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Feb. 27, 2012, 10 a.m.

Wadah Khanfar: A look inside Al Jazeera and the Arab media

In a talk at MIT, the former director general of Al Jazeera discusses how the network covered the Arab Spring and how it brought social media into its coverage.

As we mentioned last week, we were very excited to see Wadah Khanfar, former leader of Al Jazeera, come to MIT to give a talk on Friday. He spoke about both the wave of revolutions in the Arab world and the role of his network — now a global player — in the events of the Arab Spring. The video’s above; after his remarks, he has a discussion on stage with MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman and Joi Ito along with Mohamed Nanabhay of Al Jazeera English, followed by Q&A.

Nieman Fellow David Skok Storified the event, and a group of smart MITers kept a live transcript of the evening. A few of the highlights (noting that these are from a quick audience transcript, not word-for-word quotes:

It’s impossible for a network that has 3-4 correspondents to cover [the Arab Spring]. We started, but were overwhelmed by social networks who were feeding thousands of video clips, pictures, through the system. Now, you’re an experienced professional journalist with strong credentials: suddenly you’re beaten by people without experience or prestige, who are more free than you, just feeding immediate news through social networks. You’re no longer breaking news to anyone. So this was the challenge: to inject within the newsrooms, this newcomer, the youth, and consider whether this might introduce innacuracy to the newsroom. We had a big debate in the newsroom over what to do.

Now, Mubarak chose to kick out Jazeera, kick out correspondants, shut down newsroom, turn off cameras. So the decision was made for us: we had no choice but to carry information from social networks. So we took this on, and it turned out not to be a chllange or threat, but one of the most beautiful moments in the history of journalism: a moment when a new ecosystem had emerged. Prior to that, every meeting that I took part in with editors was about the threat of social networks. After that, the paradigm shifted.

When a network like Al Jazeera carries a story from social networks, it gains visibility and credibility. When people with no internet access see the story on Jazeera, they take it seriously and go down and join the youth in their protests. […]

There’s a model of social networks: flat, creative, dynamic; and then there’s a model that has priorities, delivery in a certain format. Each is necessary in certain circumstances. How can we take the spirit of networks, and the spirit of the organization, planning, and priorities, that can serve democracy? This is not a challenge for Arab countries: it’s a challenge for the world! In a moment when everyone wants to know how the economy can serve our interests, everyone is trying to answer this.

He also addresses criticism that Jazeera’s coverage is sometimes warped in favor of its Qatari ownership. It’s a compelling talk — give it a listen.

POSTED     Feb. 27, 2012, 10 a.m.
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