Friday, March 6, 2009

Al Jazeera English Struggling to Gain a Foothold in the U.S.

While doing some research about international news broadcasting, I noticed that Al Jazeera English has recently been pushing for greater availability in North America. NPR’s Morning Edition recently did a story about the channel struggling to gain a foothold among U.S. television audiences. Reuters also reported on Al Jazeera English’s public relations campaign:

“Al Jazeera is starting a public relations campaign to dispel what it calls myths and misperceptions that have prevented it from reaching more U.S. and Canadian viewers, the international television news network said on Tuesday.

Al Jazeera's English-language service is starting a website called, offering news the Qatar-based network produces and a list of ‘Hits and Myths’ knocking down statements about the network that it says are untrue.”

“The websites will ask people to e-mail to their cable and satellite providers asking them to carry the channel. Viewers can also watch the channel live on the website and read bulletins with the day's top stories.”

“Al Jazeera has said that gaining access in the United States has been hampered by what it calls misperceptions that it supports al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, that it is anti-Semitic and anti-American, that it shows beheadings, and that it has an anti-Western agenda.

‘We don't wear horns. Osama bin Laden does not have a weekly interview show,’ said Tony Burman, managing director of Al Jazeera English and former editor in chief at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

When former U.S. Marine Corps Captain Josh Rushing, now a reporter for Al Jazeera, went with a TV crew to Golden, Colorado, to cover the Democratic presidential convention last year, Al Jazeera's presence sparked protests from local motorcycle gangs.

‘People who have never watched it have a super-strong opinion about this thing they've never seen and don't want it on their airwaves,’ Rushing said.”

Since its launch more than two years ago, the channel is now available in about 140 million households in more than 100 countries and has 69 bureaus worldwide. According to, the Al Jazeera English Web site receives 22 million visits every month, with about 50% of its traffic coming from the U.S. and Canada. Even so, the channel is still hardly available anywhere in the U.S.

One of the basic rules of effective public diplomacy is listening and having a dialogue. Why then is Al Jazeera English, a channel providing a voice for billions of people around the world, not widely available in the U.S.? It’s not a hard question to answer actually; misconceptions about Al Jazeera aside, even Western international news channels such as BBC World and the American-owned CNN International are hardly available in the U.S.

Of course, no news outlet is completely unbiased; everyone ultimately has a point of view. But, by listening to different points of view, television audiences can get more of a complete picture of what is happening around the world. For example, Al Jazeera was the only English language network reporting from inside Gaza during the recent conflict there.

Being able to watch some BBC and Al Jazeera English would lead to a much more informed audience than by switching between MSNBC and Fox News. This, in turn, might just lead to a boon in U.S. public diplomacy. 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting to see that a news channel needs to run a PR campaign though I have questions about how effective it will be.

    If the presumption is that American audiences are primarily getting their news from MSNBC and Fox, how are they going to find any of this information about Al-Jazeera and take it as anything but propaganda?

    It seems to me that people self-select their source of information and that there is already a resistance to information and news from a perspective that conflicts with their worldview. Witness the conflicting claims of the "liberal agenda" and the "conservative agenda" in the media that occurs on a regular basis.
    There are other sources of information available to those who want to find them. If someone, however, is convinced that only their preferred source is accurate and unbiased I don't think they are likely to search out different sources.

    BBC America is also offered as a cable and satellite channel (as Al Jazerra would like to be) and it is not a competitive source of news in comparison to FOX, ABC, NBC, or CNN. As a cable or satellite channel there is a cost and accessibility barrier and unless Al Jazeera is available as a broadcast channel, I don't see how it will somehow create an informed audience.