Op-Ed Contributors

Media hurdle to intercultural relations

By Bi Yantao (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-03-23 07:51
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Editor's note: What's the function of media, to eliminate bias or deepen it? It's a question.

Amid the latest news that Google may soon pull out of China, some Western media outlets are once again criticizing the country's Internet regulations and press freedom record.

Just as a Chinese scholar told a reporter from The Guardian, it's the Western media that mainly instigated Western countries to adopt a hostile attitude toward China. That's why Chinese scholars think the media have not only failed to promote international dialogue and world peace, but also have become a big obstacle to inter-cultural exchanges.

China's economic rise has triggered reprehension among some members of the international community. And the resultant displeasure is fueling nationalist sentiments in China's media (especially the Internet).

On the eve of the World Press Freedom Day in 2009, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement, which said the media have the great potential of promoting dialogue, mutual understanding and reconciliation. Ban believes that the media could eliminate people's deep-rooted bias against other cultures, religions and ethnic groups. And UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura has said that the media have been "regarded as an arbitrator, which could play an important role in encouraging and promoting cross-cultural exchanges and provide an open platform for debate by all the social parties".

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Frankly speaking, however, my personal understanding of the media is far less optimistic. In today's world, the media, both State-run and private-owned, tend to publish information they prefer and filter the content that they do not like. The "gatekeeper" theory of communications sciences states that there are plenty of "gatekeepers" in the information network and only information that is in line with their values could be allowed to enter the system.

This theory coincides with the "selective mechanism" that people are always apt to engage, transmit, understand and memorize information, which is consistent with their own existing knowledge and viewpoint. British scholar Stuart Hall's study reached the same conclusion. And D. McGregor, an American psychologist, found that without the guidance of objective evidences the majority of people would like to predict according to their subjective preference.

In addition to subjective limitation, factors in terms of politics, economy, society and culture are also conditioning the media in varying degrees. "Insiders" are aware that there are numerous "big potatoes" trying to influence the media. Hence, in the modern political propagation, it is very difficult for ordinary people to form their own independent cognition.

Actually, the media have been employed as a means in the global game by some elites, and international communications in peacetime is becoming increasingly like wartime public opinion confrontation.

For subjective and objective reasons, not every free media outlet is accountable.

Irresponsible reports from the free media could widen the gap among cultures and expand interethnic divide. If international conflicts intensify, the media in most of the countries would take measures to safeguard their national interests and try to seek or even make excuses to accuse others without hesitation.

In fact, even without a conflict of national interests, cultural differences often become an obstacle in international communication. In December 2009, a Western mainstream newspaper strongly questioned the language used in a Chinese leader's speech, citing Noam Chomsky's words: "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously." The newspaper's peremptoriness and arrogance is appalling.

The spread of information among homogeneous populations is more easily to gain recognition, but the points of view usually tend to be extreme. The problem is that not many international media outlets like to "challenge people's deep-rooted prejudice on other cultures, religions and ethnic groups" at the risk of offending their readers or audience.

The result of catering to psychological needs of their readers and audience is a deeper bias toward a "hostile country", which in return would evoke fiercer response from the other side. Some media have thus become perpetrators of prejudice and hatred.

With the global popularity of communications sciences and other disciplines, more and more people are becoming aware of the limitations and poor performance of the media. If media become an element of "smart power" and a means of national strategy, their objectiveness and impartiality would inevitably suffer more damage.

Why have so many Chinese people begun to question the Western media even after living in Western countries for a while? This is a very heavy topic, that definitely needs to be resolved.

The author is director of the Center for Communication Studies, Hainan University and the Communication Research Center of Sanlue Institute, a think tank based in Beijing.

(China Daily 03/23/2010 page9)