Can Al Jazeera English Leverage its 'Egypt Moment' into an American Audience?
Are Americans prejudiced against AJE? Can the network’s publicity and recognition for its coverage of Egypt overcome this prejudice? The findings that show differential bias ratings between AJE and CNNI based on the same exact news clip suggest Americans are, on average, still unable to fairly evaluate the station. If there was no prejudice against AJE, the reputational change between CNNI and AJE would be equal. Instead, we see no movement for AJE and gain for CNNI. Though we did not see movement by condition for the trustworthiness, likelihood to watch, and the cable carriage questions, AJE was evaluated significantly less favorably on all three vis-à-vis CNNI, regardless of condition and likewise witnessed no movement on these questions. Taken together, these findings suggest that CNNI’s evaluations benefited from the clip, while AJE’s did not. On the contrary, perceptions of AJE appear to be not only negative, but stable.
Further, the American public’s interest in Al Jazeera English – to the extent the MTurk sample is representative – is not substantial. Ninety-eight percent of participants had little or no exposure to the news channel, yet generally find it untrustworthy and are uninterested in watching, even after exposure to a clip that is credible enough to boost CNNI evaluations when ascribed to that network. This does not bode well for the prospects of AJE gaining a broad audience in the United States, while CNNI’s better evaluations likely resulted from the goodwill of CNNI’s brand. This study indicates that AJE faces a long road if it hopes to overcome the negative associations its brand suffered in the years of the George W. Bush administration. Since the Arab-American prejudice score and self-identified conservatism significantly correlate with negative evaluations of the network, and each other, it seems the roots of AJE prejudice run deep.11 Given that CNNI evaluations also correlated with political conservatism, but not with prejudice towards Arab-Americans, and that AJE evaluations were more highly correlated with anti-Arab views than with political ideology, is seems the bigger obstacle to AJE may be a built-in mistrust of Arabs. Thus, “prejudice” against AJE is doubly rooted in ideology and ethnocentrism.
Internal divides in the American political and social spheres that center on ideology and views towards Arabs, Arab-Americans and Islam will be crucial to the question of the network’s future in the country. Specifically, the high correlations between anti-Arab sentiments, ideology, and attitudes towards carriage and likelihood of watching suggest that certain segments of the population will resist viewing AJE with an open mind. There is some evidence to support AJE’s argument that people change their minds when they watch AJE. These correlations also suggest those on the liberal end of the ideological spectrum and those who do not harbor suspicions of Arabs may be more open towards changing their views of AJE with exposure. This study finds there is a market for AJE. However, our findings suggest that public mobilizations against AJE and cable deals would be linked to political conservatism and anti-Arab prejudice.
AJE will serve as a contra-flow within the United States, but its impact will be limited by unfair evaluations and active mobilizations against the network. What does this mean for AJE’s potential to encourage conciliatory, or moderated views towards the Arab world? While El-Nawaway and Powers (2008; 2009) found that dogmatism decreased with how long people had been AJE viewers, their viewers were also self-selecting, meaning they sought out affirmative media in line with their pre-existing worldviews. This study also indicates that self-selecting viewers may not just steer away from AJE, they will unfairly evaluate AJE’s reporting when they come across it. To the extent that this phenomenon is systematic, the reception of AJE may say more about the contentious state of politics towards the Arab world within the United States than it does about the network itself. AJE may be landing right into the particularly post-9/11 problem of political and cultural polarization around the question of US-Arab relations in the United States.
What, then, does this mean for the future of AJE distribution in the US? Is demand among the interested, potentially a growing minority, enough to bring about wider cable carriage? The results
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.