News flow research during and after the MacBride era
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News flow research during and after the MacBride era

Richard C. Vincent

There is little doubt that well-written, thorough and objective, journalism is a vital component of modern life and a necessity for a democratic society. Whether the traditional newspaper-reporting we have known for centuries, a hundred years of broadcast journalism, or the more recent flow of news and information on the internet and social media, this communication media is necessary for everyday life. Regardless of its delivery format, news flow is essential as we strive to stay informed and make responsible decisions.

This article offers a brief overview of international journalism research prominent at the time of the MacBride inquiry and up to the present. News flow involves international news analysis dealing with “the volume and direction of news flow,” whereas news coverage analysis “focuses on the amount, nature, and type of foreign news disseminated” (Kim & Barnett, 1996: 325).

New World Information and Communication and Order

The communication and journalism fields have seen numerous attempts by researchers to understand the nature of news flow and its evolution (Vincent, 2017). The New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) movement at UNESCO served as a nucleus for attention to international news flow (Galtung & Vincent, 1992). Central to the NWICO discussions was the unequal flow of news generated by the five major news agencies. UNESCO’s central forum for debate was the Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, under Seán MacBride.

International news flow

The Commission’s Report (International Commission, 1980) addressed the perceived imbalances in world media operations and news flow and the accuracy and geographic inequalities of international news reporting, including North-South flow.

The news landscape has changed markedly since those early years. CNN, BBC, and regionally based Al Jazeera are now dominant players. News dissemination is nearly instantaneous. Many currently participate in newsgathering and news production vis-à-vis online bulletin boards and blogs, vlogs, wikis, and SMS. The podcast is reminiscent of the old audio cassette, a vehicle popular for mass message dissemination across the Middle East and elsewhere in bygone decades. Digital journalism includes hypertextuality, public-connectivity Web sites like Slashdot, and cloud journalism.

The internet and World Wide Web have changed our world. Lines between traditional media and other forms of communication have become blurred. High tech allows large swaths of the public to join the information revolution. Wireless communication delivers digital products, including games, videos, news, websites, office tasks, education programs, and political mobilization platforms. About 60% of the world has access to the internet. More than half of the world uses social media. Facebook has three billion users. Yet, in the Least Developed Countries (LDCs), not all enjoy these advances. Only 9.5% have access to the internet. The internet also remains primarily an English language vehicle, so individuals in the Global South continue to have less access than individuals in the North and West. Ironically, inequalities seen during the MacBride era, or comparable communication imbalances, exist today (Vincent, 1998; Vincent & Nordenstreng, 2016).

Thanks to new communication technology, other developments include personalized hand device telephones and the internet/World Wide Web. They have changed the construction and distribution of data, information, and news across multiple platforms. Today’s communication technologies provide transmission speeds that the MacBride Commission could only imagine.

Since the MacBride Report was released, the media industry’s economics has changed markedly. Scores of traditional newspapers have struggled and closed, and advertising revenue of newspapers, magazines, and broadcast media has shifted mainly to the internet (Vincent, 2016).

News Determinants. Two of the earliest studies of international news determinants were the IPI study (1953) and Schramm’s One Day in the World’s Press, looking at world newspapers’ images. Schramm concluded that not all countries were covered proportionally or by geographic size (1959). Two decades later, Gerbner and Marvanyi reported similar findings (1977). 

Modernization Theory. Common in media and journalism scholarship in the 1950s and 1960s, Modernization moulded the news media literature decades before the MacBride era. Looking at the development of Third World nations, some, such as Schramm (1964) and Pool (1964), embrace a modernist view (Lerner & Schramm, 1967). These studies encourage the adoption of Western values and practices in developing nations. In addition, media are considered agents of technical and social innovation. 

Normative Theory. Normative Theories describe values or ideals on how a media system operates within society. The best-known normative theories in communication are in the 1956 book by Fred Siebert, Theodore Peterson and Wilbur Schramm, The Four Theories of the Pressauthoritarian, libertarian, social-responsibility, and communist-socialist – define the various world media systems. “Four theories” was developed during the Cold War era. As a result, it reflects the bipolar perceptions of a capitalist versus socialist world view. 

Normative Theory has witnessed a resurgence in more recent years as various scholars have revisited the concept (Christians, Glasser, et al., 2010; Duff, 2012).

Dependency Theory. Dependency Theory is rooted in Marxism and began in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s. A revised version of Dependency is World-Systems Theory (Wallerstein, 2004). Dependency examines how Western wealth is acquired at the expense of poorer countries (Galtung & Ruge, 1965, Galtung, 1971). Occidental communication serves a bit as a Trojan Horse with Western ideas creeping into Southern societies, all in the Western World’s interest.

Another extension of dependency theory, structural imperialism, clarifies both players and variables. Galtung explores the centre-periphery flow. News flow remains primarily in the centre where information is formulated. Ultimately, news flows down to periphery countries. Even when news stories originate in the periphery, stories are sent up to the centre, are approved and edited, and only then are sent back to the periphery country for consumption with the centre’s tacit approval.

As was the focus in the Frankfurt School, Dependency Theory focuses on the role of transnational corporations (TNCs) in the global marketplace. The purpose is to identify inequities. The overriding assumption is that developed or industrialized nations continue to control peripheral nations through underdevelopment. The consequences, they argue, is a state-dependent situation or state of neocolonialism.

Dependency models also influence Political-Economy theory. Political-Economy applies to elite commercial control of media and its impact on the broader social order, including social policy construction. See Dorfman and Mattelart (1971) and Mosco (1996).

Cultural/Media Imperialism. Cultural Imperialism has a long history in international communication studies, also dating to the 1960s. After a loss in popularity, Cultural Imperialism saw a resurgence in recent decades thanks, in part, to emerging research on the internet. In all, Cultural Imperialism has become one of the most important paradigms in the news field. (Chadha & Kavoori, 2000).

Cultural Imperialism researchers utilize equity, news flow, and communication balance by embracing free flow principles. Cultural Imperialists conclude that media control and cultural creations are uneven. Added to this are the concepts of democratization, self-expression, and the right to communicate. The latter is an idea that emerged from the NWICO dialogue and its aftermath (Hamelink, 2003; Mueller et al., 2007).

A more current notion of cultural imperialism looks at international communication as a vast control and manipulation scheme. It holds that communication functions as an extensive network of multinational corporations that introduce predatory practices and entities, mostly without resistance.

The Americanization of world culture has been simplified in ways inconceivable in some early days when researchers looked only at news flow (Ritzer, 1992). Taking their raison d’être from the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights, the cultural rights movement embodies some aspects of cultural imperialism (Assembly, 1948).

Comparative Studies/Design. Comparative research in journalism dates basically to the 1950s and 1960s. These studies covered mostly U.S. journalism with comparisons to other countries. Comparative analysis fits a broader political emphasis, such as calling for a new communication and information order as in NWICO. The research provides a nucleus for a more extensive geopolitical debate. This body of research is mostly about North-South information flow. McLeod and Rush (1969) is one of the first studies in this area.

Globalization. Anthony Giddens defines Globalization as “an intensification of worldwide social relations” (1990). With the growth of information and communication technologies (ICTs), they are frequently mentioned as catalysts for economic growth and development. 

As an alternative to Cultural Imperialism, Globalization shifts the nation-state emphasis to the multinational media corporation operating beyond national boundaries. This perspective contends that international communication researchers have neglected to consider the multiple factors involved in the global flows of commodities and services, including media (Waisbord, Morris, et al., 2001).

Framing. Media are recognized as a fundamental source of information. However, bias is inherent in most news. Within this milieu, Framing is a theory that enables us to study media messages and examine aspects of perceived realities within news texts. Researchers subsequently discuss, manage and comprehend the frames produced (Goffman, 1974).

The growth of cable television, satellite television, the internet, and social media has transformed the news landscape. Yet, the rise in public preference for entertainment, even in the news, has changed the degree to which individuals seek information (Prior, 2007). Entertainment and a softening of news and information mean an increasing supply of sensationalism, misinformation, and soft news stories. News objectivity has suffered dramatically. 

Media and Terrorism. One relatively new topic in news research is coverage of transnational terrorism. Interest increased when global terrorism came to U.S. shores on 9/11 with the New York Trade Center’s attacks. A shrinking news hole for foreign news left readers and viewers with less exposure to global events. When international terrorists struck, the shock, arguably, became even more stunning. 

Research shows that news frequently frames terrorism as a Muslim problem (Korteweg, 2008; Papacharissi et al., 2008). News reports often frame Muslims as militants, barbaric, sexist, insensitive and religious zealots. Islam is defined from a “white man’s world” (Osuri & Banerjee, 2004; Bhatia, 2008). One study by Nickerson (2019) examines terrorism and Muslims in the press, finding that presentations are not always neutral and promote prejudice against Muslims.

Scholars conducting studies on global terrorism and media must expand their research designs and sample news organs beyond the elite newspapers typically chosen. Stereotyping of Muslims is a grave concern, with profound implications.

Disinformation. One of the more concerning elements of today’s news and information flow is the rise of misinformation and the presence of so-called “fake news”. The term “fake news” was given recent notoriety when U.S. President Donald Trump chose to belittle CNN and its coverage of the former MI6 officer Christopher Steele dossier. 

In recent years, social media has proven quite effective in spreading the radical far-right messages of Islamophobia; neo-Nazism; antisemitism; conspiracy theories; hate; misogynistic imagery and characterizations; calls for violence; and glorification of selected killings. The internet has created a home for this extreme thought and dialogue.

Recent examples are found, for example, in the far-right conspiracy group QAnon. The group promotes conspiracies such as the contention that the Covid-19 pandemic was faked by the so-called “deep state” to undermine civil liberties or that top U.S. political leaders operate a Satan-worshiping group of paedophiles. The group was one of the major players behind U.S. President Donald Trump’s bid to claim falsely that the 2020 American election was “stolen” from him.

Summary and conclusions

It has been more than forty years since the MacBride Report was released, forty-five since the start of the Great Media Debate (Nordenstreng, 2016). The work of the Commission became quickly outdated. Technology rapidly changed the nature of the communication industry. New technology and an emerging ICT industry threatened traditional print media’s stability, particularly newspapers. A worldwide contraction of newspapers was about to begin as readership fell, and advertising revenues shifted to the internet and social media. With an industry scrambling to survive, there was little appetite to get into equity questions or the Global South’s plight. 

The rise of news-film and video networks and agencies, distributed by satellite and fibre optic cable, ushered in a new generation of media operations. New to the scene was CNN, BBC World Television, APTV, Reuters World Television, and others. Globalization provided a new landscape. While the transnational and multinational corporations were still emerging as global players in 1980, it is interesting that the TNAs of the MacBride era were among the first globalization agents in the worldwide marketplace. In retrospect, they were harbingers of the future communication and corporate world.

New players and online electronic environments have restructured the industry and led to a new agenda of issues. While the WSIS (World Summit on the Information Society) meetings embraced the notion of Communication Rights, there was little interest in moving forward by elevating the campaign as a U.N.-guaranteed fundamental right. Consider that the least developed world has had only 1% of the world’s wealth over the past 40 years. On the other hand, while the West has around 25% of the world’s population, it enjoys a vast 70% of global wealth.

As we consider the many different international news research traditions reviewed above, we are still missing global news analysis that better represents work from developing world scholars. Furthermore, we too often see research based on Northern and Western research designs. To improve these shortcomings, we must strike stronger international research alliances, encourage developing world research team building, and facilitate developing world researchers taking the lead on new research projects.

International news research is a growing and increasingly relevant academic discipline. However, the next generation of work will require a significant shift in focus if we want bold, fresh, and revealing new research. Forty years after the MacBride Report is as good as any time to begin this next chapter of scholarly exploration, inquiry, and writing.

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Richard C. Vincent (Ph.D., 1983, University of Massachusetts-Amherst) is a professor of International Communication at Indiana State University. His previous position was at the University of Hawai’i, Mānoa. He was a Fulbright Scholar at Dublin City University, Ireland. With a background is in Global Communication, his emphasis is on media and ICT institutions’ social and political functions and policies. He also works in news gatekeeping, news flow, framing and ICT development.

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