Arab television networks, such as Al Jazeera, have been long thought to only be developing anti-American sentiments among viewers, but researchers of a new study at Ohio State University say this thinking is too simplistic. Instead, they say that viewers interpret the Arab media through their own political identity. They even say that there may be some room to create positive American feelings among viewers if we understand the details of how political identity affects the interpretation of the media’s message.
The researchers used data collected by Zogby International and University of Maryland Professor Shibley Telhami of approximately 20,000 people throughout six Arab nations. These countries included: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Morocco, Jordan, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates.
The researchers looked at data relating to two Arab networks, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, and saw how three political groups influenced viewer’s interpretation of these stations: Arab nationalists, Muslim nationalists, and those devoted to their country.
After examining the data, they found that Arab nationalists grew more unfavorable viewpoints of the United States as their viewership of Al Jazeera increased. But surprisingly, when viewing Al Arabiya, their anti-American sentiments were reduced. This is most likely due to Al Arabiya’s positions taking a more moderate stance.
More data found that those who identified with their country grew more favorable opinions of the United States as they watched Al Jazeera, and remained neutral as they watched Al Arabiya. Muslim nationalists had unfavorable opinions of the United States no matter what they watched.
Finding out that political identity is a key influence to Arab sentiments towards America means that there may be opportunities for public diplomacy, say researchers. This is because if we understand that more positive coverage of the United States on Arab television can have a positive influence, then there may be hope to persuade those in Arab countries to view the United States in a favorable light.
Unfortunately, there would be no way to convince Muslim nationalists of this, according to evidence. If Muslim nationalists numbers grew, then it would make influencing public opinion about the United States difficult. Also, getting this positive coverage is another story.
But, with 28 percent of the country identifying with their country’s political identity and nine percent identifying as Arab nationalists, there is a possibility that one third of Arab viewers would respond positively, say communication researchers. The key would be resonating messages with their political identities.
28 percent of the viewers are Muslim nationalists and the remaining 40 percent are mixed, so the possible effect is unclear here.
The study was led by Assistant Professor of Communication at Ohio State University, Erik Nisbet, and post-doctoral researcher Teresa Myers. The study is published online in Communication Research.