BROOKE GLADSTONE: In the effort to win Middle Eastern hearts and minds, the United States has, in the last four years, launched two media outlets, the satellite TV channel AlHurra and Radio Sawa. Created solely for the purpose of propaganda — or public diplomacy, as it's now called — they can't air here, only overseas. But since winning the goodwill of their target audience is seen as vital, the U.S. Congress spends more than 70 million dollars a year to keep them afloat.
Nevertheless, a Zogby poll last year revealed that more than half that target audience never watches AlHurra, and we've heard many times anecdotally that Sawa draws listeners only for the music, never the news.
BOB GARFIELD: This week, that anecdotal impression was reinforced by a study conducted by Mohammed el-Nawawy, a communications professor at Queens University of Charlotte, North Carolina. He surveyed nearly 400 college students from Morocco, Kuwait, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian territories to gauge how those media outlets ranked in terms of news credibility.
Now, before we get to the results, let's talk quickly about the study's methodology. Kenneth Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which runs both Radio Sawa and AlHurra, said the study was fatally flawed. He said the sample was both too small and skewed, because nearly half those polled were Palestinian.
Professor el-Nawawy acknowledged those concerns, but says that the study was approved by a blind peer review before it was published in the August issue of the academic journal, Global Media and Communication.
MOHAMMED el-NAWAWY: So I think that speaks volumes of the quality of the study. Regarding the sample, I surveyed 394 Arab college students from five Arab countries, and I think that's a relatively good size, considering that I'm an individual researcher. I'm not an organization.
As far as the Palestinian representation in the sample, it just happened that way. I relied on what we call a convenience sample, meaning that whoever is available at the time of conducting the research to take the questionnaires, and it just happened that the Palestinians represented more than, you know, 40 percent.
BOB GARFIELD: The potential problem with a convenience sample being that it's not random and it doesn't project against an entire population.
MOHAMMED el-NAWAWY: This is something that I reported in my study, and, of course, I reported the limitation of using the convenience sample, that you cannot take that to generalize to the population. But at least it gives you a sense. It serves as an exploratory study more than a study that you can take the results from and generalize to the population at large.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay. So let's talk about your findings. Seventy percent of the people you polled said they tuned into Radio Sawa. Thirty-seven percent said they watched AlHurra. But of those students who reported listening to Radio Sawa, 43 percent said they listened for music. Just 13 percent said they tuned in for news.
MOHAMMED el-NAWAWY: But the other major finding is that there were low credibility averages for Radio Sawa and Television AlHurra. In fact, students' attitudes toward the U.S. foreign policy have worsened slightly since exposure to Sawa and AlHurra.
And I think the explanation for that is that in their minds, they associated both networks with the U.S. government. And, as you know, in the Middle East, Arab people have always been critical of their own media for conveying only one point of view, the official point of view. So that's why, when you try to influence their opinions with networks that they associate with a certain government, that is bound not to be as successful.
BOB GARFIELD: So the very knowledge that these networks are being sponsored by the U.S. government makes them suspicious to the target audience.
MOHAMMED el-NAWAWY: That's exactly right. In addition to that, because, at least, the students I surveyed were aware that these networks were launched to try to influence their opinion or change their opinion, it reflected negatively on their perception of the credibility of its news.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, fair enough. But the people at the Broadcast Board of Governors say that that is exactly why they have taken such pains to play it straight, to be as fair and objective and even-handed as humanly possible in the news broadcasts that they deliver, so as to disarm that reflexive suspicion about propagandists.
Have you spent enough time listening to and watching these channels to know whether the U.S. government is keeping its word on that?
MOHAMMED el-NAWAWY: I cannot watch Television AlHurra here, but I've been listening to Radio Sawa online. Of course, I like their music, but I think the news is trying to be objective. I don't think I have a problem with any bias in the news. But I don't think that's the problem. The problem is the perception. Perception can sometimes be more important than reality.
And I believe as long as the Arab people can associate Radio Sawa with the U.S. government, they will always perceive it as not credible. That's the problem. The study is not questioning the efforts of the BBG. I think they need to be commended for these efforts. But I believe that what was mostly needed in this case was having some independent media outlets addressing the Arab audience, you know, from an impartial and balanced perspective rather than having the association with the U.S. government or the U.S. administration. I think that's where the problem is.
If I also may add something, public opinion is shaped more by the substance of the policy than by how the policy is sold through public diplomacy. In other words, no matter how successful a public diplomacy effort is, as long as people are dissatisfied with, you know, what they're seeing on the ground, chances are they are not going to change their opinions through public diplomacy.
BOB GARFIELD: Or, as it's often said, the best advertising in the world can't sell a bad product.
MOHAMMED el-NAWAWY: Exactly right.
BOB GARFIELD: So if the Arab street doesn't like the product, ain't no Radio Sawa going to change their minds.
MOHAMMED el-NAWAWY: Right.
BOB GARFIELD: Okay, Mohammed. Well, thank you very much.
MOHAMMED el-NAWAWY: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Professor Mohammed el-Nawawy teaches in the communications department at Queens University of Charlotte in Charlotte, North Carolina. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, the president's first veto befuddles one reporter, and read all about it - the tabloid war will be televised.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media from NPR. STATION BREAK 2 (MUSIC)