New theories for a new global media landscape

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The global communication order is changing, and new theories of communication are needed to understand the changing global media landscape.  This was a point made time and again by researchers from all over the world presenting academic papers at the annual conference of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), held in Dublin, Ireland recently.

Several papers and panels dealt with the rise of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the impact of this development on the global media landscape. The use of media for ‘soft diplomacy’ by China was one of the topics that attracted the attention of scholars. In a special session, Professor Zhengrong Hu of the Communication University of China reflected on the conference theme of “Crises, ‘Creative Destruction’ and the Global Power and Communication Orders”. He asked whether this  financial crisis is actually a Western crisis rather than a global one, given the recent growth of economies outside the Western centres. He nevertheless warned that the crisis that originated in the West is also already having an effect on countries such as China, where the stock market recently reached record lows.  The question, however, is whether China can translate the ‘hard’ power it still commands in the areas of its economic investments globally, its clout in international trade, its sophisticated technologies and military force to the ‘soft power’ of global influence over news agendas and global public opinion?  Professor Zhengrong pointed out that China already has a large domestic market for traditional media, and a growing market for new media:  almost half the country’s population has access to the Internet, and 80% of those users are accessing the Internet through mobile devices such as mobile phones and tablet computers. But there is also an intellectual property trade deficit – the country is importing more media products than it is producing locally, and a lot of Chinese TV production is copied from the international market, like reality television formats. Despite the country’s  big cultural industry market, professor Zhengrong is therefore of the opinion that China’s media content production is not yet strong enough to use in the service of “soft power” strategies. State-owned media have played a big part in China’s ‘going out’ strategy:  the Chinese state-owned media like CCTV (50 international bureaux), Xinhua (140 overseas bureaux), and newspapers like People’s Daily and China Daily have been used to promote the country’s image to international audiences.  But according to professor Zhengrong, the country will be unable to contribute to restructuring the global communication order until it has managed to address the “value crisis” it is experiencing internally. He sees this domestic “value crisis” as a result of the rise of the market society which has led to “money fetishism, utilitarianism and consumerism”.  The state-owned media are also not as powerful anymore to set the agenda for public opinion as it used to be in the 1980s, said prof Zhengrong. A survey in 2012 showed that 75% of the public opinion agenda was set by non-official media, like social networks. This survey brought to light that more than half of the respondents showed a lack of faith in the government. In order for China to spread soft power globally, it first would need to address these challenges at home, prof Zhengrong said. New social media have become like a ‘pressure cooker’ said Ching-wen Chen from  Shangai Jiao Tong University. Although citizens are using new media to campaign for social justice, they now also spend  more times indoors and have become more individualized.

 

China’s soft power is exercised in a global communication landscape that is feeling the impact of the shift of global geopolitical power to the BRICS countries. The impact of the rise of these countries was discussed in a panel by members of a global project on media systems in the BRICS countries (of which the author of this column is also a member  – see the project website at http://www.uta.fi/cmt/tutkimus/BRICS.html ). Professor Jyrki Käkönen of the University of Tampere in Finland said that the rise of the BRICS countries is a symptom of the end of globalization-as-Westernization. The process of globalization is changing, flowing now from the “Rest” to the West, and the West will have to adapt. But it is not yet clear about what kind of international order the BRICS states want to construct.  There is big diversity in the BRICS group of countries, with no common denominator other than being against the dominance of the United States. This anti-US attitude is however not enough to provide cohesion among the group. According to professor Käkönen, the absence of an Islamic country in the BRICS group prevents it from representing the whole of the Global South as a new international order and not merely an economic formation alone.

It would also be a mistake to view the BRICS countries as internally homogenous nation-states each with one stable media system. Within the BRICS countries themselves there are big differences and sometimes tensions between various media models and practices.

In Brazil, for example, professional journalists are experiencing an identity crisis as the rise of new media are demanding new functions from them. Professors Raquel Paiva de Araujo Soares and Muniz Sodré Cabral from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro also reported about a generation gap between journalists in in that country, where young journalists are not as interested in being champions of civil liberties like the older generation was.

India is another BRICS country whose media system displays internal differences. Professor Sanjay Barthur of the Central University of Tamil Nadu’s presentation showed how the media and entertainment sector in India is growing exponentially. That growth should however not necessarily be seen as an indicator of greater diversity in the media. Professor Daya Thussu and Savyasaachi Jain of the University of Westminster also stressed the size and diversity of India’s media audiences and the vibrant media sector serving them. Unlike in the West, where media are struggling economically, media in India are booming. In Russia, the post-Soviet society also demonstrated great complexity, but political and media elites orient themselves towards Western media, according to professors Elena Vartanova and Anastasia Grusha from Moscow State University.  In South Africa one could also argue that the commercial media orients itself largely towards an elite, and in this country as well there are ongoing debates about what the ideal role for media is in the post-apartheid society.

All this diversity across and within the BRICS countries demand new theories to internationalize media studies.  Professor Daya Thussu is of the opinion that we need to rethink and reformulate ‘the global’. Not only has the work environment of media practioners changed, but the relationship between media and society as formulated in the West does not easily translate to other contexts. Western communication theories are limited in their scope, and need to move beyond Eurocentrism to recognize multiple modernities.

Prof Zhengrong Hu summed up this need for the internationalization of media theories by saying that to understand global media today, scholars need to think beyond just the relationship between media and politics as is often the case in Western theories. We need a multi-dimensional picture that accounts for culture, different civil society and economic formations in a shifting, diverse global society.

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