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Why Al-Jazeera America Never Gained Traction

November 28, 2017

Al Jazeera America TV“Can Al Jazeera English leverage its ‘Egypt moment’ into an American audience?”

That question was asked back in 2011 by William Youmans and Katie Brown in a 2011 article in Arab Media & Society.

The answer was no.

Al-Jazeera America, possibly the most ambitious attempt in history by a non-Western network to broadcast to US audiences, was shut down in April 2016.

It was a shame. I loved Al-Jazeera America (although, like many, I wished it had had more of an on-line presence).

I also love Al Jazeera–although not as much as I used to–and I am fascinated and sorry to find it at the center of the current Saudi-Qatar crisis. With the potential closing of Al Jazeera a reality, I was interested to see a new article about Al Jazeera America in the journal Global Media and Communication.

Entitled “Counter-hegemonic contra-flow and the Al Jazeera America fiasco: A social network analysis of Al Jazeera America’s Twitter users,” this research by Tal Samuel-Azran and Tsahi Hayat offers some interesting additional evidence as to why someone like me was likely to watch it, but most others weren’t.

Samuel-Azran and Hayat analyzed the Twitter following on Al Jazeera America’s social media. Their social network analysis revealed that 42 per cent of Al Jazeera America’s followers did not follow any other US news outlet. Most of the remaining 58 per cent followed stations the researchers identified as having a “liberal” stance.

The findings offer no surprises. They merely offer additional evidence that most mainstream US news consumers were reluctant to watch–or follow–Al Jazeera America because they were pre-disposed to find it biased and alien.

The authors want to apply these findings generally to a discussion of the “challenges facing counter-hegemonic contra-flow” media trying to gain legitimacy in the United States, claiming it “highlights the relevance of selective exposure and hostile media theories in the case of counter-flowing stations.” I’m not convinced that their data strongly contributes to that argument.

Where Al Jazeera itself is concerned, the findings should come as no surprise to anyone. The fact that Americans were prejudiced against Al Jazeera was pretty effectively established by Youmans and Brown back during their 2011 study.

At a time when US staitons were picking up Al Jazeera feeds, and the station was being praised for its courageous and professional coverage of the Arab uprisings, Youmans and Brown looked at how Al Jazeera was framed by American television viewers.

First, they took two news clips about the Taliban and its position on peace talks with the government in Kabul. Then they disguised them; the CNN clip was given an Al Jazeera logo, and the Al Jazeera clip a CNN logo.

Then they divided 177 American television viewers randomly into three groups:

  • the first group viewed the Al Jazeera news clip diguised as a CNN clip,
  • the second viewed the CNN clip diguised as an Al Jazeera  clip, and
  • the control group watched no clip at all.

You can see it coming, can’t you? When participants were then asked to indicate how biased and trustworthy they would rate Al Jazeera and CNN, the average respondent gave more credibility to the Al Jazeera news clip diguised as a CNN clip and less to the CNN clip disguised as an Al Jazeera  clip.

Even at its proudest moment, at least in terms of its reputation in the US, viewers found bias in what they thought was an Al Jazeera clip because they expected to find bias in what they thought was an Al Jazeera clip.

There are other post-mortems for Al Jazeera America. The Washington Post wrote:

What really doomed Al Jazeera America from the beginning was its decision to offer straight, sober journalism via legacy cable and satellite TV carriers, distribution platforms on which such a product is fast becoming extinct. Al Jazeera America was also quasi-commercial at best, but the gatekeeping companies it had to appease are highly commercial.

Al Jazeera America had the unenviable task of marrying Al Jazeera’s self-described mission of subversive journalism that challenges power with being digestible enough to American TV viewers to attract a respectable number on a nightly basis. It would have to be domesticated, yet it was an outwardly foreign brand — one many Americans still unfairly associated with Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, even after the channel’s Arab spring coverage was widely hailed.

 

Those last two lines summarize the point being made by Youmans and Brown (not surprising, perhaps, since the Post article is by Youmans).  This more recent social media data from Samuel-Azran and Hayat just adds to the recognition that you can’t win just by offering high-quality content–a fact that has only become more apparent as we watch the endless blurring of lines between conspiracy theorizing, fake news, alternative facts, infotainment, and whatever is left of authoritative news.

References:

Samuel-Azran, Tal and Tsahi Hayat. 2017. Counter-hegemonic contra-flow and the Al Jazeera America fiasco: A social network analysis of Al Jazeera America’s Twitter users. Global Media and Communication 13(1): 267 – 282.

Youmans, William. 2016. This is what doomed Al Jazeera America. Washington Post, Jan. 14, 2016.

Youmans, William and K. Brown. 2011. Can Al Jazeera English leverage its ‘Egypt moment’ into an American audience? Arab Media & Society 12(13): 1–20.

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