No. 6, Spring/Summer 2001
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Something to Be Done: Transnational Media Monitoring

By Kaarle Nordenstreng

This article is based on a presentation at the conference "The Ethics of Journalism: Comparison and Transformations in the Islamic-Western Context," under the auspices of German President Johannes Rau (Bellevue Palace, Berlin, 29-30 March 29-30, 2001), organized by the German Institute for Middle East Studies (Deutsches Orient-Institut), Hamburg, and the Ebelin and Gerd Bucerius Zeit Foundadtion, Hamburg. The article will be published in Kai Hafez (ed.), "Negotiating Global Media Ethics"


The paper reviews various initiatives to systematically monitor what the media tell about the world with a view to improving media performance and contributing to media ethics. The general rationale of media monitoring is elaborated as a logic in four steps. The implementation of the idea is presented both by referring to several ongoing projects and by suggesting a new proposal for immediate action. The paper is based on "International Media Monitoring," a volume edited by Kaarle Nordenstreng with Michael Griffin (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 1999; in this paper referred to as IMM).

The Idea of Media Monitoring
Media monitoring means here to systematically register and review the contents which various mass media offer in different types of messages. While there are approaches to media monitoring with a focus on media production (ownership, economy, etc.) or consumption (audience size, appreciation, etc.), our perspective of media monitoring is strictly at the level of content or performance (for media performance, see McQuail, 1992, and his chapter in IMM).

This is not a narrow perspective, because media content is part and parcel of the political and cultural substance of society. Therefore it is logical to present this perspective in a conference on media ethics. After all, media monitoring feeds us with material to consider the values and principles in media activities, and particularly in these postmodern times it can be seen to be part of the boom of media ethics, which "invites us to keep looking for universals-to restore the great narrative which was lost as enlightenment and modernization went out of fashion" (Nordenstreng, 1995, p. 454). Ultimately, what is at issue is the role of media in democracy (see, e.g., Nordenstreng, 2000a), and media monitoring can be seen as "an audit of democracy" (as suggested by Peter Golding et al; see their chapter in IMM).

The idea of monitoring media performance is a logical extension of the methodological approach in communication research known as content analysis. The classics of content analysis, notably Bernard Berelson and Harold Lasswell, did not introduce the method for its own sake but as an instrument to assess what the media are really doing and to define policy for various aspects of social life-including media themselves. It is indeed paradoxical that while content analysis has been a central part of the empiricist and positivist tradition in media studies, it has also nurtured a policy paradigm inviting us not only to discover the reality but to change it. This is the paradigm that was already promoted by Max Weber in his legendary speech to the first German congress of sociologists in Frankfurt in 1910 (see Hardt 1979, p. 174-182).

Historically speaking, we should recall Karl W. Deutsch, the political scientist known for his paradigm of seeing communication as "the nerves of government" (the title of his book in 1963). In the first volume of the Journal of Conflict Resolution he proposed "an early warning system" to register the amount of media attention given to a conflict area or an enemy country because "continuing hostile attention in the mass media may tend to harden public opinion to such a degree as eventually to destroy the freedom of choice of the national government concerned" (Deutsch, 1957, p. 202). His idea was "to measure quantitatively the relative shares of attention allotted to particular interstate conflicts and issues in the general flow of news, the extent to which these are retained or forgotten by leaders, and the extent to which they have cumulative effects" (p. 204).

It is interesting to compare this proposal with what we can read in the MacBride Commission's report:

The primary function of the media is always to inform the public of significant facts, however unpleasant or disturbing they may be. At times of tension, the news consists largely of military moves and statements by political leaders which give rise to anxiety. But it should not be impossible to reconcile full and truthful reporting with a presentation which reminds readers of the possibility-indeed the necessity-of peaceful solutions to disputes. We live, alas, in an age stained by cruelty, torture, conflict and violence. These are not the natural human condition; they are scourges to be eradicated. We should never resign ourselves to endure passively what can be cured (Many Voices, One World, 1980, p. 177).

Both are outspoken in their normative position on behalf of peace and against war and violence, but Deutsch's proposal is more concrete than any of the recommendations by the MacBride report (for a detailed examination of the latter, see Hancock and Hamelink, 1999).

Deutsch's vision has never been realized, but in these times of Bosnia etc. in the Balkans, Rwanda etc. in Central Africa, and the new CNN-type media diplomacy, it has become ever more topical. The current relevance of the idea is reflected in a recent proposal by Cees Hamelink (1997), who suggested an International Media Alert System (IMAS) to monitor media content in areas of conflict. "This system would provide an 'early warning' where and when media set the climate for crimes against humanity and begin to motivate people to kill others" (p. 38).

Reviewing the history of ideas we cannot overlook Walter Lippmann, who in 1919 wrote of the idea of a "pseudo-environment" created between people and the world largely by the mass media and the idea of the "manufacture of consent" as a system of manipulating public opinion (Lippmeann, 1920/1995). It is clear that recent critical thinking about media performance in books by Herman and Chomsky (1988), Parenti 91993), Hackett and Zhao (1998), and the numerous studies of the Glasgow Media Group (Eldridge, 1995; Philo, 1995; Philo, 1999) build from a relatively long history of attention to media artifice and representation.

Yet we have never before faced conditions in which industrially produced media are sucha global presence in everyday life and provide such a vast range of people with what Lippmann called their "picture" of the outside world. The "globalization" of media not only involves the geographical extension of distribution and transmission, but the homogenization of media forms within a commercial corporate model (Herman and McChesney, 1997). The continued expansion of transnational commercial media, both by means of new technology (especially satellite telecommunications and the Internet) and through the ever larger scale and longer reach of ownership and control has extended and advanced the blurring of distinctions among news, entertainment, and advertising. The commercial imperative has made "information" a more highly ambiguous term than ever before, and the "information industries" encompass media commodities of every stripe.

In such a world traditional categories such as "news" no longer represent informational content that is clearly distinguishable from entertainment, public relations, and commercial promotion. Presented in a commercial format within a commercial context the messages and images of news jostle and blend with those of advertisements and entertainment diversions. The same cultural metaphors and mythological worldviews-concepts of the "primitive" versus the modern; nationalism defined as technological and military power; racial, ethnic and religious stereotypes; Western fashion industry portrayals of feminine beauty; masculinity couched as violent action-proliferate across media genres. Given this fact, the task of media monitoring becomes more and more an evaluation of the performance of global transnational corporations across their multiple spheres of media manufacturing. It is the aggregate content and ramifications of these large-scale media flows that must be recognized, addressed, and responded to if there can be any hope of cultivating a positive media role in the struggle for peace and economic and cultural well-being.

Much recent literature on transnational media issues has sought correctives to the oversimplicity of media imperialism models, pointing to the cultural vigor with which formerly colonized peoples have established unique voices and resistant communities within systems of global communication. The active processing, adaptation, and creolization of dominant Western media forms among non-Western peoples has brought into question the validity of models that describe industrial/communication centers dictating media practices to cultural peripheries. Yet recognizing the existence of complex intercultural relationships and multidirectional cultural influences does not make structural imbalances disappear. It remains an unavoidable reality that the resources and power of media production and concentrated in the hands of increasingly fewer giant transnational conglomerates, and the task of monitoring media performance must necessarily be preoccupied with the surveillance and evaluation of these corporate networks. continued

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Notes and references

Copyright 2001 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo