Is Al Jazeera America Simply CNN, Minus Wolf Blitzer?

It’s been just under a month since Al Jazeera America first hit the airwaves, and what a month it’s been — with the Syria story lurching from seemingly imminent U.S. strikes to a looming congressional vote to this weekend’s chemical weapons deal. The fast-churning news cycle has provided plenty of fodder for media watchers who ...

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

It’s been just under a month since Al Jazeera America first hit the airwaves, and what a month it’s been — with the Syria story lurching from seemingly imminent U.S. strikes to a looming congressional vote to this weekend’s chemical weapons deal. The fast-churning news cycle has provided plenty of fodder for media watchers who wondered before the launch whether Al Jazeera America would distinguish itself from its competitors. Would the network reflect its Qatari heritage, and if so, how? Would American viewers encounter a familiar cable news format or, say, more non-American voices on the air and more stories from far-flung bureaus and the Arab world?

This morning, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism is out with a new report that addresses these questions through the lens of Al Jazeera’s handling of its first big story: Syria. And after viewing 21 hours of cable news on Syria across five networks, measuring coverage using five metrics, the researchers have arrived at an answer: So far, anyway, Al Jazeera America is more or less CNN — minus Wolf Blitzer, and with a snazzier logo.

“The content that Al Jazeera America provided in many ways resembled the coverage on the three major cable competitors” — that is, CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, told Foreign Policy. “Typical American cable viewers … would get a perspective that I think would seem familiar to them.”

Pew studied the network’s coverage of the Syria crisis over the span of six days: from Aug. 26, when Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at the State Department, said chemical weapons were used in Syria and accused Bashar al-Assad’s regime of destroying the evidence, to Aug. 31, when President Barack Obama told the nation of his plans to bring a vote on the Syria intervention before Congress. The report applied metrics ranging from the framing of a story (Is it, say, about whether the U.S. should intervene, or the humanitarian crisis in the region?) to the sources consulted (Are they members of the Obama administration? Members of Congress? Syrians?) to the locations from which stories are filed (Damascus or Washington, D.C.?).

Here are some of Pew’s key findings:

Where Stories Originated

Seventy-six percent of Al Jazeera America’s Syria stories originated in Washington, D.C., or New York City (even though Al Jazeera has more than 60 bureaus around the world), compared with 71 percent for CNN, 85 percent for MSNBC, and a whopping 94 percent for Fox News. That figure was only 19 percent for BBC America (an additional 42 percent of the BBC’s coverage originated in London). Al Jazeera America’s headquarters are in New York City.

The BBC and CNN had more stories originating from Syria itself — 17 percent and 10 percent, respectively — compared with Al Jazeera America’s 1 percent. As the researchers point out, these results are probably a function of which networks could actually gain access to Syria (the Syrian government is no fan of Qatar-based Al Jazeera).

How Stories Were Framed:

Forty-three percent of Al Jazeera America’s Syria coverage focused on the American-centric question of whether the U.S. should get involved in the conflict, compared with 36 percent for CNN, 62 percent for MSNBC, 64 percent for Fox, and 25 percent for the BBC.

Pew’s researchers also examined what messages cropped up in all this coverage: How often did viewers hear a source advocating for U.S. military involvement? How often did they hear a source advocating against intervention? (This wasn’t treated as a zero-sum game — the two messages could both show up in the same report.)

What they found was fascinating. Forty-three percent of Al Jazeera’s Syria stories included a message that the U.S. should take military action in Syria, compared with 45 percent for CNN, 45 percent for Fox, 64 percent for MSNBC, and 42 percent for the BBC.

In other words, with the exception of MSNBC, the networks all had a similar share of coverage containing messages advocating intervention. But the results shifted when it came to messages about why the U.S. should not get involved. Twenty-four percent of Al Jazeera’s coverage included such a message, compared with 23 percent for CNN, 20 percent for Fox, 39 percent for MSNBC, and 40 percent for the BBC. The upshot? BBC America was the only network that had roughly an even split between voices advocating for and against U.S. military involvement in Syria. The split on Al Jazeera America was much closer to that of CNN and Fox.

What Sources Were Consulted

President Obama or members of his administrations were cited as sources in 66 percent of Al Jazeera’s stories, compared with 59 percent for CNN, 54 percent for MSNBC, 75 percent for Fox, and 40 percent for the BBC.

The BBC, meanwhile, had more Syrian sources in its coverage than Al Jazeera, with Syrian voices appearing in 38 percent of stories compared with Al Jazeera’s 26 percent. Al Jazeera also had a higher share of U.S. military and diplomatic sources than any other network studied.

Not all of Al Jazeera’s coverage mirrored CNN’s. The channel, for instance, had more stories than any other network on the growing humanitarian crisis in the region, though these pieces still constituted a mere 6 percent of its coverage (there’s a depressing statistic for you). Pew researchers single out the evening of Aug. 30, when the network aired at 12-minute story on conditions for Syrian refugees in neighboring countries like Turkey and Lebanon. And though an abundance of Al Jazeera’s coverage originated in the United States, it also had more stories than the other networks datelined from Middle Eastern countries that weren’t Syria, providing regional perspective on the crisis. Despite its pledge to offer “more real news,” 37 percent of Al Jazeera’s stories took the form of commentary or opinion rather than reporting — putting it more on par with MSNBC (36%) and Fox (41%) than with the BBC (23%) and CNN (14%).

What the Pew report doesn’t explore is whether Al Jazeera simply has yet to deliver on its promise to offer a fresh form of cable news, or whether it is covering the news out of Syria in a similar fashion to networks like CNN as part of a deliberate strategy to attract hesitant American viewers (admittedly, Pew only studied six days of coverage — a snapshot of the channel’s ambitious launch).

In a statement, Al Jazeera America President Kate O’Brian called the study “validating” — which it is, in a way (providing similar coverage to CNN isn’t bad for a young network — especially one denounced by critics as “a media operation owned by a foreign dictator”). “As the report indicates, Al Jazeera America’s coverage shows that it is an American news channel that provides unbiased, fact-based reporting that doesn’t have a partisan or other point of view,” O’Brian noted.

There is, however, a contingent of viewers who were looking to Al Jazeera for a fundamentally different kind of cable news. Baltimore Sun TV critic David Zurawik, for one, has been championing Al Jazeera, with its dozens of bureaus around the world, as a potential alternative voice on television.

“The bias [of Al Jazeera] is toward a geographic orientation or consequent set of narratives described as ‘Global South,'” Zurawik wrote back in January. “And given U.S. history, it is one we desperately need to understand and think about if we are truly going to function globally in the new world order.”

For those who share Zurawik’s hopes, a report saying Al Jazeera is taking the same approach as CNN is likely disappointing.

Seen any of Al Jazeera America’s Syria coverage? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.