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Northwestern Closely Watching Al-Jazeera America Launch

Journalism faculty, students are partnering with the new television network

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August 28, 2013 | by Brendan Cosgrove

EVANSTON, Ill. --- With its launch Aug. 20, Al-Jazeera America enters a crowded marketplace of cable television news networks competing for a share of an increasingly fragmented U.S. viewing public. Its progress will be watched with more than passing interest by journalism faculty and students on Northwestern University’s campuses in both Evanston and Doha, Qatar, home of the network’s parent company, Al-Jazeera Media Network.

“I think their objective is really to compete in the American marketplace like the big names are,” Rachel Davis Mersey, associate professor of journalism at Northwestern, told WTTW-TV’s “Chicago Tonight.” “They don’t want to be a niche network. They want to be of service to the American public.”

Mersey, who has done consulting work for Al-Jazeera America, said only time will tell whether the network can overcome the potentially negative public perception associated with its parent company, which was criticized following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for broadcasting video messages from Osama Bin Laden.

“Certainly what we’re seeing at Al-Jazeera America is no evidence that it’s anti-American,” she said, noting that the network has only been on the air for a short period of time. “Only their coverage is really going to tell us what the American public thinks.”

Meanwhile, some students at Northwestern University in Qatar have high hopes that success at Al-Jazeera America and continued success of its Middle East-based parent network will lead to more journalistic reforms in Qatar. While Al-Jazeera Media Network is based in Doha, the company does little reporting on the country.

“We’re not a society that shares everything and shares the news. It’s very private,” Yara Darwish, a Qatari senior studying journalism at NU-Q told Public Radio International’s “The World,” which is broadcast on many National Public Radio member stations.

“If you look at Al Jazeera compared to the local news, and the local newspapers and the local television, it’s completely different,” she said. “I would love to work for Al-Jazeera. If I go there, I’m just going to absorb what they teach me and then bring it back to Qatar. I wanted to join the journalism field because I really wanted to change how journalism is perceived in Qatar.”

Darwish and other Northwestern journalism students, both in Evanston and Doha, will have the opportunity to witness the evolution of Al-Jazeera and Al-Jazeera America firsthand through a continuing partnership between the University and the networks.

NU-Q signed a memorandum of understanding with Al-Jazeera in March that will allow professionals and budding journalists from both the University and the network to benefit from the combined expertise of the two institutions through joint research and strategic studies projects, training workshops, a co-designed lecture series, internships and faculty contributions as well as journalist-exchange programs.

In addition, Al-Jazeera America unveiled its goals and news philosophy during an April 2013 panel discussion at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. At that event, Ehab Al Shihabi, the network’s executive director for international operations, announced a new internship program specifically for Medill students. He also stressed the new network would provide even more opportunities for Northwestern students and alumni to join a well-funded news organization that is committed to journalistic excellence and in need of a talented and diverse staff.

For more information on Al-Jazeera America, visit http://america.aljazeera.com/.