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Posted: Sunday, Oct. 12, 2008

Al-Jazeera helps broaden viewers' ideas, study finds

By Mark Washburn
Published in: Mark Washburn

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A Queens University of Charlotte professor studying the impact of Al-Jazeera's English-language network has found those exposed to the channel became less dogmatic in their views the more they watched.

Mohammed el-Nawawy, assistant professor of communication at Queens, surveyed 597 viewers in six countries to judge the impact of the channel, launched in November 2006 by the Emir of Qatar's Al-Jazeera Arabic network.

Part of the survey included a scale of open-mindedness that tested how much people rejected views in opposition to their own, had blind respect for authority and believed issues had a single correct viewpoint.

“More months they had been watching Al-Jazeera English, the less dogmatic they were,” said el-Nawawy, a Cairo native who has the Knight-Crane Endowed Chair at Queens.

He said he believes that people exposed to Al-Jazeera English become more accepting of other philosophies because the network does in-depth pieces – sometimes only two or three per hour rather than the sound-bite journalism popular on other news channels – and provides multiple viewpoints. Despite its Arab roots, el-Nawawy says, the English-language network often features interviews with Americans or Israelis on international news.

As viewers are more exposed to varied viewpoints, they tend to drift from a black-and-white world view, el-Nawawy believes. “It's a latent, not immediate, impact on the viewer.”

For the $60,000 study, paid for by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, el-Nawawy and co-researcher Shawn Powers, a research fellow at the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, surveyed viewers in Malaysia, Indonesia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Viewers of the English-language channel tend to be more upscale, better educated and more multilingual than the general population, el-Nawawy said. Those drawn to the channel tended to be more critical of U.S. policies in Palestine and on the war in Iraq than regular viewers of CNN World and the BBC's international service. Fox News Channel was not included in the study.

“People don't go to media for information, but affirmation,” el-Nawawy said the study showed. “They seek media that meets their expectations. They feel good about themselves if they connect with a medium that supports their ideology.”

Al-Jazeera's Arabic channel was strongly criticized for its coverage of the invasion of Iraq and U.S. policies in the Middle East by the Bush administration. Al-Jazeera's English language channel is carried by three U.S. cable systems – in Burlington, Vt.; Washington, D.C.; and Toledo, Ohio. Toledo was selected for surveys in the United States because of its large Arab community. Al-Jazeera English is also available on the satellite service Globecast WorldTV. Worldwide, the English-language channel is available in an estimated 120 million households.

El-Nawawy's study will be presented in November at a conference of the Arab-U.S. Association for Communication Educators in Richmond.

On the Web: www.ajerp.com

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