Is the boom in digital media too much of a good thing?
Rabat – Morocco has never had as many media outlets as it has today. The emergence of thousands of news platforms, mostly digital, is something to be celebrated. That is especially so in a country where the media scene was for decades dominated by the state-run television and radio company and a handful of newspapers acting as the mouthpieces of political parties.
But there are serious questions about how much this boom is affecting society, whether positively or negatively.
Around 2010 and 2011, digital outlets were making their baby steps. At the time, privately owned newspapers and magazines had long dethroned papers run by political parties. Private radio stations also added a flavor of diversity to the broadcast sector after decades of monopoly by the state.
Advances in technology; widespread access to the internet for Moroccans; and national and international political upheavals, especially the Arab Spring, helped online platforms to increasingly extend their share of the marketplace and paved the way for the birth of more outlets.
Remote and marginalized areas, long forsaken by subsequent governments and media which mostly reported on events in the big cities where they are located, got their own local media platforms.
Citizen journalism flourished. Ordinary people recorded what they witnessed and posted it online or cried out loud their grievances on YouTube or Facebook, often asking their countrymen to share their videos for awareness.
Moroccans, from all walks of life, have probably never consumed more news. People share, comment, react, and express their opinions freely about political, social, and economic issues in their country. Social media has given them a power never known before. Whenever there is a hot topic in Morocco, articles are written about how people are reacting to it on social media.
To get more readers and viewers to engage with their content, competition intensified between digital media outlets. Instead of the sometimes deliberate blackout of some sensitive issues by state-run media, as was the case with the months-long protests in the northern Rif region in 2016 and 2017, digital platforms were at the forefront.
Taking sensationalism to another level
All this leads one to believe that Moroccans are now more informed than ever before and that digital platforms have had a tremendous positive impact on society.
But, is that so?
One of the results of competition between digital outlets is a propensity to sensationalism. Sensational news has been the bread and butter of countless papers around the world, including Morocco. Still, online platforms have given it another dimension.
In the 1990s, the audience of such papers was limited due to high illiteracy among Moroccans or the fact that these newspapers were less popular than more established ones whose focus was more serious political and social issues.
“Serious” papers at the time, like Al Itihad Al Ichtiraki and Al Ahdath Al Maghribiya, sold thousands of copies thanks to sensational topics.
Al Itihad published graphic accounts of the sexual crimes of Mohamed Tabet, the infamous police officer who abused his power to rape women and recorded his crimes in sex tapes.
Al Ahdath’s “From Heart to Heart” section was a platform through which Moroccans expressed their emotional problems and sexual fantasies. The section was so controversial that many speculated some of what was published was not real but rather figments of the imagination of the newspaper’s reporters.
According to a study by the National Telecommunications Regulatory Agency (ANRT) published in September 2018, around 19.6 million people have smart phones that they use to access the internet.
When we look at the mounting trend in Moroccan digital media to publish sensational content, we understand that many people consume it.
As the economic model of digital media is based on the number of clicks these platforms get, which allows them to get advertisement, outlets understood that the shortest cut to more clicks is sensationalism.
The desire to be the first to snatch a soundbite whenever a scandal erupts or a crime happens leads these outlets to cross the lines of journalism ethics.
For the love of clicks
In late December 2018, Moroccans were appalled when an online platform posted an interview with a child describing how she found her mother decapitated.
Social media users could not understand how a little girl, already struck by the loss of her mother and seeing her body mutilated, could be interviewed in front of camera.
While the editor-in-chief of the outlet acknowledged the mistake and removed the video, the damage was already done. The child’s rights were violated. The video was seen by many. Others reposted it, which means that the harm will continue.
In November 2017, a high school student in Casablanca slashed his teacher’s cheek open after school. The incident was one in a series of violent incidents across the kingdom in which teachers or students were victims.
While it is clear nothing justifies the student’s crime, some digital outlets published sound-bites of his schoolmates, in which they blamed the teacher for what happened because she and her colleagues decided to transfer the student to another school.
The interviews with those teenagers, even though they did not bring any insight to the story, reflects these outlets’ propensity to spice things up whenever there is a similar incident of a widely-publicized act of violence.
This is exactly what some of those platforms did in August 2017 when six teenagers sexually assaulted a girl on a bus and filmed their crime. The media outlets added their own touch by interviewing people from the neighborhoods of the assaulters. The interviewees defended the assailants, saying they were “only having fun.”
In both incidents, the outlets chose sensational quotes from their interviews as their headlines. They did not take the trouble to make sure that such behavior, whether committing a crime or giving lame justifications for it, is not condoned.
This hardly seems an issue of freedom of opinion, too, as we were clearly dealing with cases of horrific violence. The way these media outlets published their videos and the fact that these were not isolated incidents give the impression that they do not care about the victims, freedom of expression, or, as a matter of fact, journalism ethics. All they seem to care about is more clicks.
Less quality, less respect
The boom in digital media led to the creation of countless platforms that hired un-trained, under-paid journalists who lack, according to professionals with more experience, the tools to produce good quality reporting.
There is much that can be said about the quality of language published on those platforms.
The increasing use of Darija (colloquial Moroccan Arabic) instead of Modern Standard Arabic in published content will only impoverish people’s vocabulary, especially the young generation, and will deprive them of tools that help them to read, digest, write, and discuss issues in the language of education and academia.
The quality of language in a good number of media outlets bears no resemblance to that used by political-leaning newspapers of the 1990s or some of today’s privately-owned papers and magazines.
Much also can be said about the videos posted by these outlets, from the poor quality of sound and light to editing or angles of filming.
In sum, whether we are talking about media ethics, the quality of language, or the professional and technical aspect of journalism, Moroccan digital platforms have a lot of work to do to step up to the occasion created eight years ago: That of building a more diverse, open, and highly informed society aspiring for more democracy.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Morocco World News’ editorial views.
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