“Their news is so much better,” she said, looking up from her iPad screen.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because ours is such crap.”
My media critic-spouse was watching Al Jazeera English and comparing its Middle East coverage to that of the mainstream U.S. media. She unknowingly echoed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Al Jazeera was providing better coverage than U.S. mainstream media.
It’s a question getting serious attention today: Is Al Jazeera a serious news provider in which we can place trust?
The root of the question goes to the image of Al Jazeera as the medium through which Osama bin Laden chose to make his public condemnations of the United States after 9/11. With virtually no access to the network, U.S. audiences were left to conclude it was at least a tool of radical Islamists, if not a voice.
That perception is now being challenged by the network’s in-depth coverage of the uprisings occurring in its own backyard, Doha, Qatar. The coverage is straightforward, in-depth and comprehensive. It is giving exposure to human rights activists, people in the street and, when possible, to those leaders defending the status quo. But it’s clear that Al Jazeera’s English network coverage leans toward giving voice to those advocating for democracy, and this puts it at odds with governments bent on silencing dissent and experienced at using oppressive tactics to hold on to power. And it’s in sharp contrast to state-controlled media.
Al Jazeera English staff were beaten along with other journalists in Egypt, and its Cairo bureau was ransacked and closed. Reporters continued to phone in reports from the street level until they could restore live feeds.
I’ve been viewing Al Jazeera’s English-language coverage online since the start of the Egyptian uprising, and it’s been immensely more informative than any other source.
Its reporters have access to a wide variety of knowledgeable people who provide insight into the region and to country-specific circumstances. This coverage is deeper and offers more context than we see in U.S. electronic media.
Al Jazeera seems to believe our attention spans can hold on through a five- or 10-minute interview or a 30-minute panel discussion. And the truth is, when the information is compelling, informed and fresh, we can.
The network offers global news that rivals other providers and exceeds anything I’ve seen in U.S. electronic media. I’ve watched its documentaries and discussion programs and found the information reliable and relevant on a wide range of subjects.
This discussion at Columbia University of new media is but one example.
In a recent interview with Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator’s son and heir-apparent, correspondent Anita McNaught pushed and probed with hard questions, at one point telling him as he interrupted to let her finish her question. It was an intriguing insight into his current rationalization of the violence in Libya, in contrast to his past statements about human rights and the need for democracy throughout the region.
So, do I trust Al Jazeera English as a news source? Yes, until I have reason not to. And that’s the stance I believe we must take today toward all news providers. Dan Gillmor writes that we must move from passive-consumption to become hands-on users of news and information.
We must have a healthly skepticism coupled with critical thinking in which we compare the information we hear from multiple sources and apply our own knowledge and experience against standards of fairness, accuracy and completeness.
Gillmor offers five principles: be skeptical, exercise judgment, open your mind, keep asking questions, and learn media techniques.
Using these principles as a guide, plus my own experience traveling the globe and my near-pervasive skepticism of all media, I am becoming a viewer who thinks Al Jazeera is a trustworthy provider until proven otherwise.