Al-Jazeera America: Out-CNNing CNN

September 19, 2013

Last month the Al Jazeera Media Network launched its newest venture, Al Jazeera America, a domestic news program, reaching about 45 million cable viewers across the United States. There was much anticipation as to whether the program would live up to the broader Arabic network’s reputation of being “anti-Western and anti-Semitic”; however, the newest study out of the Pew Research Center shows that Al  Jazeera America’s coverage of its first big story, the Syrian civil war, was much the same as its established American rivals.

On Monday, Pew released the results of a week-long study following Al Jazeera America’s Syria coverage in comparison to CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and BBC America. Al Jazeera America launched on August 10th in the United States, and boasts five overseas news bureaus and access to 65 international bureaus in the broader Al Jazeera network. While audiences may have thought that Al Jazeera’s Qatari origins would slant its coverage of the Syrian civil war, Pew found that it largely mimicked mainstream American stations. Two findings were of particular note—

..the overall percentage of cable stories conveying a message that America should get involved (47%) solidly outnumbered stories with messages counseling against a strike (27%)…

While the complex Syrian crisis includes a variety of key players and issues, two-thirds of the overall cable coverage was framed around three topics-the debate over U.S. involvement (44% of the stories), chemical weapons themselves (14%) and scenarios for an American military response (9%). Stories focused on the Syrian government or the views of Syrian citizens accounted for 7%.

Forty-three percent of Al Jazeera America stories came out in favor of military action, which was comparable to the 45% on CNN, and 45% on Fox News. This is particularly interesting considering multiple polls recently showed a large majority of the U.S. public is against military action in Syria. However, as the report also reported, 76% of Al Jazeera America’s stories originated from Washington, D.C. and New York, even while the station’s mission claims to rebalance“global media by respecting the diversity and humanity of the world.”

What this may point to is that with the expansion of digital and electronic broadcasting and the proliferation of new media platforms dispensing real-time information around the world, up-and-coming media outlets face more competition than ever in maintaining ratings and drawing in advertising revenue.  It’s not surprise then that the delivery of real-time news and the need to cater to specific audiences receive priority over in-depth, well-rounded reporting. Thus, it seems Al Jazeera America is desperately trying to penetrate a very specific target audience, largely the ‘inside the beltway’ elite. Indeed, this could explain the disconnect between public opinion and media messaging when it comes to taking military action against Syria. In a recent story in the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf argued that this hawkish perspective taken on by the media “is a consequence of so many political journalists living inside a Washington subculture that attracts foreign-policy thinkers with an inflated sense of their own ability to understand and shape global events.” Media outlets, including Al Jazeera America, seem to have prioritized the viewpoint of a small percentage of D.C. ‘experts’, rather than viewpoint of the American people. Within the 24% of Al Jazeera coverage that included messaging against a military strike, there is only one example mentioned in the report that these stories focused on public opinion(or the repercussions if Obama acted against it), in which Democratic Congressman Jim McDermott of Washington Statesaid in an interview, “We have not had one phone call in my office in support of attacking Syria. Everybody is opposed to the United States going into action.”

Is Al Jazeera’s media coverage the result of “compassion fatigue”? Susan Moeller, who coined the term for her book by the same name, writes that the continuous comparison and exposure of sensationalized headlines, images, and “Americanized metaphors” have detracted from the quality of international reporting and the ability of the public to maintain interest in distant countries orevents not related to them. In response to compassion fatigue, international crises tend to be the only events that continue to receive mainstream media coverage. Even then, news coverage of an international crisisoften results in an oversimplified format, lacking in the diversity of coverage. Which brings me to the second finding from the Pew report.

More than half of Al Jazeera America’s Syria coverage focused on topics related to U.S. involvement, whereas only 7% of its stories included a Syrian perspective. As the report states, “Al Jazeera’s roots in the Mideast did not translate into significantly more framing from the Syrian perspective.”This highlights the degree to which American involvement in an event can change that event from a small-scale incident to a global crisis. As Moeller articulates,

The Americanization of events makes the public feel that the world subscribes, and must subscribe, to American cultural icons – and if it doesn’t or can’t it is not worth the bother, because clearly the natives are unworthy or the issue or event is.

Hence, 66% of Al Jazeera stories cited President Obamaand his administration as sources. And Obama’s August 31st announcement proclaiming his preparedness to act in Syria, seemed to be the “most noteworthy pronouncement” in news headlines during the week, according to the Pew report’s findings.

So, is Al Jazeera America just another mainstream media network with little to offer in terms of a fresh approach to international news that some viewers hoped for? Has compassion fatigue gotten the best of such alternative networks, forcing the standardization of news production?  Even against the Pew report findings, I think it is too soon to tell.  The Al Jazeera network has faced a lot of criticism in the states over the years and may be taking cautionary steps as it tries to break into an immensely competitive market with a skeptical audience. A drastically different approach to reporting on Syria in its first weeks on air may have scared off potential viewers and isolated the network. While a little more variety in reporting given its origins may provided the network a competitive edge, it is pitching itself as an American news station, thus, the emphasis on the U.S. involvement in Syria should take priority over other angles. I think the biggest critique that can be made about Al Jazeera America so far is that it’s playing it safe. For those who are looking for a news network with a more global approach to reporting,I say be patient. Once Al Jazeera America finds its legs—and its audience—I think that it will take more risks and utilize its Middle Eastern roots to bring viewers something a little different.


Lauren Katzenberg is an assistant editor at War on the Rocks.