Friday, June 13, 2008

Fallible News

By Jeanette Der Bedrosian
Photo by Jasmin Bauomy

The Bootcamp’s trip to Al-Jazeera yesterday went in an entirely different direction from our visit to EgyptTV.

Students sauntered out of the compound shaking hands with the tour guide and holding contact information—and hope—for the prospect of finding a position within the news brand. There was no feeling of hostility or fear of security coming to escort us from the premises, but rather a deeper understanding of both Al-Jazeera’s motives and the opinions of its management.

These two concepts, students discovered, are not always in line.

Scott Ferguson, head of programming for Al-Jazeera English, explained the need for journalists to use a “moral compass” to separate their personal beliefs from a story. He employed this method when he explained his own personal opinions—not those of the company, he was sure to emphasize—on al-Jazeera breaking into America.

“I would much rather be the channel of resistance in the U.S.,” he said, referring to the role Youtube and the internet play in Americans accessing Al-Jazeera.

Ahmed Sheikh, the Editor-in-Chief of the Al-Jazeera Arabic, disagreed, describing the brand as “a spot of light in the middle of a very dark sea.”

He detailed his confusion over Al-Jazeera’s reputation as a pro-terrorist organization within the United States despite its popularity in Israel. Al-Jazeera English, Sheikh said, is a necessary tool to educate Americans on differing perceptions.

Still, some students challenged that the channels’ refusal to use the word “terrorist” for groups such as al-Qaeda or Hamas, but its continuing use of the word “martyr” for dead Palestinian soldiers shows a flaw in the networks’ coverage, and that that could indicate a pro-Palestinian bias to an American audience.

“Palestinians are much weaker and on the defensive,” Sheikh said. “They are on the defensive, and if anyone is under the impression that they are on the offensive, they have to do their homework,” he said.

A bit later, Sheikh added, “We do not take sides.”

Each official, however, acknowledged that al-Jazeera is still working on its formula and is constantly seeking to improve.

“We are not infallible,” Sheikh said. “We are human beings.”

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