The UAE's media landscape is expanding, and the emergence of new outlets will mean many new opportunities for graduates. Filling these vacancies with Emirati talent is crucial.
Media sector will benefit with more Emirati journalists
I was one of only a handful of Zayed University students to major in journalism. During my years at college we established a student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (a US-based journalism organisation); I served as its first president.
Our main objective was not only the promotion of media's best practices, but also to encourage Emirati students to join us in studying journalism or consider it as a future profession. We did this because media in general, and journalism in particular, is crucial for the development of any modern state, and especially this one.
Unfortunately, this message has yet to be fully heard. At Zayed University, the number of students majoring in journalism is tiny compared to other communication majors. During my time at university, more than 100 students were enrolled in public relations and advertising programmes. Just 10 studied journalism.
It's a similar story at other federal universities. At UAE University in Al Ain, only one student took journalism as a major in 2011. The Higher Colleges of Technology, meanwhile, has no concentration in journalism studies, only an applied communications major that provides students with a variety of courses including broadcasting, graphic design, multimedia, corporate communications, event management and photography.
The lack of undergraduates is reflected in the make-up of local news media; the majority are staffed by foreigners.
According to the latest statistics, revealed by Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed, the UAE Foreign Minister and Chairman of the National Media Council, Emiratis make up 13 per cent of staff at the Dubai newspaper Al Bayan, 5.8 per cent at Emarat Al Youm, 1.5 per cent at Khaleej Times, and 0.8 per cent at Gulf News. These figures, Sheikh Abdullah said during his meeting with the Federal National Council last week,"are disappointing".
[The figure for The National, which was not mentioned in the discussion, is 5.5 per cent].
Reversing this trend will not be easy. Quotas, as Sheikh Abdullah noted, are not an effective tool in addressing the shortage of Emiratis in the media business. As is the case with quotas in any other field, the abilities of those who get positions - even if they deserve them - would be questioned.
But if not quotas, then what?
The best way to address the shortage of Emiratis in the media business is to invest in education. And this cannot be achieved without incorporating journalism training in the school curriculum.
Writing articles to show a professor for a grade is not what journalism studies should be all about.
Journalism is one of these fields requiring a variety of skills that need constant practice to develop. This, however, cannot be achieved without a public platform that allows students to publish their work and at the same time motivates them to produce quality news items for an audience, even if it's only the school community.
I was lucky to have studied journalism at a university that provided a publishing platform for students to practise what we learnt. The online publication was an important part of my learning experience.
I remember the day Zajel [zajelzu.ae] was launched, during my senior year at university. Our SPJ chapter promoted Zajel, and we all worked to make it successful. We wrote about issues that affected people's lives, and highlighted the universities' latest projects and events. We did that because we knew students and faculty would read and engage in what we were writing. Some students even became more interested in journalism and asked us many questions. Some became journalism majors as a result.
Unfortunately, student-run publications like Zajel are the exception rather than the rule. That's why many new Emirati graduates face challenges finding a job in the media sector - because of the existing gap between media studies and real life practice.
This issue was highlighted in the recent Arab Media Forum, in a session titled "Young Emirati talents: ambitions and challenges". Speakers said that the focus of universities on theories and history of media overshadowed the practical aspect of journalism.
Sheikh Abdullah told the FNC that the UAE has "an immense problem with the lack of resources available for locals, like training". He also welcomed the idea of establishing a new training academy for aspiring journalists. He is correct on both counts. What's needed now is funding to improve opportunities in federal universities, and not only for those majoring in the discipline. Public high schools can also take part in promoting journalism by incorporating news writing into their classes.
Working in journalism is not easy. It requires constant dedication, attention to detail and a willingness to work for long, stressful hours. No wonder many young Emiratis would prefer to work in different professions. But the UAE's media landscape is expanding, and the emergence of new media outlets will mean many new opportunities for new graduates.
Filling these vacancies with Emirati talent is crucial to preserving national identity and highlighting Emirati social issues. It is also important for cross-cultural communication and understanding. In any multicultural society, that is one of the media's most important roles.
On Twitter: @AyeshaAlmazroui