Can ‘Unbiased, Fact-Based, In-Depth’ Environmental News Compete?

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Al Jazeera America says it is out to advance environmental news coverage on cable TV. And it’s not letting up … but can it compete with the likes, for instance, of reality TV, Donald Trump or ‘the Biebs’?

The cable TV news market may be saturated with political pundits, vacuous ramblings, sitcom reruns, and ratings-driven maneuvers, but there may be something of a market too for straight down-the-middle news programming. That’s the world of cable TV in the United States as seen, and as hoped for, by Al Jazeera America, the fledgling cable network that launched in late August.

Al Jazeera America is betting on a serious approach to news. It’s a peculiar species in the cable news landscape. Nonpartisan reporting and a fair dose of old-school shoe-leather journalism comprise the majority of the new network’s 14-hour a day news programming.

Scant Air Time for Donald Trump and Justin Bieber

Donald Trump’s rants about a climate conspiracy have received no mention at all on Al Jazeera America. Nor has the network featured countless “think tank” pundits raving about their belief that wintry weather in one year and one place or another refutes global warming. (The network did, however, deliver a short brief on Justin Bieber’s arrest.) Instead, Al Jazeera America offers original reporting on the environment from a growing team of correspondents on the ground.

One environment newscast, for instance, detailed how green energy demand in Europe is threatening Louisiana forests. In another show, the network reported on demonstrators who set fire to a highway and defied a court injunction protesting against a Texas-based company’s fracking efforts.

And, after the recent West Virginia chemical spill into thousands of residents’ drinking water supplies, the network reported from an array of angles. For instance, it covered the expense of buying water for those affected by the spill, many of them living in poverty: “[T]he richest shrug off inconveniences brought on by the contamination while the poorest struggle to obtain one of life’s basic necessities.”

From its beginning, Al Jazeera America has held promise for more and deeper environmental coverage. Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group, reported that on its first day on the air, “Al Jazeera America gave climate change nearly half as much coverage as network news programs did during the year 2012, all while avoiding common pitfalls like providing false balance to those that deny the science and leaving the crisis’ manmade origins ambiguous.”

Now Al Jazeera America says it is expanding its coverage of science and technology news despite other older and more-established cable channels’ having cut them out long ago.

In December the network hired Popular Science editor-in-chief Jacob Ward as its science and technology news correspondent. The network’s goal is to cover the stories that are off the radar screen of most other cable news programs, Peter Moskowitz, a digital news producer for Al Jazeera America, said in a phone interview.

Parent company Al Jazeera Media Network, which is owned by the government of Qatar, formed Al Jazeera America after it bought Current TV, founded in 2005 by a team featuring former Vice President Al Gore, for a reported $500 million. The new Al Jazeera subsidiary initially positioned itself to broadcast 60 percent international news and 40 percent in-depth news and investigative reporting for the U.S. market. Two months after its launch, the network’s leadership changed course and began devoting most of its programming to news of America.

Lots of Employees, U.S. Bureaus … But Where is the Audience?

Based in New York City and with 800 employees, Al Jazeera America’s reporting relies heavily on its on-the-ground coverage. It has correspondents in 12 news bureaus across the country, including Washington, D.C., Chicago, Seattle, Dallas and Los Angeles, and it says it plans to expand to new bureaus over the next year.

The channel is available in 55 million homes via major cable providers, but it hasn’t fared well in ratings. The network attracted just 13,000 views daily in its first months, according to reports. But leadership has said it’s not looking at short-term ratings, but rather to its main goal of establishing a U.S. presence.

New marketing efforts combined with the recent addition of Time Warner Cable as an outlet are expected to increase audience numbers. Additionally, Time Warner has moved the network from an obscure location — channel 181 — to channel 57, within closer reach of channel surfers.

Some Big-Name Hires … But There’s Also the ‘Baggage’

The network has hired several veteran and respected broadcast journalists, including, for instance Soledad O’Brien from CNN, former NBC weekend anchor John Seigenthaler, former CNN business correspondent Ali Velshi, and former MSNBC journalist David Shuster. They all say publicly that they were attracted to Al Jazeera America by what they see as its emphasis on and commitment to serious television news (a term, admittedly, that many might find an oxymoron).

Columbia Journalism Review has called the network “NPR with pictures (and a little baggage)“, two points that anchor John Seigentaler addressed when he appeared recently for an interview on The Colbert Report.

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The particular “baggage” that both CJR and news-satirist Stephen Colbert referred to — serious news, and the Islamaphobia that has lingered with Al Jazeera media after it showed tapes produced by Al Qaeda — remain among Al Jazeera America’s biggest hurdles.

Can, and will, American TV audiences handle getting their news from a network with ties to the royal family of Qatar? And will they develop trust in a network they identify, fairly or otherwise, as “being one of them, and not one of us”? Even if so, will they really prefer in-depth reporting presented without bias rather than that which reaffirms their own pre-existing convictions? And might they find it “boring” or not sufficiently entertaining, when experts say most people in the comfort of their homes turn to television not for information or education, but rather for entertainment and “escape”?

For now, and based on its first half-year of programming, expect the network to focus on un-slanted reporting on the environment and on the impacts of climate change, with an emphasis on evidence-based science and credible sources rather than talking heads’ screaming in-your-face he said/she said “infotainment.”

Lisa Palmer

Lisa Palmer is a Maryland-based freelance writer and a Public Policy Scholar at The Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. She is a regular contributor to Yale Climate Connections. (E-mail: lisa@yaleclimateconnections.org, Twitter: @Lisa_Palmer)
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