Sourcing the Arab Spring

By Frank Radosevich
December 18, 2012

Finding the story of the Arab Spring—the popular uprisings of 2011 that unfurled across several countries in North Africa and the Middle East—wasn’t hard. Knowing how to report it was another matter.

That question led two Bradley professors and a student to collaborate on a study examining the online news coverage of the Arab Spring, specifically the early political revolutions that played out in Tunisia and Egypt.

Dr. Maha Bashri and Dr. Sara Netzley, both from the Department of Communication, analyzed reports from CNN and Al-Jazeera English with the help of Amy Greiner ’12, at the time a senior in public relations. The three women scoured the websites for news reports on the unrest and evaluated the sources and channels used by the broadcasters to report the story.

Their article, “Facebook Revolutions: Transitions in the Arab World, Transitions in Media Coverage?” was published in the latest edition of the Journal of Arab & Muslim Media Research, a peer-reviewed journal based in the U.K.

The study showed that CNN mainly used American officials and routine channels, such as government agencies and news conferences, to report on the Arab Spring while Al-Jazeera English mostly employed original interviews with Tunisian and Egyptian citizens. In total, the study examined 941 sources in 70 news stories from the two outlets.

The nature of the research required close collaboration between the trio, ensuring each news source found in a story was properly recorded.

“We wanted to make sure that everybody was coding the exact same thing and looking at it through the same lens,” Greiner said. “It could be tedious at times.”

Dr. Bashri said she was surprised by the findings. She said she expected CNN, a global news outlet, to have used more local, on-the-ground sources than what the researchers found.

“For such a big issue, I would have thought they [CNN] would have been more of a leading news network for the story,” she said.

In addition to being the lead author of the paper, Dr. Bashri later presented the study at a conference in Cambridge, Mass. The paper also was awarded an Honorable Mention Award at the Bradley Student Scholarship Exposition this year.

Greiner said she was honored to partner with Drs. Bashri and Netzley and added that she is now a shrewd reader of the news.

“It really allowed me to work at a more advanced level that no one could ever get inside a classroom,” she said. “It made me a more critical news reader as a whole.”

Both Drs. Bashri and Netzley said working with Greiner not only helped their research but furthered Bradley’s goal of encouraging joint research between faculty and students.

“I like it when we can do something that so inline with the University’s mission—that student and faculty collaboration—and accomplish something that is useful to a wide audience outside of the University,” Dr. Netzley said.