Teaching Media in Arab Universities: Challenges of 2023 and Beyond

(The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Al-Fanar Media).

The world is undergoing many transformations, in which neither academics nor professors can stand idly by. Indeed, university education and education policymakers must take these challenges into account in a way that makes their educational programs flexible and capable enough to keep pace with them and help empower graduates.

In the field of teaching journalism and media, there are fundamental challenges facing the profession, including the issue of false news. For example, Sky News Arabia reported on April 1, 2021, that Mohamed Omar, Facebook’s director of the news partnerships in the Middle East and North Africa, said the social media giant had removed more than 12 million posts on Facebook and Instagram containing misinformation that could lead to imminent physical harm in a period of only months.

In April of this year, the member states of the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a draft resolution that expresses concern about the negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights of deliberately disseminating false information intended to deceive and mislead audiences, “either to cause harm or for personal, political or financial gain”. The draft resolution, sponsored by Ukraine and six other countries, emphasized the key role of governments in countering false narratives.

If 12 million articles containing misleading information can be published in months on a single social network, then there’s the question of how much fake news and misinformation is spreading through social media.

If 12 million articles containing misleading information can be published in months on a single social network, then there’s the question of how much fake news and misinformation is spreading through social media.

As for the role assigned to journalism graduates in combating false and misleading news, the concept of verification of news should become a general culture for citizens. Challenges for journalism educators in Arab universities include  finding accurate academic scientific content related to the nature of false news and teaching students how to verify digital sources, reverse search for images, analyse video, mechanisms to determine geographical location, and analysis of weather, shadows, and images, since graduates specialized in journalistic work are entrusted with the production of verification mechanisms and programmes to detect false news, in addition to their role in establishing false news observatories and assessing journalistic performance.

Artificial Intelligence in Journalism

Another challenge lies in the rapidly expanding use of artificial intelligence in journalism. Can a journalism graduate in 2023 and beyond enter the profession without being familiar with this important scientific discipline? Are we thinking about adding courses on artificial intelligence journalism? What is the form of the course, if we agree on its quality, and what is its relevance, goals and philosophy? At what stage is it taught?

News organisations now employ various large-scale AI technologies such as imaging techniques, the Internet of Things, and robots to produce content. We have robots that transmit events, analyse, and write headlines on screens, which constitutes a qualitative leap in all journalism. Some might think that we are talking about science fiction, but this has become a reality now, as artificial intelligence-based journalism techniques have moved out of the space of data journalism and computerised investigative journalism into writing opinion columns.

Artificial intelligence software can do many of the tasks that used to burden journalists, such as analysing financial data and statistics, and producing quick reports on them. In addition, artificial intelligence and machine learning have capabilities in political, economic, security and military forecasting. Robots can analyse social media, follow the accounts of terrorist groups, and predict the locations of operations and conditions of concern and tension.

The journalist Jaclyn Peiser reported in the New York Times in 2019 that about a third of the content published by Bloomberg News was produced using some form of automated technology. Bloomberg used a special system called Cyborg to help editors publish thousands of articles about earnings reports, Peiser wrote in an article titled “The Rise of the Robot Reporter”.

Technology is rapidly changing newsrooms. Are the academic departments in our Arab universities considering this in a manner that will create opportunities for graduates with the necessary capabilities to interact with these variables?

The same article noted that the Associated Press was also considered a leader in “robot reporting,” using artificial intelligence to increase its coverage of financial earnings reports from 300 articles every quarter to 3,700 articles. The Washington Post also has a robot reporter called Heliograf, which contributed to the newspaper’s coverage of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil and the 2016 presidential elections in the United States.

Peiser’s article also reported that The Guardian’s Australia edition had published its first article with the help of a robot, an account of political donations to that country’s political parties, and that Forbes was testing a tool called Bertie “to provide reporters with rough drafts and story models”.

40,000 Articles in 5 Minutes

In Switzerland, Tamedia generated 40,000 localised news stories about a referendum’s results in less than five minutes using a text-automation tool called Tobi, the journalist Rebecca Heilwell wrote in a 2019 article titled “Rise of the Reporting Machines”. The robot used voting data and preconfigured templates created by Tamedia reporters to produce articles in German and French that were read by more than 100,000 people.

China’s Xinhua News Agency has also introduced a Media Brain platform  that integrates cloud computing, the Internet of Things, and artificial intelligence into news production, which it says has potential applications for editing, distribution, and analysis of feedback from the public.

Here we move to a non-conventional aspect of using artificial intelligence techniques to write opinion material, and not just to analyze big data or tell stock market forecasts or basketball games.

All of these developments are real challenges. Amy Webb, director of the Future Today Institute, has even spoken of an “existential threat” posed by artificial intelligence to the press and the future of journalism.” Are the academic departments in our Arab universities considering this in a manner that will create opportunities for graduates with the necessary capabilities to interact with these variables?

Changes in the Job Market

In order not to continue this narrative at length, the challenges are many, but I conclude with the challenge of job opportunities in the Arab media market. Adopting the concept of digital entrepreneurship is a necessary and important response to all the difficulties facing graduates from the departments of journalism and media, and changing the intellectual structure of graduates and their orientations towards the labor market is a very important matter from my point of view in 2023 and beyond.

Experience has shown us how young people in their twenties can change the entire media work environment. Mark Zuckerberg did not expect Facebook to become the tech giant it is now. None of the three youngsters (Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, and Jawed Karim) who met in San Francisco thought that the idea they came up with for sharing video clips online would turn into YouTube. Therefore, the interest in supporting innovative and pioneering thought within the minds of journalism and media students is a way to confront the challenge of competition in the labour market and the disappearance of employment opportunities.

Efforts are ongoing by academics, and discussions are taking place in various Arab associations and conferences, and the concern is one and shared among specialists. Thus, there are still opportunities to remind myself and my colleagues to reconsider and seize the issue. As they say, the path remains the same, but not everyone strides the same.

Ehab Hamdi is a journalist who holds a Ph.D. in mass communication and has taught at several universities in the Arab world.

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