Where did you first learn about the devastation in Japan? For me it was through social media, Facebook postings, Twitter feeds. And while TV is still where most viewers turn to see coverage in times of disaster, it seems more and more redundant to do so. What was on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, CBC News Network or CTV News Channel were scenes of flooding and earthquake terror that had already been posted on YouTube. Viewers no longer need Wolf Blitzer to take them through a Situation Room–they can create their own situation room right on their own laptop.
Even local news is being made over as home video technologies advance. Lawrence Diskin, producer of CHCH’s Square Off, was telling me last week how Skype has enabled him to bring guests in New York or Ottawa into his studio mix in images that are surprisingly close to broadcast standard.
Seeing news is one thing but creating it is quite another. That social media speeds up and enhances coverage and even drives news has been evident for weeks during the rebellions that have swept North Africa and the Middle East. The place to watch it all unfold is Al Jazeera, a network still generally unavailable in the United States.
The Al Jazeera English feed, available in the Toronto market on Rogers Cable channel 176, lives up to its “All the news, all the time” slogan. The service seems more BBC News than any North American news service and not just because of the many on-air British accents. (The broadcasts originate in Qatar as well as in London and Washington; there are bureaus all across Africa and the Middle East). There seemed to be a greater emphasis on reporting and letting the pictures tell the story rather than on network personalities. When hosts introduced a topic, it was far headier than the predictable, polarizing, left, right single focus found on Fox News, MSNBC or CNN. Experts were brought in for a segment to discuss the role of literature and art in revolution, for example. Another segment was devoted to the use of new media. There was no bias attached at the starting point, each topic seemed more of a true jump ball.
Another positive difference is the many correspondents scattered throughout the Middle East. Al Jazeera maintains real news bureaus and it shows. Like other news organizations, some of their journalists get too close to the action. Several were arrested and thrown out of Egypt, for example, during the uprisings there. When their people are on the ground, however, it really does bring viewers that much closer to the action.

The screen presentation is generally as straightforward and uncluttered as the content. Across the bottom of the screen is a slim, orange crawl, far less distracting than the hard blue band put up by Fox News, for example.
One of the reasons Al Jazeera may not be welcome in the U.S. is the unfiltered message which often comes through–that even as they struggle toward democracy, the region wants to be free of U.S. influence. There is a definite Yankee Go Home tone that would be challenged or unplugged in America.
Al Jazeera does fall into some of the familiar traps you find on North American news. The same experts seem to be called on again and again (especially on “Inside Story”). The Libyan commentators I saw seemed more focused on pushing their agendas than answering questions.
There is a level of passion from these commentators, however, seldom witnessed on North American TV. You almost expect one of these guys to roll up his sleeves and take a swing at somebody. It’s like CBC’s “At Issue” panel if it suddenly broke out into a hockey fight.
Some familiar faces turn up on Al Jazeera. David Frost chugs out of the past for “Frost Over the World.” Even the singer once known as Cat Stevens was featured in a podcast.
If you don’t yet subscribe to Al Jazeera, a live feed of the English news service can be streamed here. Cable and satellite packages in the United States should start offering the channel just to provide insight into world affairs too seldom explored in any depth on American TV news services today. The world is changing, and it would be a shame to miss it because the only thing being reported in your market was Charlie Sheen’s latest tweet.

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