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The Age of Affirmation

A new study finds that people watch the news more for affirmation than for information.

When you turn on the evening news, are you actually hoping to learn something?

A new study suggests that viewers worldwide turn to particular broadcasters to affirm — rather than inform — their opinions. It's a notion familiar to those dismayed by the paths blazed by cable news networks Fox and MSNBC — although the study finds one (perhaps unlikely) network may actually foster greater intellectual openness.

The study in the December issue of Media, War & Conflict by Shawn Powers, a fellow at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, and Mohammed el-Nawawy, an assistant professor in the department of communication at Queens University of Charlotte, found that the longer viewers had been watching Al Jazeera English, the less dogmatic they were in their opinions and therefore more open to considering alternative and clashing opinions.

Al Jazeera English is a global news network that "aims to give voice to untold stories, promote debate, and challenge established perceptions." Launched on Nov. 15, 2006, the network is accessible to more than 120 million households worldwide; it is currently available on only a handful of satellite networks in the United States.

The network is based in Doha, Qatar, and is funded by the Qatari government, a U.S. ally.

There has been fierce opposition to the network from groups in the United States, such as Accuracy in the Media, that have decried it as a "terrorist news network" due to its connection to Al Jazeera Arabic, an older satellite network known for broadcasting tapes made by Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. In the wake of 9/11, then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell even urged the Qataris to shut the network down.

Powers and el-Nawawy point out that satellite television, first introduced to the Arab world during the 1991 Gulf War, altered both the structure of the global news media system and its role in times of war. Although the invention had the potential to provide a truly global forum for cross-cultural communication, the researchers found that audiences around the world increasingly turn to broadcasters not for new world news, but for information that fits within their pre-existing worldviews.

The researchers drew on a six-country study of the media viewing habits and cultural, political and psychological temperaments of viewers of three global news networks: the U.S.-based Cable News Network International, the United Kingdom's BBC World and Al Jazeera English. The study relied on "media system dependency theory," which suggests that media are best viewed as an information system whose effectiveness relies on the scarcity or exclusivity of their information resources.

Their work focused on people who had watched AJE within the past month and provides a record of the attitudes of the viewers, relative to their dependence on AJE, CNNI and BBC as information sources, as well as the duration and frequency of their AJE viewership.

The researchers conducted a cross-sectional survey on selectively chosen global news audiences in Malaysia, Indonesia, Qatar, Kuwait, the U.K., and the U.S. These countries were chosen for their relative levels of AJE viewership and their ability to signify existing cultural perspectives on the "West versus Islam" culture clash.

Whether or not you agree with the intellectual "father of the clash of civilizations," Samuel P. Huntington (and there is no shortage of scholars weighing in on that debate), Huntington's prediction that the confrontation between "Western" and "Islamic" would dominate the world stage well into the 21st century may seem disturbingly true (although some argue that his prophecy was self-fulfilling).

A 2006 study conducted by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that many Westerners see Muslims as "fanatical, violent, and lacking tolerance," whereas Muslims in the Middle East and Asia see Westerners as "selfish, immoral, and greedy — as well as violent and fanatical."

In times of war, Powers and el-Nawawy argue, the mainstream media are more likely to tailor their coverage to reinforce the attitudes of their viewers rather than provide the more detached viewpoint traditionally expected in reporting. But AJE seeks to transcend the nation-based paradigm and still provide a personalized, journalistically sound perspective on global events. In other words, it tries to avoid the "war journalism" approach.

Powers and el-Nawawy show that global media consumers tuned in to international news media that they thought would further substantiate their opinions about U.S. policies and culture, and provide them with information on the international issues that they deemed most important. The study found a strong relationship between the participants' attitudes toward U.S. policy and culture and their choice of broadcaster. Those who were dependent on BBC World and especially CNNI were overall more supportive of U.S. foreign policy.

But researchers found that the longer participants had been watching AJE, the less dogmatic they were in their thinking, as measured by a survey evaluating dependence on particular networks and support for U.S. policies. This is not to say that AJE viewers were not affected by the opinions promoted by the network: The more frequently participants tuned into AJE, the less supportive they were of the U.S. policy toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the more critical they became of U.S. policy in Iraq.

The reduced dogmatism applies only to the cognitive levels of thinking, or the way in which people process new information. People who are less dogmatic in their thought are more open to information that contradicts their worldviews, whereas people who think very dogmatically are more likely to ignore or minimize information that does not support their own beliefs. These levels of dogmatism are strongly related to political and cultural tolerance, and how people behave in confrontational situations.

Over time, these effects may strengthen. Michael Bruter, a senior lecturer at the London School of Economics, found that biased news had a "time bomb" effect on the European Union citizens who participated in his study: A steady diet of intentionally skewed news did not immediately affect readers' opinions, but they did have an impact on citizens' opinions six months after the biased flow shut off.

The idea that media consumers may tune into news that supports their opinions is illustrated by a study of viewers of Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, who see the satirical comedian's act as nodding toward their political beliefs — regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum. Liberals see his bombastic comments as a parody of conservative talk shows; conservatives see him making digs at liberalism.

Powers and el-Nawawy are hopeful that the power of the news may be harnessed for good. "The positive relationship between the length of AJE viewership and lower levels of dogmatism offers promise that global news media, when working to combat a counterproductive style of 'war journalism,' can indeed be a positive and proactive force in the creation of a global civil society."

Whether or not major news networks will abandon the principles of war journalism, however, remains to be seen.

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