Research: “The Vast and the Curious: teaching investigative journalism in a diverse Dubai”


This is a research paper that was presented at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference 2017 Academic Track, which IJEC organized and covered. For more research and coverage of GIJC17, see here.





The Vast and the Curious: teaching investigative journalism in a diverse Dubai



By Yasmine Bahrani, M.A., and Bradley Freeman, Ph.D.




There is a growing recognition that the field of journalism (and journalism education) is moving towards a more ‘globalized’ model. Indeed, as Goodman and Steyn reported in their 2017 study, many educators are preparing their students for a more cosmopolitan outlook and a wider cultural and linguistic perspective. Though the global flow of news and information has shifted only slightly in the past few years, the increase in mass communication programs in higher education across the globe is rising. With an education-based journalism curriculum, students are being trained with the tools and techniques of all levels of the trade. Overall, the changes give attention to the concept of ‘global journalism’, which arguably finds no better place of practice than Dubai. In addition to being one of the most popular tourist destinations, Dubai also has become a desirable place for people to study and work.

At the American University in Dubai (AUD), students from varied countries and cultures enroll in the Mohammed Bin Rashid School of Communication (MBRSC) to learn the trade of journalism. The students hail from such varied backgrounds as Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Russia, Nigeria, Pakistan, France, Italy, Sweden, and others. AUD’s journalism program is thus part of a ‘global journalism’ trend by the very nature of its geographical location, the diverse city population, and in particular the university’s diverse student body. MBRSC’s journalism program reflects these realities and might be said to offer a good example of ‘globalized’ journalism education. This paper details the story how the journalism school came to be, the basic philosophies of the professional journalism lecturers, and highlights four student reports, introduced as case studies, into the practice of one style of journalism that of investigative reporting in Dubai.

What the paper sets out to do is to explain how MBRSC teaches, in English and in Arabic, investigative journalism in a place like Dubai where challenges include the country’s respect for privacy, and the absence of a tradition of access to a subject’s personal, residential, and work history or filling out Freedom of Information Act forms – matters that are readily available in the West. MBRSC journalism professors apply what are believed to be universal practices in journalism. The students are offered the chance to know and understand Western-style journalism, but they often  end up practicing a hybridized model, a more ‘globalized’ model, which incorporates aspects form their background and upbringing.

Many of our program’s graduates go on to work as journalists and editors and the like at the following employers in the UAE: The Middle East Broadcasting Group (MBC), Al-Arabiyah News Channel, CNN Arabic, Abu Dhabi Media (ADM), Bloomberg, ITP, Al-Khalijiyya Channel, Al-Hayat Newspaper, Al-Sayegh Media, Bell Pottinger Middle East, Emaar Retail Group, and Gulf News.


Journalism as an Academic Discipline

Depending on which sources one examines, the dates for when separate journalism programs came to higher education varies. Much of what has been written on this subject comes from Western scholars, thus we know for example that France had a journalism program in the early 1900s, while the University of London offered a diploma in journalism as early as 1919 (Martin, 1948). Many of the world’s top schools for journalism today would like to claim the title of being one of, if not, the first school(s) to offer a degree in journalism. In the United States, Columbia University, the University of Missouri, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison all have a claim to being the country’s first ‘J-School.’ Around the world today, each country has a school or two with claims to being the first or best ‘J-School;’ proud to count famous journalists among their respected alumni. But of course, journalism (in its many forms) was being practiced far earlier than any of the educational programs that eventually came to the universities.

Students of journalism today are often familiar with the ‘paths’ that journalism has taken over the years. These paths vary from country to country. In the United States, early partisanship in newspapers and journalism gave way to penny papers and yellow journalism. In magazines, ‘muckraker’ Ida Tarbell became one of the most famous journalists for her investigative skills at McClure’s Magazine around the turn of the Nineteenth and Twentieth centuries.  Eventually, by the middle of the twentieth century to be sure, journalistic objectivity became the norm to which many American journalists aspired. Whether or not this is still the case, or the degree to which it is the case, is up for discussion and debate. Yet, without going fully into it, it is arguably the case that journalism schools still teach this neutral, objective philosophy as primary in their classes.

In the United States, investigative journalism has a long history. Indeed as far back as 1902-1903, the aforementioned Ida Tarbell profiled John D. Rockefeller and the fabled Standard Oil Company, which later in 1911 meant the U.S. Supreme Court found the company to be in violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, ordering the breakup of Standard Oil. Since that landmark case there have been many noteworthy examples, including The Pentagon Papers, Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate investigation that led to the 1974 resignation of President Nixon. More recently the Washington Post and Guardian have reported on NSA surveillance, which led to Edward Snowden’s exile in Moscow. Over the years, investigative journalism has come a long way, and it has changed a great deal.


Journalism Program at the American University in Dubai (AUD)

The Journalism Program at AUD was established only in 2008, one of the first of its kind in the country, as part of the Mohammed Bin Rashid School for Communication (MBRSC), which also includes another program called DPST – Digital Production & Storytelling. The school is named after the current Prime Minister of the UAE and ruler of Dubai H. H. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum. The school is accredited by the ACEJMC (Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communications), SACS (Southern Association of Colleges and Schools), and CAA (UAE’s Commission for Academic Accreditation). Each year, the program is reviewed by an International Advisory Board that includes administrators from University of Southern California (USC). The school generally follows an American Curriculum that was developed in consultation with faculty at the Annenberg School at USC. We say generally, because though we are the “American” University, we do also take into consideration our unique geographic locale when developing and teaching the courses. There are now several other schools in the UAE that offer undergraduate and graduate degrees in mass communication fields, including Zayed University and UAE University.

The MBRSC Journalism Program takes in around 15 to 20 majors each year, with a total cohort of around 60 to 70 students in any given year period. The students come from all over Asia. It is fair to say that the majority of students are Muslims, and this is worth noting with regard to how this may influence their scholastic endeavors. There is an English and an Arabic track for the major in journalism. The Mohammed Bin Rashid Foundation provides scholarships for students who have excelled academically in secondary school to attend the MBRSC. Students also minor in journalism, so each class may contain students from engineering or business, for example, though the majority tend to be journalism majors. Students are taught writing, editing, reporting, and other technical skills in order to become the region’s journalists of tomorrow. The program encourages them to become generalists. That is, they are advised to follow the news and be familiar with as many stories as there are out there to follow, in order to take any journalism job upon graduation whether it be in sports, or business, entertainment, or international news.

The program comprises several courses, including a class that deals chiefly with learning the skills of investigative journalism. Students who, of course, are not yet professionals are taught basic skills to conduct journalistic investigations. While students are expected to uncover something new that was not previously known, what they expose is not expected to result in the resignation of a president or anything that dramatic. The students understand that we expect them to raise awareness and widen the discussion about the matter they chose to investigate.

Though the students are instructed chiefly in what we can call Western-style journalism, meaning they are encouraged to focus on balance, objectivity, and impartiality, they often independently combine this newly learned style of journalism with their own ‘flavor’ if you will that often follows a distinctive Islamic world view and reflects their upbringing in Dubai. That is to say, they are from the region, and many have lived for years in Dubai, as such they bring this background and experience into their studies and their journalistic pieces. This also means that rankings of the country by various outside bodies rarely affects how they approach their learning and assignments. The United Arab Emirates, which includes Dubai, ranks 119 out of 180 in a recent ‘Reporters Without Borders’ listing. That puts the UAE ahead of Singapore (151) as well as Nigeria, Qatar, Indonesia, Jordan, Iraq, Cuba, and North Korea. But the UAE is behind South Africa, which is 31 out of 180, and the U.S., which ranks at 43. These rankings generally don’t mean very much to the students, not least of which because they are still students, but also because the rankings are perceived, perhaps rightly so, as western-oriented and conducted by people who know little of the region.


Journalism and Education Over the Years

One could explain journalism in a place like Dubai in simplistic terms. For example, traditionally journalists who work within constrained systems practice self-censorship “[r]ather than risk being charged with defamation or breaking the country’s criminal laws on permissible speech,” according to Duffy (2010, p. 33).

Duffy’s analysis addresses the situation in Singapore. This description does not of course match exactly the situation in the UAE. Rather, journalism in Dubai might best be described as appropriate to the location. Journalists from such outfits as CNN, Reuters, and Bloomberg have said nobody has ever asked nor compelled them to refrain from reporting a story. Though some might speak of certain limits, others say that journalism here follows Islamic principles. Some might worry that these principles might differ from western ones, but they are in fact very similar. The principles of Islamic journalism are — commitment to truth, commitment to inform or notify, security (as in keeping the anonymity of sources,) and commitment to doing what is in the best public interest.  The last one might raise some questions regarding whose decision it is whether the government knows best or the journalists know what’s best for the public good. However, as explained by scholars (Muchtar, et al., 2017), these principles stem from what the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said, which makes these principles suitable for Dubai. The authors argue that faith plays a role in reporting in Muslim majority nations.

Sometimes restrictions on journalism lead to objections, and other times they do not. The Singapore-based Duffy (2010) wrote that sadly few cared about press freedom because the everyday work of getting rich or just getting on was the focus of the lives of most citizens. Duffy also addressed journalism education when he said that most of class time is devoted to teaching theory and practical skills and that textbooks are primarily from the United States and the United Kingdom. Further, English-educated people tend to favor a more adversarial approach to covering the government whereas the Chinese-educated readers tend to favor retaining and supporting good government.

These developments, where citizens became less concerned with press freedom and more concerned with making money and getting ahead, were also addressed by Willnat, Weaver, and Choi (2012). The scholars found that reporters in such countries as Malaysia were not as involved in the idea of the  journalist in the role of a “watch dog” as westerner journalists were. The article echoed the results of Donsbach (2010), which included the journalists’ belief that among their responsibilities is the “adversarial” role. Donsbach’s study, though it did not include Middle Eastern reporters, did focus on the impact of various influences on the journalist. The study looked into the system, the organization, the group, and the individual, all of which affect reporters worldwide. An examination of Donsbach’s study shows that it may very well apply to the Gulf region in the sense that the Islamic approach to journalism plays a role in the daily work of the reporter.

Another study looked at the same matter. As mentioned, Muchtar (et al., 2017) said Islamic principles also play a role, though not the only one, in the work of the Muslim reporter. The principles of truth, moderation, notification, and best interest might be guiding ones but they are not alone. The authors found that self-censorship and restrictions in the newsroom also played a role in Muslim-majority countries. The article gave the examples of Sudan where the regime uses the press as a tool for political mobilization of popular support while implementing censorship and tight control over the media, and Qatar where the government pays for Al-Jazeera’s operating costs. Another study examining the traits and values of journalists in Qatar found that some 90% of the media workers were “expatriates from Arab and Asian countries” (Kirat 2016, p. 171). The same study indicated common criticisms of journalism as “too often being viewed as a megaphone and a spokesperson for the government, concentrating too much on routine government activities” (p. 171).

AUD’s student body is largely Muslim, as are the journalists in the region. Pintak and Ginges (2010) reported the same in their study of Journalists in the Middle East. As did Kirat (2012) in Journalists in the United Arab Emirates of the same book. That is, Kirat found that reporters in the UAE are often Muslims from other Arabic-speaking countries. Kirat also found that only 20 percent of journalists were female. The work of AUD professors might have an impact on the demographics because the majority of students at the MBRSC, at this time, are female. Meaning the ratio of male to female journalism professional is likely to change in the future once these students graduate.

There are other influences at play. Sakr (2016) wrote about Media ‘Globalisation’ in the Arab Middle East, and her examples included the recruitment of U.S. universities to teach journalism and media studies in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Sakr suggests that the role of the professors in the Gulf goes beyond simple education. Rather, Sakr says, journalism professors are hired by Gulf universities to advance a sense of the globalization of journalism studies in the countries, following a western style. Sakr wrote: “In Arab Gulf states, unlike those on the Mediterranean, public policy advocacy by non-government actors is extremely rare. Any such activity that exists requires the direct patronage of ruling elites. Instead, globalization of media institutions and journalistic practices is apparent in business deals.” (p. 177). Utilizing Kovach and Rosenthiel’s (K&R) ‘Principles of Journalism,’ M. Duffy (2013) examined UAE newspapers to see what style of journalism was prevalent. The study indicated that the English-language paper was following the K&R Principles more so than the Arabic language paper.

Several scholars have commented that there are universal truths to reporting, editing, and writing. These universal techniques and approaches are included in the MBRSC courses. For example, our students are told that they must check everything before they go to press or broadcast the report. The old saying of “if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out” is regularly repeated to the students.

Still, investigative journalism itself has changed. Lowenstein (2017) in the Columbia Journalism Review said that the gold standard used to be the indictment of an elected official, or a lawsuit filed on behalf of vulnerable citizens. But today, there is a shift, according to the CJR, driven in part by the increased online presence of readers, placing greater emphasis on less tangible markers such as raising awareness and sparking widespread conversation. They gave examples of coverage contributing to awareness among area residents about the presence of pesticides in local water and the such.



The students were asked to write investigative articles of about 2,000 words, and they followed the guidelines. The participants, who hail from such varied backgrounds as Russia, Pakistan, Sweden, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt, sought to raise awareness and spark conversation as was described in the aforementioned CJR piece. The assignment was a graduation project, or as we say, a Capstone project, the students were to go off and do investigative pieces in Dubai. The instructions were that they had to uncover something new, not known before, as is the definition of an investigative piece, and they had to follow the basic requirements of research, background information, facts, and figures, and they had to interview human sources. They also were to do their best to be impartial. Among the challenges was reaching officials. It is difficult for any young person to get an interview with a government functionary, and in Dubai, the situation is no different. The students had the additional hurdle of language skills. That is, AUD includes courses in English while most of the students are not native speakers of the language. And, though English is widely spoken in Dubai, the official language is Arabic, and most government officials prefer to speak in Arabic.

As was mentioned earlier because they are training to becomes reporters, the students had to find the story themselves, research the topics selected, and they were asked to go out and interview people for the articles. During the writing process, the students consulted the professors, who looked for unanswered questions and gaps in the information required to be in the story.



The students met the conditions as evidenced by the articles they wrote. They were each able to expose something, be objective, be accurate, and they met the requirements of the assignment. In other words, while they followed the demands of Western journalism, they also were successful Muslim journalists who followed the Islamic principles of truth, notification/information, and they followed the third principle, which is what’s best for the public interest. In this case it means knowing the truth as something beneficial to the public. Working within the culture and respecting its boundaries, the students were still able to produce successful projects.

In case number one a student from Jordan and one from Lebanon worked in tandem. From their report about mental illness and how unprepared parents are for dealing with their children’s conditions: “Optimism may be all over headlines in the United Arab Emirates, but behind closed doors, mental illnesses are roaming the area, increasingly and discretely destroying lives. Like any place else, individuals in the UAE live with the constant trial of emotional well-being, however, there is frequently a hesitance all through the Arab world to seek help. In an area where development and improvement have become pandemic, it may come as a huge surprise that many are suffering from the inability to receive proper mental health care. The United Arab Emirates, an Arabian landmass encompassing seven sheikhdoms, is positioned 21st in world population growth. The number of inhabitants in the UAE is 9.346 million, with an expansion of 2.71 percent every year. According to the American Psychology Association, “Despite the population boom, there are concerns that mental health services and the general field of psychology have not matched the country’s expansion, with a resulting increase in the level of unmet need.” The students were able to expose the scarcity of mental health practitioners in the UAE.

In case number three, a Russian student looked into supermarket price trickery where the price advertised is different from the one that is rung up at the cash register: “The problem with controlling ‘fake’ promotions is in inability or unwillingness of customers to go and complain. According to the inspector’s observations, many people think that the sum they got cheated is not so big to spend time on going to Municipality. As already was mentioned above, the poll tells that the majority of people do not even know that complaint procedure can take much less time and can be done online.”

A Jordanian student in case number two looked at the luxury shops and found: Customers who feel rejected at high-end brands become more willing to make a purchase. From their assignment, “It appears that snobbiness might actually be a qualification worth considering for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton or Gucci,” says Sauder Marketing Professor Darren Dahl.”

Students in case number four, a student from Egypt and one from Pakistan worked as a team. They looked at the role culture plays in the early deaths of women with breast cancer in the region; “‘There is a stigma of breast cancer in the Middle East,’ says Dr. Sama Zibdeh, a consultant breast surgeon at Emirates Hospital in Dubai. “It comes from upbringing and false myths planted for ages in this culture. The breast is a sensitive feminine organ and it symbolizes for less educated women what defines them as worthy individuals, wives, or mothers in a masculine society.” The students on this case also were able to expose the scarcity of female physicians who specialize in this matter.

Students in the Jordanian-Lebanese case found that culture and society continue to play a role in the fate of mentally unwell patients. Their report included very frank discussions with families: “‘Hala was 16 when she first attempted suicide, an age when most teenagers are going through very drastic changes in their lives and are, therefore, increasingly dramatic,’ explained Lina Al Assi, Hala’s mother. ‘I was very angry and I told her not to ever do it again. I guess I refused to give it attention because I just thought she was too young to be taking death that seriously’… ‘ It just did not make sense to me that a young teenager even thought about these things,’ added Mrs. Al Assi. Mr. Nabil Al Assi, Hala’s father, said, ‘My wife and I were raised in a time and place where worries were only valid when it came to war and death. I didn’t know what depression was until my daughter experienced it, and to this day we both are confused about its root and validity.’”

The Jordanian student in case number two wrote about the marketing techniques of high-end shops selling luxury items: “Low self-esteem according to researchers is a huge factor that plays in when purchasing luxury goods, especially when consumers are less likely to afford it. For consumers as such, a luxury good can increase self-esteem and give a sense of belonging rather than feel socially rejected.”

The Russian case the student wrote that shops may well overcharge customers, but clients also play a role: “The problem with controlling ‘fake’ promotions is in inability or unwillingness of customers to go and complain. According to the inspector’s observations, many people think that the sum they got cheated is not so big to spend time on going to Municipality. As already was mentioned above, the poll tells that the majority of people do not even know that complaint procedure can take much less time and can be done online.”

The UAE has an office to combat such market practices: “Our reporters contacted DED, Consumer Protection Department and got an official response by senior inspector Manal Yousuf Mohammad Abdulla on how supermarkets trick their customers. For example, she provided an example, which she constantly meets during inspection practice. As an anonymous buyer, she visits one branch of popular supermarket chains. The condition for this buying was that Mrs. Yousuf is the first customer on the first day of starting promotion.”

In the Egyptian-Pakistani story, the students wrote about personal responsibility: “ ‘Women tend to wait longer for various emotional and cultural reasons before they get breast lumps checked,’ elaborates Dr. Nader Salti, a general surgeon at American Hospital in Dubai. Additionally, many women are in denial and too afraid to discuss lumps with their family and friends, which frequently leads to delay in urging them to see a doctor and ultimately death.”



All in all, the students were able to take the tools and techniques that were taught in class and merge them with their own philosophies to create good investigative reports. Certainly, there were challenges. For example, learning about investigative journalism in the United States, students are taught to go downtown to the courthouse and dig up the dockets and read what transpired during the trial of the person investigated. Students learn how to fill out Freedom of Information Act requests and wait for the results for the investigation when the story calls for it. Neither of these things is available in a place like Dubai, and so professors have to work around these differences. Still, these students succeeded in their projects.

The results appear to show an overlap of Western and Islamic styles, a hybridized, more globalized form, if you will. In addition to following the path of Western journalism, the students applied the Islamic principles of truth, moderation, notification, and best interest in their projects, as described by Muchtar (et al., 2017). In searching for the truth in the project, the students followed the Western idea of accuracy. In searching for moderation in the investigation, the students matched that with the Western idea of objectivity. The idea of notification is the same as the general reporting the news to the audience, and finally, the best interest of the public is demonstrated in the “news you can use” idea.

The students who did stories that are “news you can use,” such as the case of the Russian student’s grocery investigation, met the requirements of both Western and Islamic styles of journalism. Perhaps businessmen did not want their customers to know they were being taken advantage of, but the UAE government made its people available to the student who uncovered the discrepancy. The student in case number three wrote about how at several supermarkets in Dubai and its neighboring Emirate, Sharjah, the price listed on the shelf is different from what gets rung up at the cash register. The UAE does not want its residents to be taken advantage of at the grocery store, and case number three had little trouble finding people to interview. The Jordanian student’s sales technique story is especially useful in Dubai where luxury is a way of life for so many. The student found that the snobbish approach of talking down to customers, in many cases, sells more products. The student researched marketing studies that showed that this is, in fact, a legitimate marketing technique, and she interviewed business owners who agreed that the system works. Students in case number four addressed the taboo subject of breast cancer. What they found is the discomfort in talking about it ultimately means more women in the region are dying early because of the taboo. The students addressed the cultural reasons that women avoid examination because most doctors are men, and once they get diagnosed, many patients accept their fate and don’t bother with treatment either because they believe they deserve it or it is written that they must die. And finally, students in case number one reported on another taboo subject where people suffer as a result of lack of information, this time about mental health. The students interviewed kids who were suicidal and their parents who said they did not know how to handle depressed children. The article mentioned the lack of facilities that address such mental illnesses as depression, anorexia, and other conditions that affect young people. Part of the reason is that the community does not wish to acknowledge such illnesses as they are seen as a sign of weakness or failure on the family’s part. And as a result, few such professionals are available to treat the patients.

Upon classroom reflection following their work, the students expressed confidence in their accomplishments. They learned to conduct investigations and write about them. In this way, they are more prepared to work in a professional environment where they might investigate more challenging stories.

In our program, in addition ot teaching practical skills, there also is a focus on theory. Professors explain to students the different schools of thought regarding journalism, and they make sure that the students know how to report and write properly. Critics might say they believe journalists are barred from doing proper work in the UAE. But while in Dubai there is no clearly stated limit on press freedom, however, there is an understood barrier to certain expressions. Whenever we have asked professionals at CNN, Reuters, Bloomberg, and others, about their work, they have told us nobody has ever asked them not to print or broadcast a story or any item of news. But a Bloomberg journalist said they know not to write about the royal family, and he added that they have no interest in covering the royals. Having said that, it’s still important to note that during the recent Gulf crisis, certain channels, namely Al-Jazeera, have been removed from our cable selection.

We certainly agree that the principles of truth telling, moderation, and informing the public are important, but the maslahah (i.e., public interest) might have a few interpretations. Our students agree that what’s best for the public is to be told the truth. To others it means journalists must seek what’s best for the public interest. It is certainly not unique to the UAE, many countries, including the US controls information in certain situations, such as times of war, because it believes it has the best interest of the public in mind.

Some of our best students have gone on to Masters’ programs in the US and the UK, others have gone into Public Relations (it pays better!). Some have gone to work at CNN Arabic and BBC Arabic where they are just starting out. In other words, they have not yet engaged in professional investigative journalism. Bottom line is we do our best to teach the students Western style journalism techniques along with local-specific guidelines, which gives them the tools and critical thinking skills to decide how to best incorporate these ideals into practice after graduation.





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