicts is one of the elements that strengthen Yellow Journalism for it is accompanied by polarization in society, as confirmed by Egyptian media expert Imad Omar.
Omar pointed out that yellow newspapers usually tell readers what they like to hear. In light of the political polarization, the aim of every newspaper or media outlet becomes telling its audience or the agglomerated audience to which it belongs what they want to hear rather than the truth. Therefore, situations of political polarization and conflict form a very rich environment for Yellow Journalism.
Concerning the role of media outlets in achieving balance in the face of political rivalries during conflicts, Omar considered that each media outlet has to pay attention to the main mission of journalism which is to provide the truth, and journalism should not be part of any conflict because it is a sacred and important profession.
He added that “if we allow this profession to be used as a weapon by one party, it will certainly be used by the other one in the same way. Thus, the biggest loser would be journalism as a profession.”
The editor of Bercaw newspaper, Farouk Haji Mustafa, pointed out that some media outlets, which belong to political currents, are forced in periods of war and peace to promote the ideas and policies of these currents. The independent journalism is supposed to be primarily concerned with people and their interests and to build peace away from wars.
Yellow Journalism Enters the Battlefield of the Syrian War
Khatib Badleh, Syrian writer and editor in Kesh Malak newspaper, talked about political rivalries during the Syrian war. He pointed out that the Syrian regime has long relied on Yellow Journalism, and is trying to exaggerate the flaws of his opponents and cover up his crimes and practices against human rights. It resorts also to fabrication, falsifying the facts and creating lies, in addition to buying media institutions and claiming that they are independent.
As for the opposition, he said that some institutions and people have a tendency to use Yellow Journalism. They justify this by the necessities of the current phase and what we are going through during the period of conflict. He refused to consider this as an excuse and called for criticizing these practices even if committed by a revolutionary party.
Ahmed Nur, journalist at the Shaam News Network (S.N.N), said that achieving balance within the media institution in the period of conflict and war is very difficult, and pointed out that Shaam chose to be closer to civilians in order to face any violation by any party.
The Executive Director of the Syrian Civil Coalition, Alaeddine Zayat, stressed that media is one of the tools of conflict and a very effective element because it can distort, disguise and blur the process, and thus directly affect the nature of the conflict.
Zayat said that journalists should not abandon their enlightenment role and should make sacrifices in order to reveal the truth.
Yellow Journalism… At a Third Forum Organized by Enab Baladi
During the course of its professional career, Enab Baladi newspaper has sought to contribute to the development of Syrian media by organizing several forums that dealt with the current media situation in an attempt to monitor its problems, reach solutions for it and establish regulatory structures for the new media.
These meetings attempted to promote the concept of self-regulation of the independent media sector, through the collection of various Syrian media outlets in the framework of professional commitments and joint working documents, which constitute a regulatory reference case for the Syrian media work.
“Syrian Media Confronting Yellow Journalism”
Editors and directors of 20 Syrian media outlets have participated in the Syrian Media Confronting Yellow Journalism Forum, which was sponsored by Enab Baladi Institution and lasted for two days, the 29th and 30th of October 2017.
The forum discussed the issue of Yellow Journalism in the media work and ways to address it, in light of the spread of social media and their transformation into open sources and free platforms away from the norms of journalism.
During the forum, the Egyptian journalist and media expert Imad Omar presented a series of definitional lectures on Yellow Journalism. In this regard, he organized workshops to identify some of the problems the Syrian media is facing and the best solutions to address the weaknesses of journalism.
Imad Omar, an Egyptian journalist, has worked for nearly two decades with Reuters News Agency. He was its chief editor and supervised many survey investigations.
Omar defined Yellow Journalism as “journalism that avoids the truth by using inaccurate headlines and focusing on the excessive use of provocative drawings and photos so as to attract the public or directly influence the public opinion.”
Dr. Khatoun Haidar, a doctor of Development and specialist in women’s affairs, has also participated in the forum through a lecture on the “stereotypical image of women” that Yellow Journalism uses in media and the role of media outlets in promoting racial discrimination based on type, gender, religion, race, and social class.
The presented examples of Arab and international journalism and their projections on Syrian journalism contributed to shedding the light on media gaps that lead to Yellow Journalism.
Participants in the forum were directors and editors-in-chief of local media (newspapers, websites, radio stations and television stations). At the end of the workshop, they reached a number of recommendations on ways to confront “Yellow Journalism” in Syrian media.
The recommendations of the forum were distributed as follows:
At the Level of Individual Journalists
- Adhering to the professional standards of journalism and Media Charter of Honour.
- Reliance on reliable sources and not allowing sources to manipulate the truth.
- Accuracy in presenting facts and information, choosing pictures and avoiding exaggeration.
- Objectivity in press releases and avoiding personal bias.
- Not to confuse opinion and news, and avoid the release of value judgments in the press article.
- Use press headlines that avoid disinformation and unjustified exaggeration.
- Respect the privacy of sources and individuals.
- Build good background knowledge about the raised press issues.
- Consultation within the press team to make ethical decisions in thorny situations.
At the Level of Editors-in-chief and Directors of Media Outlets
- Adopting professional employment policies, including clear job descriptions in job advertisements, and professional editorial as well as oral tests as a criterion for admission.
- Developing editorial policies and preparing guidelines to ensure the production of high-quality editorial content.
- Developing codes of conduct, adopting Media Charters of Honour and ensuring that all journalists are informed and agreed upon them.
- Distinguishing between media content and advertising content.
- Paying attention to correcting mistakes and promoting a culture of apology and correction.
- Providing periodic training programs to qualify journalists at different levels.
- Conducting public studies in a precise manner and activating monitoring as well as measuring tools for feedback.
- Establishing a system of incentives and rewards to encourage journalists to produce good content.
- Communicating regularly with the editorial teams, emphasizing the spirit of the team and accepting criticism.
- Making efforts to secure funds that provide the independence of media institutions.
At the level of Media Bodies and Outlets
- Setting precise and clear criteria for the work of journalists and disseminating them to the media.
- Drafting a legislative and legal framework for practicing journalism and protecting journalists.
- Issuing periodic evaluation reports on the extent to which media comply with professional standards of journalism.
- Organizing training courses for the qualification of media staff and workshops to exchange experiences.
- Providing legal and professional advice to media institutions.
- Awarding annual rewards for distinct journalism.
- Forming committees and specialized bodies to study public complaints.
“Together to Renounce Hate Speech”
In the presence of Arab and Kurdish representatives of 14 Syrian audio-visual and written media outlets, Enab Baladi organized the “Syrian Press Together to Renounce Hatred” forum in Istanbul on May 8, 2017.
Participants reached a number of recommendations, which were directed to the Syrian media and its employees in order to reduce media messages containing ideas, information or vocabulary that could cause or increase tension between the components of the Syrian society so as to obtain a professional and national media discourse which promotes civil peace in Syria.
The forum reached a definition that all participants agreed upon, which identified the hate speech as “any speech that includes exclusion, marginalization, insult, incitement, negative discrimination, abusive stereotyping or directed discrimination against a group of people, directly or indirectly, in accordance with a systematic or arbitrary policy.”
Symposium on Media coverage of Important Issues
In March 2016, Enab Baladi organized a symposium on the “Syrian Prints Archive” in Turkey, which was attended by a number of Syrian journalists. During the symposium, they discussed the results of the research papers prepared by the Syrian writer Mohammad Rushdi Sharbaji on the new newspapers’ handling of a number of matters related to the Syrian issue.
The papers, which were prepared by the newspaper in accordance with the initiative of the Syrian Prints Archive, came as an attempt to re-read the content of local newspapers about important Syrian issues (Kurds, transitional justice, Jihad groups in Syria, the conflict with Israel, Syrian women and Syrian emigration), to see what positions, directions and views they may have on these issues.
The symposium provided an opportunity to discuss the weaknesses of the new Syrian media from different points of view in order to develop ways of addressing basic local issues.
Media Outlets that Participated in the “Syrian Media Confronting Yellow Journalism” Forum
Suwar Magazine: A monthly journal issued for the first time in 2013. It is concerned with the Syrian civil affairs, freedom of expression and human rights.
Halab Today TV: The broadcast began in 2011, and the channel evolved from a photo presenter and two News Tickers to a television station offering a series of specialized programs on the Syrian issue.
Radio Rozana: A Syrian Radio that was launched in 2013. It offers various news and news bulletin as well as cultural, awareness rising and service programs. It also broadcasts programmes on its website.
Ayn Al-Madina Magazine: A bimonthly socio-political magazine established in 2013. It deals with Syrian internal affairs and tries to focus on the activities, work and problems faced by the Syrian citizen.
Bercav Newspaper: It was established in 2013. It is currently published in the city of Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan and is concerned with political, intellectual and social affairs in Syria.
Syrian Press Center (SPC): A Syrian media gathering established in 2014. It includes Al-Hadath news Agency, Al-Hadath FM, Al-Hadath Magazine, the Syrian Press Center, the Translation Department, the Visual Department and the Documentation Department.
Hibr Newspaper: A weekly socio-political newspaper published for the first time in 2013.
The Geroun Media Network: An electronic, political and cultural newspaper published by the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies. It deals with the Syrian issue in particular and the Arab in general, and was founded in 2016.
The Syrian Network for Print Media: A group of independent Syrian newspapers and magazines established after the Syrian revolution. It was founded in 2014 and coordinates efforts among different newspapers through the exchange of press and professional experiences.
Syrian Journalists Association: A professional association founded in 2012, which fosters the role of media freedom and freedom of expression in Syria, as well as the protection of Syrian journalists.
The Revolutionary Forces of Syria Media Office: A news website, which provides information services related to the Syrian revolution, and contributes to the spread of the Syrian issue in the international media.
Orient Net: An electronic newspaper linked to Orient Television and was founded in 2009.
Al-Ahd newspaper: A news journal affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria. It is issued every two weeks and distributed in the interior areas of Syria. It was issued for the first time in 2013.
WEEDOO website: An electronic institute that provides services in measuring media access, analysis and drafting of plans, and provides consultation related to the development of media groups.
Al-Jumhuriya Magazine: An electronic newspaper founded in March 2012, which focuses on Syrian political and cultural affairs.
Enab Baladi: An independent Syrian media organization founded in 2011 and publishes a weekly political, social and miscellaneous publication.
Kish malek: A satirical socio-political electronic newspaper. The first issue was published in 2013.
Shaam Network: A media network which was established in 2011. It deals with the Syrian news with its humanitarian, social, civil and military aspects and in all Syrian provinces.
Alsouria.net: A site interested in the Syrian issue and its implications in the region. It was founded in 2014 and provides news, analyses, studies, reports and opinion materials.
The Syrian Civil Coalition: A non-closed group of Syrian civil society organizations and activists inside and outside Syria, which aims at building a culture of citizenship and consolidating the notion of human rights.