Review: Al-Jazeera America lives up to its unbiased promise

USA TodaySeptember 17, 2013 

Before its Aug. 20 launch, officials at Al-Jazeera America emphasized that, despite its Middle Eastern roots and ownership, the fledgling cable news network would be aimed squarely at a U.S. audience.

Guess they weren’t kidding.

A new study of cable news coverage of the Syria crisis released found that the new kid on the block covered the fast-moving story of President Obama’s threat to strike the civil war-torn nation much the way its cable rivals did.

The report, released Monday (Sept. 16) by the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, covers the period from Aug. 26, when Secretary of State John Kerry accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons against its own people, until Aug. 31, when Obama said he would seek congressional approval for his plans to punish the forces of Syrian leader Bashar Assad.

The study looked at coverage on Fox News Channel, CNN, MSNBC, BBC America and Al-Jazeera America.

Before Al-Jazeera America went on the air, it was an open question as to whether the network, owned by the oil-rich Persian Gulf emirate Qatar, would feature traditional U.S.-centric news or offer up a more global perspective along the lines of the BBC. Al-Jazeera Arabic, the original Al-Jazeera outlet, bears little resemble to an American cable channel and is widely known for airing Osama bin Laden “death to America” videos.

During the first international megastory since it made its debut, Al-Jazeera America “delivered content that resembled U.S. cable content,” said Mark Jurkowitz, the Pew Research Center’s associate director. “The coverage was from the U.S. perspective, (and) appeared tailored to the U.S. domestic audience.”

As it analyzed the coverage, PEJ examined stories from a number of perspectives. What was the frame or focus (for example, should the U.S. get involved militarily)? What was the message? Who were the sources? What was the dateline? What was the format – edit packages vs. interviews? Was it reporting or opinion?

There were some small differences between Al-Jazeera Amerca’s coverage and that of its U.S. competitors. For example, while they represented a small amount of its overall reporting, the upstart channel framed more of its stories around the humanitarian crisis stemming from the the Syrian civil war. And it aired more stories from Middle Eastern countries, not including Syria itself, than the others.

But on important aspects of the situation, Al-Jazeera America differed little from its competitors:

— The largest amount of coverage of the crisis on Al-Jazeera America was devoted to the question of whether the U.S. should get involved. The same was true on CNN, Fox and MSNBC.

— Despite widespread opposition among the public to military action, the message most frequently conveyed in coverage of Syria on Al-Jazeera America, Fox, CNN and BBC America was that the U.S. should let the missiles fly.

—While Al-Jazeera America has access to the Al-Jazeera empire of more than 60 international correspondents, 76 percent of its coverage emanated from Washington, D.C., or New York City.

— The sources most often cited on Al-Jazeera America and the three U.S. cable channels were American policymakers and politicians.

Al Jazeera America is the successor to Current TV, the little-watched, liberal-leaning cable network that Qatar purchased from Al Gore in January for about $500 million. It’s available in about 43 million households, far fewer than its competitors can reach. Al-Jazeera America’s initial ratings were low; it will take awhile for it to raise its profile and see if it can compete.

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