public diplomacy

A New Take on International Broadcasting

This post was co-authored with Shawn Powers

International broadcasting, as state media aimed at foreign publics, plays an important role in public diplomacy efforts.  Our latest paper examines the challenges before IB entities in a new media environment.  It 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.

Governments spend billions 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?

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.

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.

We take on the ambitious goal of developing an approach and analogy for IB that captures these challenges and the often contentious politics of state broadcasting.  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.

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 that ever-scarce resource, audience attention.

The approach generates several propositions. 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 hurts a broadcaster’s likelihood of success.

Central Chinese Television (CCTV) headquarters in Beijing.

IB must be iterative — as bargaining is — and take into account audience preferences, while serving the advancing government’s interests.  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 adjustability, as well as state sponsor flexibility.

As normatively appealing as “dialogue” is for a framework for IB and public diplomacy, it is dangerously over promising. 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).  Real dialogue is unlikely.

The paper articulates 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.  We hope it benefits both policymakers and scholars alike.


About William Lafi Youmans

Assistant Professor, School of Media and Public Affairs, George Washington University. Research interests include global news and communication, media law, development and Middle Eastern politics and society.

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