UA study: Al-Jazeera’s Arab-language website doesn’t treat news differently than its English-language site -- April 2011

At a time when the world is closely watching revolution in the Middle East, people can be confident that the news they get from the English version of Al-Jazeera does not differ from the news being displayed to Arab viewers, according to a study by a University of Arizona journalism professor.

In a study published in the recent issue of The International Communication Gazette, UA Associate Professor Shahira Fahmy compared the content of Al-Jazeera’s English online coverage to its Arabic-language coverage. Some critics of Arab media in general, and more specifically Al-Jazeera, say that the news for English-language speakers has a more pro-Western viewpoint but inflames hatred toward Americans and Europeans with anti-Western content for its Arab audience in Arabic.

Fahmy and Mohammed Al Emad, a student from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, studied 238 articles from March 2004 about the U.S. conflict with Al Qaeda to note the prominence of the stories, including frequency and placement, use of sources, and tone of coverage. They found some difference in placement of stories between the English and Arabic website versions, but no other differences. On both websites, the overwhelming majority of attributed sources were from the U.S. and its allies. Also, both Al-Jazeera websites did not shy away from negative coverage regarding all those involved in the conflict.

“I am happy this study is getting published in the West because when I hear people say that the Arabic version of news includes the language of terror organizations, while the English version of news has them removed, it shows me we need a better understanding of how news is portrayed in different languages,” Fahmy said.

Al-Jazeera was the first 24-hour all-news cable television network in the Arab world, launched in 1996, and is considered the leading independent news source in the Middle East. The network started an Arabic Internet website in January 2001, and then an English-language website in 2003. Fahmy chose March 2004 to analyze stories because it was the first anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and attacks by Al Qaeda against U.S. troops were on the rise.

Out of the 238 stories analyzed, 139 were downloaded from the Arabic-language website and 99 from the English website. Each story had two sources, on average, and most of those were from the U.S. or coalition countries. Only about a third of the sources represented Al Qaeda. Most importantly, Fahmy found that the stories didn’t differ in tone of coverage and that overall the English-and Arab-language websites did not provide different perspectives of the war to Arabic- and English-language online users.

Fahmy explains, “I think there should be more comparative research in this area because we rely heavily on the media for information about international crises around the world. And in many countries including the United States, the public lacks direct contact with Al-Jazeera. This lack of access leads to a lack of knowledge about the network’s content produced in different languages specifically regarding issues related to war and terrorism. This lack knowledge might then act as a catalyst for a more polarized public opinion worldwide.”

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