By Jillian Sloan
For many Americans, Al Jazeera is most likely a vague word they heard somewhere, some time ago, associated with terrorism, propaganda or links to Al Qaeda.
Not even close. For its viewers in the Arab world, Al Jazeera (which means “the Penninsula” in Arabic) is a news network free of censorship and government control that serves as a voice to the voiceless—and it has nothing to do with promoting war.
Shedding the sour image as the mouthpiece for terrorism, Al Jazeera is rising as an authoritative news source for understanding the world. With over 69 bureaus across the globe, the Al Jazeera network is covering stories in countries habitually missed or glossed over by other prominent networks.
During a tour of the studio today, I looked out over the first-rate newsroom with its HD capability and computer-operated cameras. The state-of-the-art equipment and facilities have only been in place since 2006, just 12 years after Al Jazeera’s first steps as a small independent network that, in the beginning, aired a teasing six hours a day.
After building itself a name through the coverage of the three wars in Iraq since 2000, it now airs 24 hours a day, seven days a week and in over 100 countries, excluding (for now) the U.S. According to the broadcaster, it’s the leading news channel on YouTube and its website receives 22 million hits each month. This is a news organization that’s got its act together.
In the US, coverage of global events, particularly of the Middle East, is mediocre at best. In our meeting today with Hassan Ibrahim, a correspondent for Al Jazeera English and principle role in the documentary “The Control Room” (watch it streaming), he said, “The American people are done a great injustice by their own media.”
A peek at today’s top stories on Al Jazeera Net and CNN.com show the contrast in geographical and contextual focus. Al Jazeera’s lead story is the mosque shootings in Thailand, aided with a timeline for background information and numerous videos for added perspective. The story doesn’t make the cut on CNN’s top story list. In fact, the two top stories are an update on the France Air crash and Europe’s election.
“We are less Western-Centric, European-Centric, which is appealing,” said Managing Director of Al Jazeera English Tony Burman. He said Al Jazeera provides a more global sense of this complicated world.
In places like the Middle East, Africa and Asia where U.S. or British new organizations have sometimes as few as two correspondents, Al Jazeera has multiple bureaus and contacts with independent film makers who can produce material in some of the most inhospitable environments in the world.
“I wish the understanding of the Middle East was a higher priority in the US,” Ibrahim said.
The key is in the context. Ibrahim began to reference US history—some history that I’m not sure any American student in the room was even aware of—making the point (in this journalist’s opinion) that you can’t understand the present without knowing the past. US broadcasts and articles on the Middle East are mosaic tiles to a big picture never put into context. How does a car bomb or a shooting at a mosque paint any clear story of what’s going on and why?
“Our goal is to help people understand the context,” Burman said. “The expectation from our viewers is a wider view and context for the issues in the region.”
And many news organizations, particularly in the U.S., may argue that it’s difficult to convince people to eat the brussel sprouts of news. It seems that our attention only turned to the Middle East when it was suddenly our own countrymen in the danger.
Even then, the attention paid seemed minimal because the events that had been set in motion arguably thousands of years ago were already beyond our understanding, like trying to jump in eight rounds late to a game of Phase Ten. And many Americans I know have almost completely turned a blind eye to Middle Eastern news.
Al Jazeera’s Deputy Director of Programs Giles Trendle said, “We had to find new ways to get people engaged in something they had heard about but probably did not know a lot about.”
The Al Jazeera Documentary Channel is a new addition that airs Arabic documentaries that provide context to current events. All of Al Jazeera programs also run on Youtube, making it accessible even where the network channel is not.
“[It] changes people’s perspectives on Al Jazeera,” said Trendle.
Al Jazeera also received flak for broadcasting videotapes from Osama Bin Laden. To this, Sheikh said that former President Bush’s coined “Axis of Evil” began two camps, and “each one has to be given the chance to speak out.” It refers to the Al Jazeera motto, “The opinion and the other opinion.” The tapes are reviewed and edited and only what is newsworthy makes it on air, Sheikh said.
One student asked how Al Jazeera got tapes from Bin Laden. Sheikh was not remotely surprised by the question and, smiling, said, “We get them. I don’t have to tell you how. Don’t expect me to tell you how. You have to protect your sources.”
For at least this American, Al Jazeera is not a muddled conception of something evil or even foreign. If they live up to their promises of global understanding, I believe it will help reshape the landscape of world coverage and maybe, just maybe, convince America to get in touch with the world beyond our cousins.