Since 2013, MESP is frequently solicited by the SKeyes Center for Media and Cultural Freedom at the Samir Kassir Foundation to monitor and evaluate Lebanese media’s coverage of the oil & gas sector and provide training sessions for journalists working on the sector. The media plays an important role in disseminating knowledge and in monitoring the government’s handling of the sector. But to do that, journalists must understand and have a good grasp of the sector. The objective of this regular monitoring is to identify the main challenges Lebanese journalists face when covering the sector and design training sessions to empower them.
In 2014, we released a first report after monitoring local media’s oil and gas production over a period of two months and a half. It was followed by a similar report in 2016, and a spotlight report in 2017 (targeting the media’s reaction to certain events). These reports were part of the project “Supporting Channels for Civic Engagement in the Management of the Lebanese Oil and Gas Sector” managed by the Samir Kassir Foundation with the support of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and in partnership with Middle East Strategic Perspectives (MESP).
The 2018 report is also a spotlight report (targeting the media’s coverage of certain oil and gas events or milestones). It is part of a project by SKeyes and the Lebanese Oil & Gas Initiative on “Enhancing Transparency and Accountability in the Oil and Gas Sector in Lebanon” funded by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
This is a spotlight media monitoring report, meaning that it looks at media coverage of specific events on specific dates. It is not a chronological monitoring report in the sense that it does not look at the coverage of the sector over an extended period of time, such as our 2014 and 2016 reports.
The fourth edition of our report focused on the media’s coverage of key events related to the Lebanese oil and gas sector in the past few months:
- The announcement of the results of the first licensing round on October 13, 2017.
- The Council of Ministers’ decision to approve awarding of exploration and production licenses on December 14, 2017.
- LOGI’s campaign on February 8, 2018.
- The Exploration and Production Agreement (EPA) signing ceremony on February 9, 2018.
For newspapers, the monitoring focused on their online news coverage on the day of the event and their first printed edition following the event.
For TV channels, we followed the 8-pm news bulletins on the day of the event and the following day.
Eleven media outlets – six newspapers and five TV channels – were monitored, and their production evaluated:
Newspapers: Al-Akhbar; Al-Jamhouria; Al-Mustaqbal; Annahar; L’Orient-Le Jour; The Daily Star.
TV Channels: Future TV; LBCI; MTV; New TV; OTV
The monitoring focused in particular on the:
- Frequency of reporting on the topic over the monitored time period;
- Accuracy of information;
- Reliability of sources;
- Topics covered; and
- Quality of investigations.
We proceeded differently depending on whether the media outlet was a newspaper or a TV channel. For newspapers, we monitored the “Local News” and “Economics” sections in their paper editions, in addition to their online coverage of the events we were interested in. For TV channels, we monitored the evening news for in-house reports on the oil and gas sector, as well as primetime political talk shows. The monitoring was conducted by watching uploaded segments on the channels’ websites and YouTube accounts.
MESP identified 12 topics thought to be the most relevant for media coverage:
- Politics (which includes news coverage and political debates related to oil and gas);
- Governance and Transparency;
- Tender Process;
- Civil Society;
- Economics, Finance and Markets;
- Security and Defense;
- Border Dispute;
- Exports and Imports.
Subjects outside these 12 topics were also noted when covered.
When spotted, factual errors were pointed out and explained. The same mistake repeated in the same story was only counted once. It should be noted that only factual mistakes that could be verified objectively were identified. Subjective statements or personal convictions were left out.
Since stories can cover several topics, Figure One’s numbers exceed the total number of stories evaluated during the monitoring period.
Given that this is a spotlight monitoring, extending over two or three days only (depending on the media outlet) around the four events we identified, and targeting the media’s reaction to these specific events, we were aware that (i) the overall number of in-house production would be limited (therefore would not allow to draw robust conclusions regarding the accuracy of a media outlet’s coverage) and (ii) the preferred type of reporting would be “news coverage”.
We were, therefore, more interested to see if media outlets went further in their reporting and offered additional input, providing further clarifications to the reader or audience, seeking to interview experts or presenting feature stories etc. And, when the type of reporting was “news coverage”, we were interested to see if media outlets limited their coverage to simply reporting the news or if they used the occasion to go further in their coverage by conducting interviews or explaining the topics they addressed. This explains why Figure Two’s numbers also exceed the total number of stories evaluated during the monitoring period.
Fifty-three stories were identified and evaluated during the monitoring period. These include 24 articles published in newspapers and 29 TV reports. A total of 55 errors were detected in these stories, an average of 1.03 errors per story. This is the highest average recorded since Skeyes and MESP started monitoring the media’s coverage of the oil and gas sector. In 2014 and in 2016, our extended monitoring covering the media’s production over two months and a half, revealed an average of 0.44 error and 0.74. The 2017 spotlight report is more comparable in nature because it only targeted the media’s reaction to a certain event (the cabinet’s approval of the two missing oil and gas decrees that were needed to restart the first offshore licensing round). In this 2017 report, we identified an average of 0.60 error per story.
Two-thirds of the stories grabbed – 36 out of 53 in total – fell under the “news coverage type”. The unusually high ratio was expected given that we opted for monitoring the media’s reaction to certain events. While this is the type of coverage journalists are more at ease with, given the limited additional input beyond covering the news, an average of 0.86 error per story was still identified in this category, a figure that is, however, below the overall average of 1.03 error per story. In contrast, stories that go beyond simply covering an event and where additional input is expected had a higher average error per story. For example, “feature stories” registered the highest number of errors with 2.25 error per story, followed by stories that featured “interviews” with experts and/or officials, with 1.57 error per story.
Looking into the type of reporting, and since we were interested to see if media outlets went further in their reporting than simply covering the news, we have identified eight feature stories, half of which were published by Annahar, followed by Aljamhouria with two. We were positively surprised by the high number of stories that included interviews – a total of 13 reports – all aired on TV channels. This does not mean that newspapers did not seek expert opinion, because they did on a large scale as the number of sources for newspaper indicates (60 sources overall, including 56 named and 4 unnamed), but they did not conduct full-fledged interviews over the monitored period. One program that stood out in this regard was LBCI’s Kalam Ennas, considered as the most popular political talk-show in Lebanon, which allocated a full episode to discuss oil and gas developments on December 14, the day the cabinet approved the awarding of exploration and production licenses to a consortium made up of France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek. In addition to the three guests the program hosted, seven contributors briefly joined the debate by phone for short interventions. The downside of having an extended discussion, over an hour and a half, is that the likelihood to make mistakes becomes greater. Eight mistakes were identified in this episode, the highest number of errors in a single production.
Topics covered were less varied this time, given the nature of the events we chose to monitor. Three events (out of a total of four) were directly related to the first offshore licensing round.
For the first time since launching this series of media monitoring of the sector, “Politics” is not the preferred topic for journalists and is not even among the top three. This is a revealing indicator because the process was mired with political deadlock since 2013, when the offshore bid round was first launched, a fact which directly affected the media’s coverage of the sector. Now that the sector is back on track and Lebanon is finally stepping into the implementation phase, the media has found more sector-related information and developments to feed on.
Unsurprisingly, the “Tender Process” came on top (40 stories out of 53 touched upon the subject). “Exploration”, which is directly related to the tender process, came in at a distant second place (22 stories). It was followed by “Governance and Transparency” (21 stories), a topic that has consistently ranked high in terms of the media interest when covering the sector, reflecting concerns about corruption and mismanagement in the sector. “Politics” is relegated to a fourth place (17 stories). “Legislation” came close behind (with 14 stories) and largely focused on the debate over establishing a Sovereign Wealth Fund and a national oil company. The “Maritime Border Dispute” was the sixth most addressed topic owing to the massive reaction in Lebanon to the provocative comments on Block 9 made by Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman ahead of the EPA signing ceremony.
Note that since stories can cover several topics, the overall numbers reported in this paragraph exceed the total number of stories evaluated during the monitoring period.
In the 53 stories grabbed and evaluated during the monitoring period, we identified 55 errors. These errors were made in 28 stories, which means that around half of the stories (25) did not include any error.
By far, the most common mistakes in this edition (counted 16 times as an error, out of a total of 55 errors) is the statement that Lebanon is now a petroleum country (لبنان بلد نفطي). The statement was repeated countless times by the political class and was splashed across Lebanese media, even though Lebanon is not yet a petroleum country. Lebanon has not yet made any discoveries and is not producing hydrocarbon. It merely awarded its (first) offshore exploration and production licenses and did not conduct any exploratory activity offshore yet. The statement became a slogan that defined the period following the closing of the first licensing round. All media outlets monitored have repeated it at least once during the monitored period, except for Annahar. Though it must be noted that in certain cases, the journalists were simply reproducing what Lebanese officials have said during these events, without questioning the accuracy of the claim, except in one report broadcast on Future TV’s evening news on February 9, 2018, following the official EPA signing ceremony.
Another common mistake (identified in six stories) is the claim that Israel postponed its first offshore licensing round three times. In fact, the tender was postponed twice. The claim was made by Energy Minister Cesar Abi Khalil in a statement released by the Ministry of Energy and Water on October 13, a day after the closing of the first licensing round, to announce the results of the tender.
The Energy Minister was behind another mistake identified in two different stories when he said that the exploration phase will officially start after signing the contracts with the consortium. In fact, the exploration phase will start on the day the initial exploration plan is approved.
One element clearly stands out when evaluating the media’s oil and gas production during this monitoring period: The tendency, observed across all outlets, to reproduce claims made by Lebanese officials without questioning their accuracy.
In a trend that has been observed since SKeyes and MESP first started monitoring Lebanese media’s oil and gas coverage in 2014, journalists continue to struggle with estimates, whether estimates regarding the size of the potential offshore wealth, its value, expected production date and when revenues would start to flow in.
Other mistakes included easily verifiable information, such as the number of compagnies that were qualified for the first licensing round, number of wells the consortium has committed to drill in each block, the threshold – in U.S. dollars – that would require the organization of a public tender etc.
During the monitoring period, journalists consistently sought to back up their production by resorting to sources, a total of 136 times in 53 stories. That is an average of 2.56 sources by story. A clear majority of these sources were named (122 sources), while only 14 sources were unnamed. The word “sources” can refer to a reference that journalists resort to in order to back up their stories, or to public officials the journalists are reporting on.
However, on its own, the number of sources in a piece does not necessarily ensure high-quality coverage. Over half of the mistakes identified in this edition, 29 out of 55 mistakes, are attributed to sources, mirroring similar findings in our 2017 spotlight media monitoring report where almost half of all mistakes were made by sources. Of these 29 mistakes, 19 were made by experts, and nine were made by Energy Ministry officials.
Major trends and recommendations
Around half of the mistakes detected were made by public officials or by journalists reproducing erroneous information first provided by public officials. This trend has been observed across all media outlets.
- Journalists should not take what politicians, public officials or experts say at face value. Always be critical and double-check statements.
Journalists were keen on using multiple sources to consolidate their stories, and only a small number of sources remained anonymous. However, over half of the mistakes identified in this edition were attributed to sources.
- Do not hesitate to seek better, more informed sources. With the beginning of exploration, local media is expected to cover the sector more frequently. More should be done to identify a varied array of high-quality sources. The petroleum industry is extremely broad. An expert on one topic might not be qualified to talk about an issue that is beyond his/her comfort zone even if the overall theme covers the oil and gas sector.
News coverage is still the preferred type of reporting. While we have noticed an increase in the number of interviews, there is not enough feature stories and only one op-ed was written on the subject. Investigative pieces are understandably absent given that we opted for monitoring the media’s first coverage of specific events.
- We recommend journalists and media outlets to go further than simply covering the news. We believe diversifying the types of stories can contribute to a better coverage of the oil and gas sector and is certainly more valuable for the audience.
In a welcome development, covering political debates – often political bickering – related to the sector is, for the first time, overshadowed by the interest shown in other topics.
- Do not hesitate to report on a wider variety of topics. The oil and gas industry touches on a broad range of issues that are of concern for citizens.
Journalists continue to struggle with estimates (size and value of the potential offshore wealth, expected production date, expected revenues etc.).
- It is impossible to know whether or not Lebanon has commercial quantities of hydrocarbon before drilling. Keep in mind that exploration is a long and slow process, during which disappointing results are very likely. It is important to know that and equally important to know that potentially disappointing results in the future should not be met with doom and gloom. There are a lot of ups and downs in the industry. The more information we get, the higher our chances in the future.
Some mistakes include claims that can easily be verified.
- Basic data about the legal framework, tender process, upcoming milestones in the exploration phase and other topics is often found on specialized websites, whether official or non-official. There is a wealth of information online that journalists could use, provided they know where to look for it.