The Al Jazeera moment and Western journalism
In February this year, as frenzied protests rocked Cairo's Tahrir Square, veteran US journalist Sam Donaldson voiced an on-air thank you to Al Jazeera for its coverage of the political unrest in Arab world. The endorsement was a blow to the elite US press, which has long dismissed the Arab news operation as overzealous, biased and unprofessional. However, there was more to come. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee in early March that the U. S. was losing the “information war”; TV viewers, including the White House, were turning to Al Jazeera because it offers ‘real news’. There could be no clearer signal that the ‘Al Jazeera moment’ had arrived.
In this paper, the AJ moment serves as a departure point for considering three challenges faced by Western journalists covering the ‘Arab Spring’: first, the world news agenda is no longer set in Washington, New York or London alone; second, translators increasingly mediate journalist-source interactions and, third, news narratives have had to be fundamentally rewritten to somehow convince audiences that yesterday’s ‘terrorists’ have become today’s ‘freedom fighters’.
This paper argues that professional journalism is being forced to address, rather than shrug off yet again, criticisms of Western bias, media racism and cultural myopia. It suggests the most significant consequence of these developments is that objectivity, the troublesome but longstanding ‘universal benchmark for news quality’, is being sidelined and replaced by the Al Jazeerian notion of ‘balanced reporting’ that examines events from ‘diverse angles’. The paper canvasses innovative and experimental professional journalistic practices that seek to engage with and represent the multiple voices and perspectives competing for global attention, but signals that these remain somewhat marginal.
About the presenter: Dr Penny O’Donnell lectures in International Media and Journalism: http://sydney.edu.au/arts/media_communications/staff/penny_odonnell.shtml).
Her current research, funded by an ARC Linkage grant in partnership with the Walkley Foundation and A/Prof David McKnight (UNSW), investigates the future of newspaper journalism.