Arabic media’s view of President Obama

September 15, 2013

Stephen J. Farnsworth, S. Robert Lichter, and Roland Schatz

As President Barack Obama tries to stop the bleeding in Syria, contain the terrorist threats from Al Qaeda in Yemen and restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, he has an unlikely ally: the leading Arabic broadcasters, which provide surprisingly positive coverage of his government.

A detailed content analysis of nightly television reports of five key Arabic language media outlets — Al Jazeera, the region’s dominant broadcaster; Al Arabiya, linked to the Saudi royal family; Nile News, based in Egypt; the Lebanese Broadcasting Corp.; and Al-Manar, linked to Hezbollah — found them more positive about Obama during his first 18 months in office than key European broadcasters and the U.S. television networks.

The findings, part of a study by Media Tenor Ltd., a provider of international content analysis, challenge frequent claims about anti-U.S. media in the Arab region. The research also speaks to the effectiveness of U.S. government efforts to court the international media.

The findings are based on an analysis of 172,739 statements about the U.S. government on evening newscasts by nine international television broadcasters (five Arabic, four European) and four U.S. television networks over 18 months from January 2009 through June 2010.

Roughly one out of five international news stories relates to the president specifically, with the remainder covering other topics relating to U.S. politics and policies.

Native-language speakers analyzed evening news reports on a sentence-by-sentence basis for topic, subject and tone. Our research took those analyses and subtracted the percentage of negative statements from positive ones; we thus created a net measure of the tone of each outlet’s coverage.

During Obama’s first year in office, for example, the president enjoyed his greatest honeymoon with Arabic broadcasters, whose combined coverage was 8 percent net positive in tone. Coverage among four European broadcasters — two from the United Kingdom and two from Germany — was slightly less upbeat, with reports that averaged 6 percent net positive in tone.

In contrast, the evening news shows on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News levied far more criticism — 8 percent net negative in tone for the group. Although Fox was the most critical, coverage on the four U.S. networks overall was more negative than positive.
News on the domestic networks tends to be more critical of presidents than international news for three reasons: differences in the topics that interest domestic and international audiences, the traditionally adversarial approach domestic journalists bring to their work, and the difficulty foreign reporters have in getting through to policymakers.

U.S. television news covers the daily slog of the president’s legislative priorities in Washington far more closely than international reporters do. How many news consumers abroad care about the commentary offered by U.S. House Republican leaders, or would even recognize their names? And how many busy policymakers would devote precious time to interviews with foreign reporters? In addition, U.S. reporters thrive on competition, and failing to respect the norm of critical coverage would undermine their reputations.

The U.S. government, in other words, looks very different from 30,000 feet — or 9,144 meters.

To be sure, specific topics generated an extremely harsh response in Arabic television news. Obama’s policies in Afghanistan were heavily criticized, as were reports relating to U.S. homeland security measures. And Middle East public opinion remains highly critical of the United States, despite the more favorable portrait painted by the region’s media.

Even so, the relatively positive treatment of Obama by Arabic television news can help tell America’s story in a part of the world often thought — before our research demonstrated otherwise — to be dominated by anti-U.S. voices.

Stephen J. Farnsworth is professor of political science and international affairs at the University of Mary Washington; S. Robert Lichter is professor of communication at George Mason University; and Roland Schatz is president of Media Tenor Ltd. They are authors of “Global President: International Media and the U.S. Government,” published in August by Rowman & Littlefield.

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