Headlines and Hashtags: How Media Shape Society

NU-Q scholar’s research provides valuable insight into Arab world

By Anne SteinSeptember 18, 2017

Each year, in an unusual study that is the most comprehensive of its kind, 6,000 respondents in six Arab countries – Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Qatar, and the UAE — are surveyed about their media use, content preferences, and attitudes toward issues such as censorship, freedom of speech, and cultural preservation.

One facet that Justin Martin, journalism and strategic communication, enjoys most about the study, Media Use in the Middle East, now in its fifth year, is exploring findings that counter stereotypes.

“In the West, the Arab region is often viewed as a monolithic whole, but we see many significant differences between individual countries,” says Martin, who is associate professor in residence at Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q), and one of the study’s principal investigators. For example, Qatar has one of the world’s lower Facebook penetration rates — just 23 percent of Qatari internet users use Facebook —while in Tunisia the rate is 83 percent. “So you have two Arab countries often lumped together in discussions of an ‘Arab World,’ but whose citizens communicate in highly different ways.” 

The findings, which are posted online at mideastmedia.org, are one of the only sources of high quality, publicly available data on media use and political attitudes in the Middle East. Visitors to the site can filter survey results by country, gender, age, and other variables using customized interactive tools. The project is funded in part by a grant from the Qatar National Research Fund; a recent grant will support the study for another three years, through 2020. The study has also received generous support from the Doha Film Institute.

Among the social science indicators in the study are online political efficacy, perceptions of media credibility, and attitudes about media bias. In addition to news and information consumption generally, the study reports entertainment media use, including film, television, music, video games, and other digital media. Also considered are attitudes toward government regulation and benefits of consuming media from outside the Arab world.

Martin, who speaks multiple Arabic dialects, fell in love with the Middle East as a teenager when his father, a now-retired Presbyterian preacher, took Martin, his mother, and his sister to Egypt and Palestine. At age 21 he accompanied his father on a Middle East sabbatical and took summer classes in archaeology in Jerusalem.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology from High Point University and a master’s degree in mass communication from the University of Florida, Martin earned his doctorate in 2009 from the journalism school at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. With a Fulbright Scholarship year spent in Jordan, where he studied Arabic and reported for US newspapers and magazines, plus two years teaching at the American University in Cairo,  “I’ve spent much of my adult life in the Middle East, in Jordan, Egypt, and now Qatar,” he says.

“Justin’s expertise, enthusiasm, and personal experience have allowed him to make important contributions to the media scholarship that is at the heart of NU-Q,” says Klaus Schoenbach, senior associate dean. “What’s more, this research aligns well with Northwestern’s overall institutional commitment, including our focus on creating richer student learning experiences in a global context.”

At NU-Q, Martin teaches courses in data visualization, statistics, and enterprise reporting, using data from Media Use in the Middle East in his classroom. Professors around the world also use the online interactive in their courses on data visualization, journalism, communication, political science, and sociology.

“We’ve gotten great feedback on the online interactive data in terms of helping provide information to journalists, students, non-academics, scholars, and industry professionals,” Martin says. “There are film executives who use our entertainment data to make decisions on what movies are shown in theaters across the Arab region.” Businesses also refer to the findings to determine which social media platforms are most popular. He cites a talent agency that recruits actors and uses the data to best reach their targeted demographics in the six nations.

Another benefit of the study is that NU-Q students are involved in the research. “We have sit-downs with students and give them access to the questionnaire we’re going to field, and get their feedback,” he says. “Our students are experts on social media and we’ve made changes to the questionnaire based on perceptive insights from them.”

In addition, says Martin, when he conducts secondary analyses of the data for his journal articles, he often publishes with students. One example: Journalists and educators in the region have long claimed that book production and book reading in Arab countries are lower than in other regions of similar socioeconomic status, but this had not been tested using big data. Martin, along with two NU-Q undergraduates, found that Arabs in several countries rely less on print and e-books for information and entertainment than non-Arab expatriates living in those countries. They also found that using social media to gather information was a positive predictor of book reading, but posting information on social media sites was negatively correlated with book reliance. Social media in some Arab countries, then, may both encourage and inhibit book reading, depending on whether the applications are used to gather information or to just share it. Martin and his students presented the study at a 2016 conference in the United Kingdom and the article was published in August.

“It’s energizing to engage students,” says Martin. “Northwestern in general, and not just NU-Qatar, seems very good at getting undergraduates involved in research. The fact that we’re able to use NU-Q’s data to publish with undergrads in juried journals speaks to the quality of both our students and the quality of the research itself.”