Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

The role of global media in public diplomacy

By Young Sam Ma ( Updated: 2014-01-11 14:40

I. Introduction

Global media in public diplomacy has increasingly proved its usefulness in recent years. Many governments have competitively engaged in a war of public diplomacy through media to make their countries look attractive and friendly to foreigners while also setting the stage for others to understand their positions in the international arena. The success or failure of public diplomacy through media, however, can only be judged by its intended audience. The most critical criterion is the media’s credibility, which can be achieved by the independence of media as well as freedom from editorial bias. Furthermore, only when such media activities are combined with cultural programs and people-to-people exchanges can its synergy effects be maximized. However, as seen in past cases of cartoons, photos and video clips, carelessness and negligence can seriously damage the public diplomacy efforts of major powers. To prevent these types of incidents, public awareness campaigns should be arranged to encourage every citizen to join in the public diplomacy activities. Furthermore, global media is expected to play a constructive role in the expansion of common ground for promoting peace and harmony among citizens of neighboring countries through consultations with counterpart media in the same region.

II. The Power of Global Media in the Foreign Policy-making Process

The progress of technology in mass communication has allowed media to reach every corner of the world more quickly with vivid graphics. Therefore, global media plays a very important role in international relations, and most policymakers depend on live news coverage provided by CNN and other outlets. This phenomenon provides a positive effect, as it introduces democratic and humanitarian aspects in the policy-making process. On the other hand, it causes a bigger burden to both policymakers and reporters. Under the time pressure required by global media live coverage, journalists may take risks by reporting what they see without deeply analyzing the situation and politicians may respond quickly without carefully considering their overall situation.

In spite of this problem, global media has become one of many tools each government employs in conducting its own public diplomacy programs. The BBC and Voice of America have demonstrated their powerful influence in the foreign policy-making process , and other major media are following suit, including CCTV, Russia Today, and France 24. Furthermore, new media are also targeting special groups of people with less sense of rebuttal from their targeted audiences. Radio Sawa, Al Hurra Television, and other broadcasters of special languages are some good examples.

As the influence of mass media continues to grow, policy-makers tend to utilize the media for their own benefit, publicizing their policies and positions on certain issues. In the case of Al-Jazeera TV, American government officials initially refrained from attending Al-Jazeera’s programs for several years because of its unfavorable stance towards the U.S. However, after 2005 State Department officials began engaging Al-Jazeera more actively because the U.S. concluded that appearing on TV results in more benefits than not appearing at all. By explaining American policies on TV, the U.S. government hoped to improve its overall image. In such context, President Barack Obama had an interview with Al-Arabiya Television, one of the most influential Arabic broadcasters, during the first week of his first term in order to directly appeal to Arabic and Islamic people. In the same token, the media tends to enthusiastically accommodate politicians’ wishes to attract viewers if it has news value.

As such, politicians go beyond the simple norm of public diplomacy and try to provide more detailed and comprehensive information through sophisticated techniques. This trend has encouraged big powers such as the U.S., China, Russia, and the EU to allocate increasingly larger budgets to their own global media. In short, they are now fully engaged in a war to win the hearts and minds of people of the world.

However, global media is not the panacea for public diplomacy. Without sufficient reliability of the media, it is hard to expect effective results. A long period of time and specific strategy is required to yield results. A survey involving university students from five Arab countries examined the credibility of two American broadcasts, Radio Sawa and Al Hurra Television. The survey found that there was no apparent correlation between the frequencies of the audience’s tuning into the media and the audience’s perception of media credibility. If this finding is accurate, it deserves closer analysis on the usefulness of the media. Efforts may be made to correct this phenomenon and to find ways to improve credibility. One of the solutions to enhance the reliability of media might be to receive audience feedback through Social Networking Services (SNS), which is discussed below. Another solution may be to combine cultural exchange programs and people-to-people visiting programs as well as scholarship exchange programs since face-to-face programs yielded many positive results.

Another issue that needs to be examined is the limited effect of global media. As many parts of the world do not welcome or otherwise lack access to global media, diplomats need to engage the local media. In order to do so, diplomats need to be comfortable with the local language as well as have a deep knowledge of local politics. Only then can diplomats substantially participate in debates on TV. This is one of the reasons why each government puts a considerable amount of energy in training regional experts.

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