Reporting the world differently: Al Jazeera’s stance

Part of what distinguishes Aljazeera is its atypical editorial line in reporting the world. Defining impartiality and objectivity in news reporting differently from the existing norms at the time was a major leap. In its pursuit for impartiality, Aljazeera guaranteed a large room of independence from the government of Qatar, although its critics would argue that it systematically steers away from criticizing Qatari government affairs or foreign policy (Seib, 2016).

In what follows, I will analyze examples from Aljazeera’s challenging news reporting, which has over the years distinguished it from other global news networks. Two cases in point were the war in Afghanistan in 2001 and the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In both instances one may argue that the channel stood as one of the biggest challenges for the American administration in these foreign-led wars, which in the absence of Aljazeera would have been easily sold to the Western public as well as people in the Middle East. For instance, the plethora of information, exclusive footage, and interviews coming from Aljazeera’s reports emphasized a dominant paradigm that the war in Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq were never just wars. The Aljazeera narrative on the Iraq War was that the strategic aim of the war was not to free the Iraqi people from a dictator (Saddam Hussain) and save the region from the weapons of mass destruction he amassed but to control the oil fields and build further military bases in the Middle East.

Moreover, the early existence of Al Jazeera’s offices in Afghanistan helped it report the invasion of Afghanistan 2001, in a manner Western audiences did not experience on CNN or the BBC. Aljazeera’s reporters in Kabul secured exclusive interviews with Al Qaida leaders (Osama bin Laden and Ayman Aldawahiri), who voiced starch criticism about the American administration. Live footage kept relaying on Al Jazeera’s airwaves the scale of destruction the USA army’s air raids in Afghanistan caused. Also, the scale of the casualties and destruction of Afghanis’ livelihoods changed the discourse of the war. The American government media machine found itself always on the defensive and hence in a challenging position to win the hearts and minds of Muslim publics around the world (Tatham, 2006).

Similarly, Al Jazeera’s early existence in Baghdad gave it an advantageous edge over other international channels in providing exclusive reports about the course of events on the ground. During the outbreak of the war on Iraq (March 2003), Aljazeera was concretely the eyes and ears of the world. One may argue that all of the aforementioned conflicts would not have been known to the world the way we know them if it was not for the camera of Aljazeera. This form of exclusive reporting also brought Al Jazeera to the world stage when the Tunisian revolution broke out on 14 January 2011.

Another aspect of Aljazeera’s distinctive reporting is related to the language of news. Terminology and choice of vocabulary in newsmaking is a sophisticated bundle of debates in the core of the ethics and values of journalism practice. An integral component of Aljazeera’s reporting is the unique choice of culturally specific vocabulary when reporting, for instance, from various parts of the Middle East. The alternative value that underlies its news coverage is therefore a commitment to the local voices it aims to represent while embedded in their daily reality.

The vocabulary of news reporting is a tricky area related to measuring bias or accuracy in the news. The terms “terrorism”/“terrorist,” for instance, have become one of the very controversial terminologies employed by the media in their news reporting. A longitudinal analysis of Aljazeera’s news reporting of the past 20 years tells that it is not hard to notice that the channel has always steered away from adopting such labels to describe rebel groups, freedom fighters, or even groups who use violence as a means for social change like Al Qaida and Daesh (IS1S/1S). In news stories as well as other documentary or discussion programs, the editorial line sticks to the name by which any given group is known or presents itself. Instead of saying, for example, “tandheem al Qaida al irhabi’’ (Al Qaida terrorist group) or “Tandheem al dawla al Islamia al irhabi’’ (the Islamic State terrorist group), Aljazeera would call them “Al Qaida” or “The Islamic State group.” In the same way and in covering the Palestinian—Israeli conflict, Al Jazeera does not associate the various Palestinian groups such as Hamas, Al Jihad Al Island (Islamic Jihad), Fatah, Kataib Al Qassam (the Al Qassam Brigades), and Al Jibha Al Sha’bia (the Popular Front) with terrorism. Such groups are always reported as legitimate Palestinian freedom fighter groups who are struggling against the Israeli colonization of the Palestinian land.

Finally, a significant aspect of Al Jazeeras distinctive news reporting is its obvious strategic approach in capitalizing on native reporters. In its various offices around the world, Aljazeera tends to employ locals who understand the language and dialect as well as cultural specificities of the region they report from. But, more importantly, those local reporters understand well the target audience of Al Jazeera and their concerns. Often global broadcasters are criticized for what a few call “parachute” journalism (Yusha’u 2015), in which reporters simply come from the metropolis of global centers and report about a land they little know about. News reporting of the war in Afghanistan since 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the Palestinian—Israeli conflict are cases in point (Miladi, 2006). For instance, various journalists working for global news channels tend to report the Palestinian—Israeli conflict from their comfort zones in a hotel somewhere in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. The Israeli wars on Gaza in 2009 and 2014 were examples in which scores of Western journalists had never been to Gaza while they reported daily news on the day-to-day aerial bombardment and the destruction of the city by the Israeli air force. The incursion of the Israeli army artillery used to be remotely reported from tens of miles away on global channels like CNN, BBC World, MSNBC, and Sky News, among many others (Philo and Berry, 2004).

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