By Zahera Harb*
This essay is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute’s 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers – all those who have supported us in our work towards diversity, inclusion, and fairer representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in the media. The paper version of the book will be launched at the Anniversary celebration on the 17th of November 2023 in London. Watch this space for the other 24 essays.
Twenty years ago, I realised that my journey into British academia would be full of challenges. It was that moment when my first-year undergraduate students, found it strange I was not able to relate to their British popular culture references. I was still at the early stages of my PhD journey, when I got a part time job as a graduate teaching assistant. Teaching these upper and middle class, privileged, young students proved to be tricky.
They were not very familiar with tutors from different cultural backgrounds who speak English with a foreign accent. I remember one occasion, after I earned a full-time lecturer post at a highly reputable university in England, when concerns were raised about a white British student missing several classes in a row. Upon being asked about why he had been missing so many classes, he gave this answer; “I do not understand the tutor’s accent”.
Do not jump to conclusions! He was not referring to me–he was speaking of my Canadian colleague, a native English speaker with a noticeable Canadian accent.
This incident made me aware that students at major universities in England are not the best at understanding what diversity means and what it brings to the educational system, especially in the field of media and journalism studies.
Research has indicated that female lecturers, especially those from an ethnic minority background, get lower evaluation scores from students than their white male colleagues. Still, many English universities have not factored that into their staff evaluation system.
According to the UK government,i around 73% of entering undergraduates in 2019/2020 were white Caucasians. The other 27% were divided between Asians, blacks, mixed race, and other. This percentage is barely changing. The Higher Education Statistics Agency reported in 2020 (HESA)ii, that only 2% of the overall academics in British universities are black. Other ethnic minorities do not score higher than that. In 2021, I discovered that among the 941 academics listed on my current employer’s website, only five—including me–are of Arab ethnicity. That makes us the minority among the minority.
We are the other. In 2011, I was the first non-British, non-European—the first person whose ethnic and cultural background was “other”—to be hired by my current department. However, since then, we have grown slightly in numbers and presence. As black and ethnic minority academics in journalism, we mirror the poor state of diversity in the media industry in the country at large.
Diversity in the UK media industry has been a topic of discussion and concern for several decades. A 2019 study by ScreenSkillsiii in collaboration with British Film Institute (BFI), indicated that less than 10% of those working in the UK’s TV and film industry are from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. Not significant change has occurred since then. The industry is perceived as exclusive with a culture that is difficult for those from diverse backgrounds to penetrate.
I come from Lebanon, the small Arab country on the Mediterranean coast, where I worked for many years as a broadcast journalist. By the time I resigned from my job in Beirut and left for the UK to pursue my postgraduate studies in Journalism and Political Communication, I had already established a successful career and become a household name in Lebanon as a broadcaster.
It was not long into my studies that I realised that all my journalism experience and that of my Lebanese colleagues needed to be contextualised within western scholarship traditions f to be taken seriously. None of my research arguments about local journalism practice would be viewed as authoritative or significant unless they were grounded in the framework of Western theories, concepts and experiences.
I am grateful to my PhD supervisors, who believed that my argument and arguments introduced by the unique experience of one non-western nation, could be indeed a significant addition to International Journalism scholarship. I have discovered throughout my years working in academia in the UK that it is down to individual scholars’ openness to engage with ideas emerging from outside western doctrines that we are able to read significant scholarship that speaks of other realities.
My PhD, later adapted and published as a book, explored the world of journalists who cover atrocities caused by foreign military invasions. I wrote previouslyiv about an interview producer who was interested in having me as a guest for a household name show at an established British broadcaster. When she heard about how I am arguing a different approach to understanding objectivity in journalism, she dismissed the whole argument. She seemed unwilling to open up to ideas of objectivity seen as factual and not neutral. Ideas that are not influenced by western experiences and doctrines. My book was never featured on that show. When the Ukraine war fell upon us the narrative of coverage shifted to match what I argued years before.
Diversity is about engaging with knowledge and scholarship influenced by experiences outside the western hemisphere. The late Palestinian-American thinker and literature professor Edward Said speaks of dominant knowledge as that produced by those who have the power and means not just to produce it but also to disseminate it.
We are working at changing that. Many academics from diverse backgrounds, including those of us at the journalism department at City, University of London, are working on de-westernising our curriculum. We want it to reflect non-western scholarship as much as it reflects western theses. De-Westernization represents a revision of the power relations in global academic knowledge production and dissemination.
Scholars from the Global South have struggled for decades for international recognition of their voices and intellectual contributions to a global academic community. A de-westernization movement has emerged in journalism and media studies, as seen in the rise of global comparative studies and in the growing numbers of non-western scholars being invited to present their work at international conferences previously dominated by western intellectuals.
Another movement has also been gaining momentum–the de-colonisation of journalism and media studies. De-westernisation asks to revisit the power relations in global academic knowledge production and dissemination and De-colonisation challenges the uncritical adoption of research epistemologies and methods favoured by former colonial powers in efforts to solve local problems, since these approaches fail to consider the complexities of non-Western societies and communities.
As a journalist from Lebanon, I have been steeped in journalism and media scholarship from the US and Britain. My PhD project engaged with reflective ethnography analysing if our practices as Lebanese journalists in covering Israeli assaults on our country align with the academic literature on propaganda published in the west. Propaganda (in its negative connotation), is what we were often accused of. I also engaged with the question of news objectivity in our coverage of those assaults and the human tragedies they inflicted.
Being trained as a journalist in Holland and the UK, I viewed objectivity as the cornerstone of my understanding of my own practice. It was also in the accounts of my colleagues whom I interviewed for my research. When one professor asked me if we were taught about objectivity in journalism school in Beirut, I was reminded that objectivity is actually an Anglo-American construct. At that point, I realised that the journalism objectivity they claim in the Anglo-American journalism culture might be somehow different to ours. I started investigating new understanding for both notions: propaganda and objectivity.
For propaganda I had to dig deeper than the modern negative understanding of the term, which took me to the propaganda campaigns of the suffragette movement in 1866 and the church campaigns as early as 1600s and also to the campaigns that propagated Islam in far East Asia through trade (the silk road). I studied our coverage within the context of these campaigns and introduced the new understanding of “Liberation propaganda” (see Harb 2011)v and as Tele Liban former TV chairman Fouad Naim coined it “the propaganda of the truth”.
To understand our objectivity, I had to question my Lebanese colleagues’ understanding of what does objectivity mean to them and how they had applied it to their coverage? After questioning their understanding and digging deeper into the matter, I concluded that objectivity to them meant being factual but not being neutral.
My research took on a new notion of objectivity introduced by two Egyptian scholars Muhammad Nawawi and Adel Iskander in their book Al-Jazeera (2002), which explored the Arabic channel’s coverage of the Afghanistan war in 2001, the international sanctions against Iraq in the 90s and the Israeli Palestinian Conflict. They termed it as “contextual objectivity”. I found the term fit closely with what we as Lebanese journalists understood of objectivity.
Back in the day, very few accepted the term, contextual objectivity, within the Anglo-American academic community. Later on, other studies started emerging questioning the notion of objectivity and its connotation of ultimate neutrality.
The problematic push back against the term came from the industry and practitioners, which brings me to the example and point made above. To De-Westernise journalism studies we need to de- westernise journalism as a profession from fixed ontologies of what it means to produce quality journalism. Journalism values of balance and impartiality, for example, have proven to be disputable even within western context.
In 2018, The BBC admitted applyingvi “false balance” in its reporting on climate crisis. Their attempt to strike balance in the coverage meant balancing scientific analysis and data with commentary from global warming deniers. Fran Unsworth, the former BBC head of news at the time, sent out a statement advising BBC journalists to consider “false balance” when reporting on climate issues.
In recent years, discussion about Impartiality and its understanding came to light with the case of Naga Munchettyvii. The BBC had to reverse its decision to sanction the BBC Breakfast show presenter for breaching the guidelines on impartiality rule. This came after Munchetty expressed on air a personal response to the former US president, Donald Trump’s statement that four American congresswomen of colour should “go back… to the infested places from which they came”. This triggered a legitimate question among many UK journalists and civil societies organisation, whether impartiality is to also be sought when it comes to racism and if journalists should be censored, under the auspices of impartiality and refrain from calling racism by its name.
A team of international scholars, led by Thomas Hanitzschviii, Worlds of Journalisms Study (2011) has been a good step to understand how journalists perceive journalism and their role in different parts of the world. In it the authors concluded that journalists across different countries believe that objectivity is a universal value and not only Anglo American one. And I agree with that. Journalists I interviewed across two Arab countries, Lebanon and Egypt, affirm the same, but what objectivity do they mean. Their understanding of the term is what matters.
De Westernising journalism and journalism studies, is to give space to those different and maybe difficult ideas to emerge and introduce new epistemologies that fit local communities.
Going back to Edward Said’s thesis, the power of producing knowledge is in the hands of those who have the means to pay for the production of knowledge.
In my role as associate editor and co-editor for academic journals, I process many articles that come from low-income countries. Some feature excellent research, yet they rarely get cited. Citation follows mostly buzz words generated mainly in American scholarship and are followed across. An article written by a white American male scholar focused on a single case study or single newsroom will get more attention and citations than an article that explores journalism and disinformation in a country in the southern hemisphere. An article on news practices in the United States is often universally generalised. The US is not seen as a region within the media research community, whereas all other national centred research is seen as research that is region focused and is situated within regional scholarship. The Anglo-American scholarship is universal and the rest is regional.
To de-westernise Journalism studies we need to de-westernise the structure and approach that we all follow in the world of academic publishing. I can speak of articles rejected by reviewers who clearly based their decisions on prejudice and a sense of intellectual superiority, if not to assume more obnoxious reasons.
The global academic world needs to give more space to research coming from the so-called “Global South” conducted by researchers in the “Global South”. We need to support those researchers’ position within global academia. We would still be restricted to those writing in English, but it can be a start. Their research could also generate universal outcomes. We need to allow space for research that does not necessarily conform to Western trends and doctrine. We need to allow researchers to explore ideas that address and focus on their own local contexts. It has become vital to give space to the power of arguments and not to the power of western epistemologies.
We need to accept that there is a world of philosophy and philosophers beyond the English language domain that allows researchers to make sense of what is happening around them in their own journalism culture and that there is something to learn from those research endeavours.
Diversity means acceptance of others from cultural and educational background different from your own. Diversity means to acknowledge and recognize that those “other” cultures have as much legitimacy and as much to offer the world as yours.
*Dr Zahera Harb is International Journalism Studies Cluster lead at City, University of London. She has published widely on Journalism and Politics in the Arab countries. Her publications include an edited collection titled Reporting the Middle East: The Practice of News in the 21st Century (IB Tauris 2017), She is co-editor of Middle East Journal of Culture and Communication and associate editor of the internationally renowned academic journal Journalism Practice. She is currently board member trustee of Dart Centre Europe for Journalism and Trauma, Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network and member of Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism (ARIJ) board of directors. She also sits on the board of the UK Press Recognition Panel (PRP). Before moving to the UK, Zahera worked, for over a decade, as a broadcast Journalist in her native country Lebanon, for local and international news organisations.