CAIRO—Three years after uprisings across the Arab world expanded space in some countries for media and political freedom, Northwestern University in Qatar is examining just how media is used in the region.
Not surprisingly, it has had to maneuver around some sensitivity.
On April 16, the university and the Doha Film Institute will release results of a survey that questioned 6,000 people in six countries on the use of entertainment media in the Arab world.
The study will come on the heels of the first of its kind: Media Use in the Middle East, which was published by Northwestern University in Qatar last year and focused on the use of news, rather than entertainment, media. It surveyed more than 10,000 people in eight nations—Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.
The survey took place two years after the 2011 Arab revolutions, popularly called the Arab Spring, which some political observers said were fueled by social media. In addition to revealing that television remains the most popular medium in the covered countries, other, more surprising, findings also came out.
According to the 98-page report, a majority of those questioned were optimistic about the Internet as a source of information and learning while just under half thought the optimism translated into an ability to have greater influence in politics and government policies. The responses of those surveyed about Internet regulation revealed some ambivalence about free electronic expression.
“While most respondents feel people should be able to state their opinions online no matter what those opinions may be, they also express caution about using the Internet to speak frankly about political affairs or public issues,” the report said. “Adding to this apparent paradox is the fact that many—including younger adults—say that they would like to see more regulation of the Internet.”
Everette Dennis, dean of Northwestern University in Qatar and a co-author of the study, said he was most surprised by this paradox, as well as by the perception that the quality of journalism has improved across the region. The reasons for the perceived improvement were unclear, but the assumption is that it is to some extent linked to the Arab Spring, Dennis said.
“This has provided us with a textbook on freedom of expression,” Dennis said.
“This is useful for us in our deliberation and discussions with students and it’s useful in public meetings and conferences to simply raise questions about media law, censorship, freedom of expression,” he said. “It has real value over the long haul and we want to keep doing it.”
In order to conduct research in Qatar, the university altered wording of some of the questions at the request of the Qatar Statistics Authority. The changes, which were explicitly noted in the final report, drew criticism this year from The Northwestern Chronicle, a student newspaper that questioned the feasibility of independent research in Qatar.
One statement, for example, that measured attitudes toward politics and the World Wide Web, was altered to change “political affairs” to “public issues,” in Qatar. And a question about general sentiment in regard to the direction of the country—to get a sense of how optimistic or pessimistic respondents were about their country’s future—was not asked at the request of the Qatar Statistics Authority, the study said.
James Bell, director of international survey research at the Pew Research Center, said the issue isn’t exclusive to Qatar. Political and cultural sensitivities influence what—or how—survey questions are asked in various countries.
“You do see this in other countries and different parts of the world,” Bell said. “And it’s an important consideration and it’s challenging, especially when you’re involved in cross-national survey work.”
“On one hand you want to have, as much as possible, precisely the same questions in each country so you can directly compare results,” he said, “but there is this factor of political and cultural sensitivities.”
Decisions about survey questions have to, in part, be about the integrity of the study, Bell said. “What is it you are trying to research and report on and do these changes mean that you can continue to do that as originally planned? Do you have to make a modification? Do you have to leave a certain country out in certain cases when you do analysis?”
“Or is the situation such that the sensitivities are so intense around the topic and that topic is so central to what you are trying to do as a researcher, do you need to potentially say: We can’t do this at this time in this country.”
Dennis, at Northwestern University, said the changes in the survey didn’t alter the meanings or prevent the study’s authors from asking what they wanted to ask. “We had felt that if we were requested to do anything that would have impaired our survey or in any way caved to some kind of governmental directive, we wouldn’t have done it,” he said.