The upstart international network has crafted an identity all its own.
Al Jazeera English (AJE), in its short, 6 year existence, has quickly managed to climb that upper tier of English language news networks, with newsgathering resources and establishment credibility on par with what previously were the unchallenged leaders in this realm, CNN and the BBC. While much of this certainly has to do with AJE bulking up early on journalistic talent from CNN, the BBC, and other establishment quarters, another, more visible but less remarked element in Al Jazeera’s success is its branding.
I had been thinking about this for some time since I first watched the channel, but it hit home a few days ago while I was watching the channel’s flagship bulletin Newshour with my mom. In the middle of a piece on rebel fighting in Chile, she remarked that the channel looked like your standard international news organization. “You don’t feel like you’re watching something from the Middle East,” was how it was put.
Origins of the suspicion
But this leads us to ask why Al Jazeera has to overcome unease in the United States. Aside from the vague suspicion that anything associated with the Middle East has been subject to in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Al Jazeera also gained a bad reputation in the eyes of US officialdom for broadcasting the messages of Osama Bin Laden.
In some ways it is unusual that broadcasting these messages created the impression of Al Qaeda sympathies in the first place; both the New York Times and the Washington Post published the manifesto of the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, while he was still perpetrating his string of mail bombings. NBC after the mass killing at Virginia Tech broadcast tapes from the gunman. Both of these circumstances were certainly controversial, but none of these organizations were accused of being “sympathetic” to the aims of the killers whose messages they aired. The only basic differences in these cases were scale (Bin Laden was responsible for exponentially more deaths) and the fact that Osama Bin Laden was a foreign enemy.
The other aspect that made US officials uncomfortable with Al Jazeera was its coverage of the Iraq war. Unlike the generally deferential coverage from American networks to both initial claims of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and of the first months of war, Al Jazeera’s coverage took a very different tack from the American networks, showing injured Iraqis and captured Americans in addition to those ubiquitous shots of “shock and awe”.
US officials had two main responses to Al Jazeera’s war coverage, as vividly shown in the 2004 documentary Control Room. On the one hand, the United States often publicly denounced the network’s journalism, through Donald Rumsfeld’s feisty news conferences. On the other hand, US officials realized that Al Jazeera had a large audience in the Middle East and brought on spokespeople to tap into the network’s large Arab audience. Still, the US was mostly hostile to the network, and its Baghdad office was even bombed by American warplanes in an incident officially termed as a mistake. The film, for the interested, is embedded below.
Rebranded in English
The English language version of Al Jazeera, which launched in 2006, does make some clear breaks from the Arabic channel. AJE obviously targets a substantially different audience of international elites and that is reflected in coverage choices; fewer Middle East stories, and a greater emphasis on areas under-served by other western news outlets (Africa, Latin America). The differences, however, are less subtle than that. For comparison, the Arabic channel in those early days of the Iraq war leaned on a red and blue colored set of lower thirds:
The English channel launched with a completely different template, emphasizing a stark, crisp white and orange scheme. The studios also have a different look.
For comparison, here are what AJE’s two main competitors, BBC World News and CNN International, offer in terms of their on-air look:
As you can see, Al Jazeera’s look is rather reminiscent of the BBC’s. This generally “western” template is one that new English-language international news channels from a variety of countries are using in a bid for credibility with viewers.
Hurdles to credibility in America
Even with all of these efforts, AJE still might not be able to break through the ambivalent to hostile preconceptions of many Americans. A study done at the University of Michigan tried to gauge how people viewed Al Jazeera after actually seeing the network. One group of participants watched an Al Jazeera report on the Taliban’s view on peace talks in Afghanistan, while a second group watched the same report altered to mimic the look of a piece pulled off of CNN’s website. A third control group saw no report. All three were then surveyed on their views on the bias of Al Jazeera English and CNN International. Results showed that even though watching the report with CNN branding raised opinions of CNN, those who saw the original AJE report had similar perceptions of Al Jazeera’s bias as those who didn’t see anything. (full study).
A close look at the full results indicates that this is by no means conclusive, as the study had only 177 online participants. Still, there seemed to be a general view among participants that Al Jazeera presented an “Arab” view of the news. Unsurprisingly, negative feelings towards Islam were correlated with negative views of the channel. What can be said is that while many Americans have come to appreciate Al Jazeera’s coverage, western graphics and commonwealth-accented reporters still might not be enough to gain a foothold.