Al Jazeera English has won its first Alfred I. duPont award for excellence in broadcast and digital journalism, announced the Columbia School of Journalism this morning. According to Columbia's website, the prize is the "equivalent of the Pulitzer Prizes" for broadcast journalism.
The award recognises the quality of the report "Haiti - Six Months on", part of Al Jazeera English's Faultlines documentary series. The program examines the aftermath of the earthquake that hit Haiti in January 2010 and is praised by the Columbia School of Journalism as "an emotional, accurate and visceral report about the lack of progress in reconstruction".
AJE was one of 14 prize-winners, including The New York Times, Detroit Public TV and Channel 4 BritDoc Foundation. But if AJE was not the only winner, this Poynter article suggests that it was, in some ways, the most significant.
The main reporter on the documentary, Sebastian Walker, is quoted by Poynter, saying he sees the award as "an indication of how things have shifted in the way that we're perceived in the U.S."
"This year in particular there has been a huge change in how Americans think about Al Jazeera, with our coverage of pro-democracy demonstrations that have brought about the Arab Spring," states Walker.
Are attitudes towards Al Jazeera in the US really shifting? Perhaps so. The Qatar-based network won widespread recognition for reporting on the uprisings across the Arab World, in particular for its use of Twitter. Between the beginning of the Egyptian uprising on January 25th and February 9th, traffic to AJE's website increased by 2,500%. A large chunk of this apparently comes from the US. Poynter writes that North America now drives over 40% of aljazeera.com's traffic.
But Al Jazeera still faces prejudice. Arab Media and Society, a journal supported by the American University in Cairo, published a study in March this year, examining how the American pubic responded to Al Jazeera following the Egyptian protests. The report found that many Americans distrusted Al Jazeera and associated it with Al Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden and opponents of the US in the "War on Terror". The study concluded: "The perception of AJE as biased is robust among American viewers in general and especially among those politically conservative and suspicious of Arabs".
The recent controversy over Lowe's Home improvement store pulling its advertising from the television show "All-American Muslim" at the request of the right-wing group, the Florida Family Association, does nothing to suggest that these kind of attitudes are on the wane.
Still, despite the challenges that Al Jazeera faces in the US market, the prize from Columbia is a positive sign of the network's rising profile in America. Poynter reports that in 2012, Faultlines will be focusing on the US presidential elections and quotes Walker: "There's possibly greater interest from an international audience in the machinations of the campaign than there is even domestically."