With limited freedom, Egyptian papers bait readers with sensational stories

With the abolition of the council and its replacement by the National Press Commission in 2016, criteria for evaluating newspaper violations have changed.
Friday 27/12/2019
An Egyptian reads a newspaper in the neighbourhood of El-Gamaliah in Cairo. (AP)
Problem of credibility. An Egyptian reads a newspaper in the neighbourhood of El-Gamaliah in Cairo. (AP)

CAIRO - Egyptian media seem not to resist the temptation of sensationalism as they focus on shocking crimes and celebrity scandals.

That's the way some Egyptian online publications are trying to attract readers after having failed to stay on the list of the top 100 sites for online news browsing.

Homepages of some online news outlets are rife with headlines and “click-bait” phrases such as “Check it out,” “18+,” “For adults only” and “Look inside.” To harvest the maximum number of online visitors, these publications never forget to push -- again and again and all day long -- active links to sensational stories on social media.

Mohamed Shouman, dean of the Faculty of Communication and Mass Media at the British University in Cairo, said: "The absence of freedom of opinion and expression is behind the increase in sensational contents of newspapers and their news websites because of their inability to deal with political or economic issues seriously or to try to present different and original content.

“Because of the imposed one-way policy in dealing with serious topics, we find similar content in all newspapers, devoid of pluralism and opposing opinions.”

The op-ed pages of some newspapers show a noticeable shrinkage of space devoted to debate. Even conservative contributors are writing about personalities in art and culture during the bygone golden age of Egyptian culture.

Others are content with writing summaries of main events of the day with no comment or opinion. A third category simply reported on their private lives to the point that one well-known political commentator found nothing better to write on than to devote two articles to discussing soup.

Much of the public find news sites’ reliance on sensationalism in the age of advanced technology trivial. They ridicule webmasters who act as though simply publishing a sensational picture or video clip will control readers’ selections and ability to search for better content.

Egyptian newspaper recently mobilised an army of paparazzi, placing them in luxury hotels and chic wedding halls or wherever they can catch pictures of celebrities that can be used sensationally. They dig for novel love relations between celebrities or capture the faces of retired artists and politicians to show the effects of aging and changing tides on their former projects.

Shouman said: "This phenomenon is consistent with a complex crisis in the Egyptian press.

“There is a shortage of well-trained media people and financial weakness also undermines newspapers’ ability to attract professionals capable of presenting innovative content and ideas outside the box. So administrators resort to practising yellow journalism and focusing on trivia.”

He pointed out that, unlike the Egyptian media, popular media elsewhere deals with crime stories with some degree of depth and analysis. In the Egyptian media, crime pages simply report accidents and crimes. They are devoid of comment or interviews or in-depth analyses of the psychological and social dimensions of criminal behaviour. The overwhelming feature of these pages is superficiality and very often the headlines have nothing to do with the stories.

An editor of an online news magazine -- who declined to be named -- said sensational headlines and stories do pay off. An examination of the most-read stories during any given day reveals that sensational stories with gory or enticing pictures are among the “most viewed” pages, surpassing serious content that the newspaper offers online. “This is what the public wants” is the new motto of online news magazines.

The editor said the goal justifies the means. If the goal is to attract viewers to raise the site's ranking -- thus satisfying the wishes of advertisers -- serious content becomes the last thing on the minds of editors and webmasters.

Getting that kind of attention is unlike political focus, which inevitably leads to clashes with officials, or religion, which is like a beehive -- touch it and you’re immediately stung. The smart journalist is one who delivers exciting content without getting mired in legal suits.

The Supreme Press Council of Egypt had waged war on yellow journalism by publishing reports that assess newspapers in terms of spreading fake news, insulting religion, focusing on the private lives of public figures, spreading misinformation and superstition, using misleading headlines, and discriminating against minorities. These reports are barometers, indicating to readers the degree of credibility of the print media.

With the abolition of the council and its replacement by the National Press Commission in 2016, criteria for evaluating newspaper violations have changed to include mixing advertisement with editing, inciting hatred, disrespect for differing opinions, accusing people of treason and insulting other peoples and using poor Arabic.