Can Al Jazeera English Leverage its 'Egypt Moment' into an American Audience?
Scholarship on AJE is still emerging and tends to focus on content differences with other news networks, and the macro-effects of the network on global flows of information, intercultural exchanges, and viewers’ attitudes towards other cultures. One theme in the research considers the extent to which AJE could subdue “the ongoing discourse of ‘clash of civilizations’ in favor of a new discourse of ‘dialogue between civilizations’” (Khamis, 2007: 49). This research starts with Huntington’s contentious notion that global conflict after the cold war will increasingly fall along cultural lines, with the West and Islam being two of the main adversaries (1996). Communications scholars interested in international relations investigate whether a channel like AJE could be a communicative antidote to Huntington’s vision. El-Nawawy and Powers found that AJE can serve as a conciliatory media source by moderating viewers’ attitudes towards other cultures, but that viewers seek out news media that affirm, rather than challenge, their predisposed views (2008; 2009; 2010). Their reception study of AJE viewing considered those already watching AJE and correlated their views on conflict with duration of viewership. For AJE to serve as a conciliatory medium, potential audiences – those who would not form self-selected audiences – must be willing to watch with an open eye. This paper seeks to gauge general prejudice5 against the network by asking whether Americans will evaluate one report from AJE differently than they would the same report by CNNI, an American news outlet. And, if prejudice against AJE exists, does exposure to its reporting change assessments of the network’s credibility, as Al Anstey proposes?
Given that AJE is available on few American televisions, as well as the prominent criticisms of Al Jazeera during the years of the George W. Bush administration, it is likely that American views of AJE developed indirectly, from other sources: public officials, opinion leaders, the media, and personal contacts. Why would the American public be inherently opposed to AJE? A different research direction found in the literature revolves around questions of global power and the prospects for the network to stimulate change. Formulated as a “counter-hegemonic” alternative to what is described as the dominant news outlets, AJE may be able to break the western hold on mediated narrative power (Al-Najjar, 2009: 2; Gardner, 2009: 19), even if its formatting and style resembles other western, namely British, news media (Boyd-Barrett and Xie, 2008: 214). This view, it should be noted, found support in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s comments in March 2011 suggesting Al Jazeera was winning the “information war.” Others argue that Al Jazeera is not counter-hegemonic, but “alternative,” because of how AJ has been received and treated by mainstream media, especially television in the West (Tal-Azran, 2010). There is some evidence, however, that major international newspapers, including leading American publications, have represented AJE positively compared with Al Jazeera’s original Arabic service (King and Zayani, 2008).
Whether it is alternative or counter-hegemonic, AJE’s reception and evaluation among the American public play a key role in AJE’s trajectory and global impact. A potential audience that is cognitively resistant – that is prejudiced and does not change its assessments with exposure – inhibits the station’s chance of having counter-hegemonic effects that originate internally, in terms of opinion and social changes within the country. That of course does not preclude global changes in information flows that somehow impact American power externally. This also bears on the question of AJE’s distribution, which determines the availability of AJE to non-self-selecting American audiences. If cable companies rely on public views formed pre-reception in making carriage decisions, they may be missing the true test of AJE’s potential: how TV viewers in general respond to its actual content. Evidence that viewing AJE lessens negative evaluations of the network would suggest that the channel could be carried with less risk of a wide backlash. However, if we find that evaluations of AJE are low and do not waiver or worsen with exposure to actual content, the American public in general will probably not watch AJE with an open mind. This would suggest, in terms of cable carriage, that AJE would likely remain a largely online alternative within the American media landscape. Its contra-flow reach would be limited. In effect, the Arab uprisings will not have engendered “AJE’s moment.” Prejudice against the station would mean it is unlikely to serve as a conciliatory or counter-hegemonic medium.
A crucial factor in shifting attitudes is perceived credibility of the source. In one of the earliest social science studies on source credibility, Hovland and Weiss tested the effects of source credibility on persuasion and retention of information (1951). Subjects read the same articles. Half were told the articles were printed in esteemed publications and/or written by notable figures. The other half were told they were written by propagandists in questionable publications. They found differences in attitudinal change varied with the respective source’s credibility, which they defined as “trustworthiness” and “expertise” (1951: 636-38). Later scholarship on credibility and persuasion sought to define more carefully the factors impacting credibility assessments and consider other relevant characteristics. Starting with Hovland (1953), audience traits came to be seen as playing a role. In general, perceived credibility of information was increasingly linked to characteristics of the source, message, audience, and medium. This study builds on this work. Specifically, following Hovland and Weiss, we expose participants to an AJE news clip attributed to, and made to look like, either AJE or CNNI. With the only difference being the brand name of the clip being shown, we isolate the source as the key explanatory variable.
This secondary set of research questions concerns audience factors that could explain differences in how individuals assess AJE and CNNI’s credibility. This paper will consider a few possible explanations. First, it is possible that assessments of AJE are linked to general sentiments towards Arab-Americans and the notion that AJE represents an Arab perspective. In other words, viewers’ assessment of AJE would be correlated with anti-Arab views. Second, differential assessments could be explained by political ideology, with conservatives tending to rate AJE lower in terms of credibility. In fact, the most ardent critics of AJE have been conservative political and media figures. This study utilizes an online experimental design to address these questions.
1 For ease of reading purposes, Al Jazeera English is referred to as “AJE” and Al Jazeera’s flagship Arabic channel is shortened to “AJ.”
2 Some of AJE’s programs, including its hour-long news bulletin, are carried on various public and local access channels, as well as by Pacifica radio, in a patchwork of places around the country.
4 Trends suggest, however, that cable subscriptions are slowly declining annually, while the number of those viewing online increases.
5 The term “prejudice” is used literally in this analysis to mean to the use of pre-conceived associations, judgments or presumptions that impact one’s evaluation of some given thing. The more popular connotation refers to unfairly negative views of other people or social groups (Dovidio, 2001: 829), but we use the term here in relation to a brand and news network.
6 This study is part of a larger experiment that included a clip condition administered before the clip condition presented here. All results presented were not influenced by the first clip condition and so we focus here on the procedures relevant to the present paper.
7 “Taliban 'rejects' Afghan peace offer,” uploaded to YouTube on June 6, 2010, was filed by James Bays, an AJE correspondent who reported from both Kabul and Baghdad. The video is posted at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZnBrniJGDg
8 Analysis of Variance (ANOVA) is a statistical method for testing whether the means of two or more groups are equal – whether the groups are on average different.
9 There is a marginal effect of a condition not discussed in the present paper.
10 Political ideology and Arab American prejudice also correlate (r = .38, < .001), such that conservatism and prejudice increase in tandem.
11 It should be noted that some conservative websites lauded AJE. For example, the Drudge Report site (http://www.drudgereport.com/) kept a link to AJE at the top during the Egypt protest coverage in early 2011.