18 Days: Al Jazeera English and the Egyptian Revolution recounts the intense two and half weeks of public protests that let to end of President Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade long rule. In the middle of it all, a fledgling news network took the global stage and transformed from a falsely-labeled “terror network” into a respected, exclusive-breaking platform of journalism. Scott Bridges’ new book anecdotes the day-to-day affairs Al Jazeera English experienced as he and his fellow journalists risked their safety to break exclusive news and interviews no other network could provide.
I was fortunate to have the chance to ask Bridges a few questions about his book and his thoughts on the evolution (and possible future) of the craft. Let’s get to it.
What inspired you to write this book?
I had a feeling, during the time everything was happening, that all of this was going to be significant; not only for the country, but for AJE and everything going forward. Some of the people I worked with at the time encouraged me to write the book, as we were all sharing a similar sentiment.
Given the rapid evolution Al Jazeera English has experienced in the short time since the Egyptian Revolution, do you think it has had any impact or effect on the practice of journalism and news gathering for Al Jazeera? Do you think new methods of news gathering are more effective than traditional beat reporting?
The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 changed AJE. The experience of covering the story, and also the increased focus that reporting brought to bear on the channel, left its mark. AJE applied the lessons it learned in Egypt to the other “Arab Spring” conflicts throughout 2011 and beyond. Not just with respect to newsgathering, but also regarding how to report that news to a global 24hr television audience.
While most of AJE’s correspondents who were in Egypt for the Revolution were either Egyptian or of Egyptian heritage, and therefore had a deeper knowledge of the story’s context, many were still “parachuted” in. Only Ayman Mohyeldin was a regular Egyptian correspondent at the time. But no matter how important social media and other “new” forms of journalism are, nothing beats boots on the ground. And preferably boots belonging to a journalist with a real understanding of the story, the context, the region etc.
Is the danger you write about as threatening as it is displayed on most networks, or was there a degree of sensationalism added as news was breaking?
While a lot of footage was rehashed and edited from the same few events, the danger was very real. Much of what my colleagues experienced was never caught on camera, but it was close to a lot of the riots and police activity. Some of the harsher examples made it seem like holding a camera made you a target, and every day brought its own unique challenge.
You make mention of how social networking was a huge portion of the Revolution itself and how Al Jazeera English learned early on that such things like Fb or Twitter could be an effective lead, but not be news itself. Do you feel like other networks are relying too heavily upon social media for news gathering and reporting, or did Al Jazeera English prove that the resourcefulness outweighs the fodder?
Social media content can be extraordinarily powerful content for news organisations. But it requires an extraordinary amount of processing, meaning journalists’ time and, therefore, money. In order to have social media content serve your readers’/listeners’/viewers’ interests a lot of work needs to go into sifting, sorting, verifying, and putting into context. I do feel that some news organisations use social media content too lazily — dig up a few tweets, put them on screen — adding very little to their readers’/listeners’/viewers’ understanding of the story, and often only done so as to tick the “engaging on social media” box.
Currently, there are 3 Al Jazeera English reporters still in jail without promise of release; While threat of danger or incarceration is nothing new to Journalism, what has Al Jazeera English done to curb the risk of violence from their reporters? Do you think this risk will ever be reduced in such a chaotic and politically charged region?
Egypt is indeed a tricky environment to report in, where the risk to journalists is less violent and more political. That requires a non-traditional approach to security assessment. The situation is also highly dynamic which complicates matters further.
AJE’s managing director maintains that the channel constantly monitors its procedures for hostile operating environments and that the safety of staff is paramount. The channel reportedly put in place some extreme security measures in Libya in 2011. I think the arrest and jailing of the three men in Cairo will have significantly changed the channel’s approach to security assessment and decision making, though.
Finally, upon finishing your PhD research, do you think you will ever return to Al Jazeera’s Headquarters to continue reporting? Would you prefer to represent Al Jazeera English in another part of the world?
I enjoyed my time working for the organisation as a freelancer and found it professionally satisfying (and, obviously, it gave me valuable insights for my research) but I won’t return to work for Al Jazeera.