Time for a Real Conversation about International Broadcasting, Shawn Powers & Will Youmans

//CGCS Media Wire presents the context for Shawn Powers’ (Georgia State University) and Will Youmans’ (George Washington University) recent research on the International Broadcast ecosystem.

//This article is crossposted and expanded with permission from the authors via the blog Take Five, the IPDGC Blog on Public Diplomacy and Global Communication

Time for a Real Conversation about International Broadcasting

International broadcasting, or state media aimed at foreign publics, plays an important role in public diplomacy efforts.  Our latest paper examines the challenges before IB entities and proposes a framework for analyzing IB systematically, and predicting its success.

Generally, state-sponsored international broadcasting bodies operate with the aim of changing public opinion elsewhere, whether to spread goodwill, better views of the sponsor country, spread dissent against other governments or open up audiences to new ideas and policy proposals.

China, Russia, the US, Iran and Qatar each dedicate far greater financial support to international broadcasting compared to their other public diplomacy programs. What for? Does it actually work in this day and age? What’s the purpose of these international broadcasters in the first place?

photocredit: http://takefiveblog.org

There is a general feeling among many that, in an age of information overload, state-subsidized news will become a relic of the past, pushed out of the market by growing private sector competition. If that is the case, then why is investment in broadcasting increasing rather than decreasing around the world?

Governments spend on IB without central strategy or a conception of what IB should be today.  Academics and practitioners alike have failed to agree on models or theories that explain the success and failure of international broadcasting at different times.  Equally debated is what it should be. Propaganda? Or dialogue? Should it be a more networked form of diplomacy?

Substantial confusion remains as to how to explain seemingly different broadcasting strategies; there is no clear, analytical framework that accounts for variations in strategy while explaining successes and failures. This could explain why the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the organization overseeing U.S. international broadcasting, has issued three overlapping strategic plans since 2008 (2008-2013, 2010-2012,and 2012-2016).

Part of the problem is that the media environment in general is in a high state of flux, and state broadcasters are struggling to keep up, adjust and move past previous missions while facing budget challenges and internal political crises.  They need to re-think their modi operandi.  In a new paper, we take up this task of re-thinking, presenting a structural framework that aims to inform practice as well as scholarship on this subject.

Western IB’s most formative time as a field was the propaganda era, in which state media broadcasting was blatantly instrumental, one-way and necessary in a bi-polar Cold War context.  While there was variation in how grossly propagandistic content was, the general dynamic involved content moving from the IB outlet to an audience with few alternative sources of information – the inherent definition of “broadcasting.”

One alternative to the propaganda model is also becoming obsolete.  American IB entities positioned themselves as surrogates for dissenting voices absent in receiving countries.

In only a few places are there information-starved audiences to whom foreign-originated news broadcasts are a fresh relief from dour domestic news sources.  This was the historical setting in which IB emerged, yet it has been slow to adapt, as IB is often used by states as a tool of foreign policy promotion rather than as a meaningful avenue of two-way exchange.

To further thinking of audience engagement in new media environments, scholars have been proposing “dialogue,” “networked” and “relational” approaches.  While these conceptions are useful for moving IB in new directions, these are too often limited given the real political constraints on IB outlets. They neglect the complicated multi-stakeholder politics of communication between governments and other publics. For instance, do these account for domestic pressures by China’s tourism industry, American issue publics and Iran’s bureaucratic players on their respective IB outlets?  What about the interference run by receiving governments sensitive to the imposition of foreign broadcasters in their countries?  And most of all, what can IB outlets do in increasingly complex media environments where public attention – rather than information – is the valuable, scarce resource?

We take on the ambitious goal of developing an approach and analogy for IB that captures these new challenges.  Published in the International Journal of Communication, our paper “Remote Negotiations: International Broadcasting as Bargaining in the Information Age” adapts the two-level game metaphor of international bargaining developed by Robert Putnam (1988) to analyze state informational activities in the current media age.

Our proposed approach identifies the different stakeholders involved in sending and receiving information via international broadcasting. Broadcasting these days, we argue, is better analogized as complicated multi-level bargaining between the IB entities and key stakeholders, including: domestic policy makers, mobilized issue publics, foreign governments, and target opinion leaders and groups in receiving states.

By bargaining, we do not refer to the deliberative, incremental process of negotiating a political treaty, but a looser, more rapid, exchange in which nearly instantaneous audience and governmental feedback can be taken into consideration in reporting and programming. What is being bargained over is what content engages foreign audiences, while furthering the national interest of the state sponsor and pleasing its domestic interest groups while not crossing too many of the receiving governments’ red lines. It is, in a word, complicated.  Our paper tries to capture this.

The study forwards several propositions, some of which pertain to policymakers. For example, “the more sponsoring governments control broadcasters, the more vulnerable they are to domestic political exigencies and the less responsive they are to the preferences of the receiving publics.” Heavy-handed government control thus hurts a broadcaster’s likelihood of success, but not because the perception of propaganda scares audiences away. Sadly, sometimes, propaganda is exactly what an audience wants!

Rather, control places severe constraints on the negotiation process, making it extraordinarily challenging to locate agreement between the broadcaster and audience that falls within the acceptable range of the receiving government (which possesses the capability to block inhospitable content).

IB must be iterative and take into account audience preferences, while serving the sponsoring government.  Simply pandering to foreign audiences, eager to criticize their government, is unlikely to be effective promotion of the government. Neither is simply toeing the government line.   Bargaining is apt because it denotes reflexivity and adjustability.

As normatively appealing as “dialogue” is for a framework for IB and public diplomacy, it is trapped by a realpolitik paradox.  The more a state agency is empowered to engage in open and honest dialogue with foreign publics the less influence it has with domestic policymakers. On the other hand, IB agencies close to policymakers – and with actual influence – will be instrumental to political purposes and thus in no position to engage in credible dialogue.  Why? States do not set foreign policy according to the public opinion of other countries – outside of a few exceptions (such as much stronger allies or patron-states).

The paper articulates what we see as the emerging structural dynamics of international broadcasting. Our hope is to move discussion of IB past the propaganda-dialogue dichotomy while accounting for real politics and the pragmatic imperatives of complex mediaspheres we see globally.  Our approach explains why IB is more difficult than ever to pull off successfully, offers insights into improving IB and can be deployed and tested by other researchers in case studies as a useful analytical framework.

You can read the paper in full at: http://ijoc.org/ojs/index.php/ijoc/article/view/1490/788

 //Shawn Powers specializes in international political communication, with particular attention to the geopolitics of information and information technologies. His current book project focuses on how nation-states adjust to an international system increasingly governed by information-driven financial, political and media networks rather than the geographic and temporal networks of old. His previous research essays have appeared in Media War & Conflict, Global Media & Communication, Ethnopolitics, Argumentation & Advocacy, Orbis and the Journal of Middle East Media and in edited volumes published by Oxford University Press, Palgrave Macmillan, Peter Lang Publishing, the New Press and Routledge. Dr. Powers co-directs the annual Annenberg-Oxford Summer Institute on Media, Policy and Law at Oxford University (UK) and the GSU study abroad program to Istanbul, Turkey titled, “Media, Journalism and Business in a Global Context.” (Click here for Course Blog)  Powers is also an occasional commentator for CNN International, The Guardian, Russia Today and National Public Radio.


// William Youmans is an Assistant Professor at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs.  Broadly interested in questions of transnationalism and news media in conflict, his primary research interests include global news, journalism, media law, and social movements.  Other areas of interest include contemporary American public diplomacy and international broadcasting. Youmans wrote his dissertation on Al Jazeera English’s audience-building efforts in the United States before and after the “Arab Spring.” He is currently researching the development of Arab media law as well as the role of transnational media in US-Arab relations. Youmans has presented at numerous conferences, including the annual gatherings of the Middle East Studies Association, the International Communication Association, the National Communication Association, the International Studies Association, and the American Sociological Association.



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