DOHA, Qatar--Since the suicide of an underfoot fruit vendor in Tunisia, the Arab world has generated some of the world's most-followed stories. History will find the news coming out of Arab countries during this time both gripping and plentiful.
Less is known, however, of the news and information reaching Arab countries and communities during this period, and at times much has been speculated of, say, Twitter reliance in Tunisia, satellite TV dependence in Egypt, or tablet use in the highly connected Arab Gulf.
To more rigorously study how people in the Arab world access news and information, rate the credibility of information sources, and use social media, Northwestern University in Qatar commissioned a survey among people in eight Arab countries: Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Qatar, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE.
Harris Interactive conducted a mix of face-to-face and telephone interviews with 9,693 adults aged 18 and older. Participants were asked a wide range of questions on media--from matters of newspaper use, book reading and blogging to online banking and gaming--with a heavy emphasis on Internet use. Participants were interviewed in late 2012 and early 2013. Northwestern University in Qatar built an interactive site to make the data available to the public.
People love to lament the quality of journalism, but most respondents in the survey believe things have been changing for the better. Respondents in the Northwestern survey, for example, were asked whether the quality of news reporting in the Arab world had improved over the previous two years, and feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Participants are far more likely to agree than disagree that reporting has improved, by ratios of more than 19 to 1 in Jordan and 21 to 1 in Saudi Arabia.
Tunisia and Egypt, which overthrew censorial regimes in 2011, are nonetheless far less impressed. Lebanon, home to one of the freest press systems in the Arab world, was also less moved by journalists' record over the past two years.
Television remains the most important source of news and information in all countries, except Bahrain and Qatar. Qatar has at least 2.3 million cell phones in a country of around 2 million people, according to the CIA World Factbook, which may help explain the country inching away from television. Incidentally, Qatar also reported the highest level of tablet ownership, 34 percent, of any country surveyed. Internet reliance is lowest in Egypt, which is consistent with past research on both Internet penetration and illiteracy in that country.
While respondents across the Arab world are pleased with journalistic progress in their region over the past two years, they demur somewhat when asked to rate the reliability of news they receive from TV, in newspapers, online and on radio.
Among respondents from the revolution-emergent countries, Egypt and Tunisia, the outlook is bleak for all media but television (which still comes out bruised). Qataris, Bahrainis and Lebanese are slightly more confident in TV, newspapers, and the Internet. Respondents in the UAE, host to a broad range of regional outlets and western enterprises, such as CNBC, BBC, Rolling Stone, Google, and Forbes, find all media sources reliable. Local newspapers in the UAE tend to receive high reliability ratings; papers in the country are all government-owned, and respondents still rate broadsheets favorably.
Asked more generally whether media in their countries are credible, majorities in five countries--Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, and Bahrain--affirmed.