Al-Jazeera to be JR option

Nathalie Tadena

Al-Jazeera, the largest Arabic news network in the Middle East, has officially become a partner site for the Medill School of Journalism’s Journalism Residency program.

Students could intern with the network’s English broadcast channel as early as Fall Quarter, said Michele Bitoun, senior director of undergraduate education at Medill.

The agreement was finalized when Bitoun met with an Al-Jazeera news director in March during a trip to attend the inaugural ceremony for NU’s satellite campus in Qatar, which has been offering classes in journalism and media studies since August.

As part of the JR program, all Medill upperclassmen intern full-time at a publication or news station for one quarter. Typically, no more than one student is sent to a particular JR site each quarter.

“We’re always looking for the right site for the right student,” Bitoun said.

Founded in 1996 in Doha with a grant from the Emir of Qatar, Al-Jazeera is the fastest-growing TV network among Arabic speakers worldwide. In 2006, the network created a second channel in English, becoming the first global English news station with headquarters in the Middle East.

The network has become “extremely important,” in the region, said Bob Zelnick, a professor of journalism at Boston University and former ABC News bureau chief.

“It’s the first Arabic-language network that has some legitimacy in its claim to independence,” Zelnick said. “It may be financed by wealthy individuals, but so are the networks in the United States.”

In the post-Sept. 11 era, the network has been subject to criticism, especially for its broadcast of videos from al-Qaeda leaders.

“It became a convenient target because they were saying very critical things or covering things such as civilian casualties that American policymakers were not eager for the rest of the world to see,” said Philip Seib, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California and author of “The Al Jazeera Effect.” “Sometimes it’s called a terrorist network or bin Laden’s network, which is really nonsense. The criticism of Al-Jazeera is based more on political concerns than journalistic concerns.”

The Qatar Campus’s 17 current journalism majors will complete a JR internship during the spring semester of their junior year.

Their available JR sites will be finalized in the next year and a half, said NU-Q Medill Dean Richard Roth. He said he has been talking to many media leaders in the region.

“It’s my hope that these students will not be staying at home in Doha for their JR,” Roth said.

Students could be sent to sites all over the world, including locations where the Evanston Campus has previously sent students.

Journalism ethics are different everywhere, Seib said.

“The free media industry is still a fairly young field (in that region) and they’re still developing their ideas about media ethics,” he said.

Al-Jazeera features a code of ethics on its Web site.

“Al-Jazeera generally has improved over the last several years, they do have several talented and honest people working for them,” Zelnick said, adding that he does not think the network objectively covers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the relatively young independent media industry in the Middle East is likely to grow in the future.

“There’s an awful lot of money in the region, a lot of political and government interests in areas where the lines between government and private affairs are blurred,” Zelnick said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if competitors of Al-Jazeera enter the field.”

It’s important to train journalists of all backgrounds to work in foreign newsrooms and environments, Medill Prof. Loren Ghiglione said.

“People elsewhere in the world have different notions of freedom of expression, it doesn’t hurt for students to learn about this,” he said. “It’s one of the reasons we want students to go abroad.”

A few Evanston Campus juniors are selected every year to complete their JR abroad in South Africa, currently NU’s only international JR site. Ghiglione, who teaches a mandatory class for South Africa-bound students, said they may face many challenges, including “issues of journalism culture.”

Bitoun said students have had positive experiences in South Africa, but sending students to other international sites would require further preparation for students. Medill previously had JR sites in India but suspended the program in 2006 after two years.

Journalism, like many industries, must accommodate the challenges and needs associated with a globalized world, Ghiglione said.

“We’re seeing the internationalization of everything,” he said. “We need to understand what’s happening in the U.S., and to do that tomorrow we need to know what’s going on in the world because the world and the United States are fast becoming one.”

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