I watched an episode of the PBS series Wide Angle about Al Jazeera, a TV news channel that provides coverage of world events with a worldview that’s very different from similar channels in the U.S. It got me thinking about the value of consuming news from around the world with a variety of perspectives.
A global perspective
Since its launch in 1996, Al Jazeera has expanded from a single Arabic-language channel to multiple channels (including an English-language channel) as well as a worldwide, multilingual website with live and pre-taped streaming video content.
I think Al Jazeera’s most powerful influence in the world today is their ability to provide a fundamentally different view of the day’s events than a viewer’s other options in his or her home country. Instead of providing a predominantly Western view like other outlets available to us, Al Jazeera represents a perspective from people actually living and working in the Middle East.
Now of course, even the English version of the channel is not available on most cable and satellite systems in the U.S., which is a major obstacle. But even though Al Jazeera English has yet to take off in the U.S. as they had hoped, the channel is still somewhat of a force in media. The U.S. media must pay attention when Al Jazeera breaks a news story, and anyone in the U.S. can access the Al Jazeera website to gain knowledge from a different perspective.
In the Arab world, Al Jazeera’s most powerful influence probably comes from the fact that they are an independent voice, representing freedom of speech in a region that does not have much of it to go around. Many other news media in the Middle East are controlled by the government of the country in which they reside, so their ability to provide an accurate, balanced picture of world events is severely limited. Al Jazeera, on the other hand, is free to present events as they see them.
Importantly, Al Jazeera doesn’t seem to be afraid to take unpopular stances with governments around the world in order to present what they believe is the most accurate representation of a news story.
The value of “Unfiltered”
Al Jazeera has developed a reputation of offering “unfiltered” and transparent reporting, which can be both positive and negative. Shortly after 9/11, the channel became known worldwide for airing videotapes by Osama bin Laden. Although there was certainly a newsworthy value to those tapes and U.S. channels re-aired them, Al Jazeera faced criticism for airing them in the first place. The Bush administration began to imply that Al Jazeera was siding with the terrorists, and as silly as it may seem, some people began to develop the idea that Al Jazeera itself was a network operated by terrorists.
After the Iraq war began and the channel began to air POW interrogations and images of dead British soldiers, as we saw in the video, the American and British governments’ sentiment against the channel increased. Al Jazeera was now seen by some people as a channel that supported the rebels in Iraq and wanted coalition soldiers to be humiliated or even killed.
It was certainly a very controversial choice on the channel’s part to air those pictures, but I respect their decision to air what they believed was an important news story without caving to pressure from various governments. I know I was dissatisfied with U.S. media and their lack of ability to report any dissenting or opposing views on the war back in 2003, so I suppose it would have been just as refreshing as it was heartbreaking to see such pictures.
It’s obviously a very uneasy and depressing situation, but ultimately it’s not a bad thing to get a glimpse at reality. It’s an awful reality that never should have happened, but it did, so it doesn’t do us any good to pretend it’s not happening by never reporting the true horror of the situation. Such ignorance can only fuel complacence, which in turn fuels a never-ending war, so Al Jazeera may be doing somewhat of a service by showing the world not what they want to see, but perhaps what they need to see.