Social media catching up with TV as trusted news source in Middle East

First published by the BBC College of Journalism.

Social media catching up with TV as trusted news source in Middle East

Wednesday 11 February 2015, 11:49

Damian Radcliffe is a journalist and researcher. Twitter: @damianradcliffe

Trust in news sources, Arab Youth Survey, 2014

The idea that social media is reshaping news consumption is well established in many media markets. Pew Research’s 2014 State of the News Media found that 30% of US adults use Facebook as a news source, while BuzzFeed revealed last year that it receives 75% of its referrals via social; a figure which may well be higher still 12 months on.

So how has this phenomenon manifested itself in an emerging region like the Middle East?

Home to a bulging youth population and high smartphone take-up, you would expect social news to be quite mainstream. Yet the region also enjoys a high penetration of both satellite and cable services (with many homes having both) and advertising markets (like many others) continue to skew towards traditional platforms, even if the eyeballs are frequently to be found elsewhere.

Perhaps not surprisingly, research into news consumption in this region is not as mature as it is in some other markets (although there are some notable exceptions like the 2013 and 2014 studies from Northwestern University and a mammoth 2012 study from the Dubai Press Club). So there are plenty of Rumsfeld-esque known unknowns. That said there’s still more than enough data to understand the key trends across the region. Here’s some of what we know:

Social media is a common news source but TV remains valuable and popular

A 2014 study of news consumption in UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt found that 59% discover most of their news via social.

Nonetheless, Associated Press and Deloitte’s study noted, TV remains the primary channel for breaking news. Nearly half of their sample accesses these types of stories via TV; comfortably ahead of social networks and other online services, as well as more traditional media outlets such as radio.

Sources of news, Arab Youth Survey. 2014

TV also remains the most popular source for news consumption amongst the region’s digitally savvy youth. The annual ASDA’A Burson-Marsteller Arab Youth Study – which last year covered 16 countries and 3,500 people aged 18 to 24 – revealed that the digital generation still remain more likely to use online channels and newspapers, ahead of social media, for general news consumption.

Attitudes – and uses – of social are changing

It is worth mentioning however that this traditional type of news consumption by young people does not necessarily equate to trusting these older more established media forms. In this space we are starting to see some interesting shifts in attitude, especially amongst the youth population in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Although TV is currently the most trusted source of news for this younger cohort, social media is quickly catching up. Subsequently, I would not be at all surprised if in 2015 social overtook TV in the Arab Youth Survey’s news trust index.

Another discernible finding from the same survey was the importance of ‘friends and family’ as a popular news source. In 2014, one in five identified this as a channel for news discovery.

And with a 2012 study into the Arab Digital Generation revealing that 24% believe media content is totally controlled by government, it’s not surprising that many people therefore turn to social media as a trusted source of news.

In Tunisia, more than half of audiences identified Facebook as a key news source in 2013, while in late 2014 a third of Qatari nationals reported they use WhatsApp to find out the latest news;ahead of Twitter and other channels more commonly viewed as modern-day newswires.

Video may well have killed the radio star

I’ve written elsewhere about how YouTube consumption in the MENA region enjoys some of the highest levels of mobile consumption anywhere in the world. Half of YouTube views in Saudi Arabia are via mobile devices, and 40% in UAE. As a result, YouTube content – across a variety of genres – is capable of reaching wide audiences. One show, EyshElly, a YouTube programme created by UTURN Entertainment, for example, has around 2.2 million subscribers and has enjoyed more than 245 million views.

Data analysed by Startappz found that different countries dominate YouTube in terms of content generation, with most news content on YouTube coming from Qatar and Syria (while Saudi Arabia leads the contribution for comedy and UAE dominates the entertainment category).

Meanwhile, AP’s three-nation report (misleading referred to as a Middle East study) discovered that video content adds to the stickiness and understanding of news content. Three-quarters of those surveyed in the major MENA markets of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE said they are more likely to access a news story if it is accompanied by video – 83% claiming it improves their understanding of stories.

Sources for breaking news, AP, 2014

Moving Forward

With Facebook continuing to dominate as the Middle East’s most popular social network, there remains plenty of room for growth in populous MENA countries like Egypt, Algeria and Morocco, where the percentage of the population using the network remains less than one in four.

We can therefore expect that Facebook will remain a popular source for news consumption and social sharing in the region for some time. “Not being on Facebook means missing a huge opportunity to give my audience the chance to consume news in the way they want,” says the Palestinian journalist George Canawati, manager of Radio Bethlehem 2000.

Alongside this, we can expect that getting the news via chat apps will also grow. At present this is typically between friends or family members, with these groups sharing stories with one another (using the network’s group chat functionality), rather than via publishers directly pushing stories to audiences via these messaging services. However, given the rapid growth of these networks, news organisations in the region need to wake up to this potential, if they haven’t already.

Finally, I believe that Instagram also has plenty of scope for growth as a social news source in the Middle East. Packing both photographic and short-form video potential, the network is already very popular in the Gulf and Levant regions; with usage and community engagement continuing to grow. As smartphone take-up continues to spread across the wider region, I’ve no doubt these dual functionalities will be potentially very appealing to MENA’s news audiences.

This is a specially extended extract from Damian Radcliffe’s third annual round-up of developments in the Middle East social media scene. Read his original 2014 report.

WhatsApp now clear social media leader in Qatar, including for news

Our other blogs by Damian Radcliffe

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