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Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Global Toolbox

Al Jazeera: model news outlet?

By Bruce C. Swaffield

I like what I see these days at Al Jazeera. They are doing the kind of journalism that made me want to enter this profession in the first place.

Go to english.aljazeera.net and you’ll find live streams, video links, interactive pages for citizen journalists, compelling photographs and breaking news from around the world.

I know what you might be thinking right now. Yes, Al Jazeera may have an agenda — some social, political or religious bias. But look long enough at any media outlet in the world, including those in the United States, and you will find something to criticize.

I’m talking about Al Jazeera from a journalistic standpoint: getting to the heart of a story and telling it in a way that viewers and readers can feel and understand the impact, especially in its television coverage.

“Al Jazeera — not (‘The News Hour’ with Jim) Lehrer — is what the internationally minded elite class really yearns for: a visually stunning, deeply reported description of developments in dozens upon dozens of countries simultaneously,” Robert D. Kaplan said recently in “Why I Love Al Jazeera,” published in The Atlantic.

To prove his point, Kaplan spent a number of days watching the Al Jazeera English channel. “I was treated to penetrating portraits of Eritrean and Ethiopian involvement in the Somali war, of the struggle of Niger River rebels against the Nigerian government in the oil-rich south of the country, of the floods in Bangladesh, of problems with the South African economy, of the danger that desertification poses to Bedouin life in northern Sudan, of the environmental devastation around the Aral Sea” and so on.

He’s right. I still remember watching Al Jazeera for the first time a few years ago when I was in Rome, Italy. I was immediately struck by the fact that the stories were told by ordinary individuals in their own words and perspectives, not by the reporters themselves. They got out of the way and did not try to interpret everything. They let the people and events speak for themselves.

“I would say that Al Jazeera has become successful due to its commitment to putting the human being at the center of our news agenda,” said Wadah Khanfar, director-general of the Al Jazeera Network. “When Al Jazeera started in 1996, there were no independent news networks in the Arab world. We broke the mold of state-controlled media by giving a voice to ordinary people, the marginalized and opposing points of view.”

What really separates Al Jazeera from mainstream media is its unique method of reporting news and information. According to Khanfar, “Our stories are more compelling because our approach to news is rooted in fieldwork. While many news networks have centralized their operations, we continue to focus on having correspondents live in the regions that they report from.

“We now have an extensive network of almost 70 bureaus across the world,” added Khanfar, who oversees a staff of 2,500. “This allows us to go beyond the immediacy of headlines and bring a much deeper perspective to issues that incorporate the complexity of historical, social, political and cultural contexts for a story.” Those at Al Jazeera call this technique “journalism of depth,” and it’s obviously what their viewers want.

“Al Jazeera has grown enormously and is ultra successful,” said Joanne Tucker, who from 2002 to 2004 was Arabic newsroom assignment desk producer and managing editor of the English war coverage site. She said the programs are “viewed by tens of millions — especially the main daily 90-minute broadcasts and some of the political talk shows, or daily interviews with the hottest regional figures, because the Arabic channel has perfected the original formula.”

“That is, (the network tries) to focus on highest value, political and economic news from the Middle East, Arab and Islamic world … with guests that are always top of the line, not just from the Arab world and the Middle East (Israelis are regularly hosted) but from Europe and the U.S. The channel looks good, gets straight to the point and is balanced and authoritative.”

Whether Al Jazeera will continue such unprecedented growth and popularity remains to be seen. Right now, they are making plans to reach even more people in the future.

“We continue to extend our mission and vision into new territories and markets,” Khanfar said. “We launched Al Jazeera English just under three years ago to extend our journalistic philosophy to the English-speaking world. The channel has already won many awards for its coverage of stories from under-reported regions of the world, and this year was nominated for an Emmy.

“By focusing on our core strength, which is journalism rooted in the field, we will continue to excel at what we do best,” he said. “While many channels and networks focus on the centers of power, we dedicate our screen to the margins of power where many times the real story is taking shape. We hope, in the future, to add to the existing lineup with channels and services in different languages so we can reach out to different audiences across the world.”

As a fellow journalist, I wish them well. All of us are working together to serve the public in innovative ways in this new global community. I look forward to watching what Al Jazeera does based on what they have already accomplished.

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