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Why Al Jazeera is the Go To News Source for Student Protesters

Nick Wilson has closely followed news on the war in Gaza since October. But Mr. Wilson, a Cornell student, is picky when it comes to his media diet: As a pro-Palestinian activist, he doesn’t trust major American outlets’ reporting on Israel’s campaign in Gaza.

Instead, he turns to publications less familiar to some American audiences, like the Arab news network Al Jazeera.

“Al Jazeera is the site that I go to to get an account of events that I think will be reliable,” he said.

Many student protesters said in recent interviews that they were seeking on-the-ground coverage of the war in Gaza, and often, a staunchly pro-Palestinian perspective — and they are turning to alternative media for it. There’s a range of options: Jewish Currents, The Intercept, Mondoweiss and even independent Palestinian journalists on social media, as they seek information about what is happening in Gaza.

Their preferences embody a broader shift for members of Generation Z, who are increasingly seeking out news from a wider array of sources and questioning legacy outlets in a fragmented media ecosystem.

Israel’s recent ban on the local operations of Al Jazeera has only elevated the network’s status among many student protesters. They prize coverage from reporters on the ground, and Al Jazeera has a more extensive operation in Gaza than any other publication. Students also noted the sacrifices it has made to tell the story there. Two Al Jazeera journalists have died since the start of the war.

“Al Jazeera is sort of playing that role for a lot of younger Americans, in terms of getting a different perspective than they feel like they’re getting from U.S. media,” said Ben Toff, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Minnesota.

While many Western media outlets, with few if any journalists in Gaza before the war, have struggled to gain access to the territory, Al Jazeera has been recognized for its raw, searing portrayals of the death and destruction there. A typical report may show video of Israeli tanks rolling into cities, alongside drone shots of leveled buildings in Gaza City and Palestinians fleeing their homes.

“It’s news about the Middle East, and it doesn’t really convey it in a Western perspective,” said Alina Atiq, a student at the University of South Florida who has pushed her university to divest from Israel.

The network, owned by Qatar, has its headquarters in Doha and operates two separate newsrooms that provide English- and Arabic-language content. Its mobile apps have been downloaded in the United States 295,000 times since October, an increase of more than 200 percent from the previous seven months, according to Appfigures, a market research firm.

Among the outlets frequently cited by protesters, Al Jazeera English is by far the most popular on social media. It has 1.9 million followers on TikTok — up from around 750,000 at the outset of the war — and 4.6 million on Instagram.

Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, described the network’s Arabic-language channel as more outwardly pro-Palestinian than the English one, which he said has a more subtle slant.

Critics say its coverage veers into support of the armed resistance to Israel. The Israeli government, which has accused Al Jazeera of acting as a “mouthpiece” for Hamas, last Sunday seized its broadcast equipment and shut down its operations in the country for at least 45 days.

Al Jazeera called the government’s accusation “baseless” in a statement, adding that it has broadcast every news conference held by the Israeli cabinet and representatives for the Israel Defense Forces, in addition to videos from Hamas.

It also said that its reporting “provides diverse viewpoints and narrative and counter narrative,” and that charges of pro-Palestinian bias should be “scrutinized through careful analysis of our journalistic standards and reporting practices.”

The Israeli government’s rejection of Al Jazeera appears to have bolstered the network’s reputation among some of the students.

“It goes to show the extent to which Israel is afraid of the coverage and reportage of Al Jazeera,” said Matthew Vickers, a junior at Occidental College in Los Angeles who has been active in efforts to persuade his school to divest from companies tied to Israel.

The protesters rattle off a list of mainstream American publications as having coverage they find objectionable, including CNN, The Atlantic and The New York Times, among many others. Though major news outlets have reported extensively on Israel’s campaign in Gaza, the death toll and the damage, the coverage in the view of student protesters doesn’t assign enough blame to Israel for Palestinian deaths, or thoroughly fact-check Israeli officials. And they said protest coverage has focused too much on antisemitism on college campuses instead of Islamophobia.

“There’s a fair amount of misinformation that is being fed to us by mainstream media, and just a clear bias when it comes to the Palestine issue,” said Cameron Jones, a student at Columbia University and an organizer with Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-Palestinian organization.

The activists’ interest in Al Jazeera stands in contrast with the outlet’s previous struggles to find an audience in the United States. The network started an American channel in 2013, but that folded in 2016 with nightly ratings that hovered around 30,000, far shy of viewership for cable networks like Fox News and CNN.

Part of what doomed the network back then was “a distinctly anti-American bent” to its coverage, Mr. Ibish wrote in a 2016 guest essay for The Times. But now, broadcast from a different country, the network’s tone is finding its audience on university campuses, he said.

“There’s a third-worldist, anti-imperial point of view, and that’s also the view that many college kids have adopted,” he said.

Jeremy W. Peters contributed reporting.

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