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close this bookGlobal Awareness Raising Project for Eastern Europe (North South Centre, 1994)
close this folderPrague workshop
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentEvaluation
View the documentIntroductory speeches
View the documentPlenary session - Presentation
View the documentPlenary session - Discussions
View the documentPresentations on ''Practical aspects of awareness-raising activities''
View the documentPanel discussion: "The Role of the media in influencing public opinion"
View the documentPlenary debate: ''The role of the media in influencing public opinion''
View the documentWorking group conclusions and recommendations

Panel discussion: "The Role of the media in influencing public opinion"

Chairperson: Ms Fionnuala Brennan

This session is devoted to looking at the role of the media and its extreme importance in influencing public opinion. We have four journalists to address this issue. Josef Vesely from the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic who is the foreign desk editor of Dnes, the number one newspaper here with 70.9% of total readership. The paper is now privately owned, is involved in a joint venture with a French company and produces half a million copies daily. Daniel Nelson is a journalist who has worked for and edited newspapers and magazines in Asia, Africa and the United Kingdom. Slavomir Hajet is from the Ecumenical Council of Churches and is starting an ecumenical journal. He describes himself as an amateur journalist. Federico Nier-Fischer is from Uruguay and is the director, and a correspondent, for Inter Press Service in Austria.

Mr Josef Vesely

As a professional journalist, I would like to share with you my experience of working for newspapers for over 25 years. I know thousands of journalists in the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic and abroad and I would also like to share some of their experiences related to the topics we are discussing.

Colleagues from NGOs have said, during our deliberations here, that some elements of the past totalitarian regime should not be discarded because they might have their value for the future. I believe that the interest journalists have in the problems of the Third World is one of these elements. When we were not allowed to report truthfully on certain events happening here and abroad, many of my colleagues tried to fulfil their potential as journalists, reporting fairly without any subjectivity, by writing about far away countries. A number of my colleagues, working not only for the daily papers but also for various illustrated magazines, often used sponsors and their own resources to travel to Africa and Asia. They, of course, also wanted to benefit financially from this and published features illustrated with photographs in local papers and magazines. This need taught them to work in a positive way. If we compare this experience of many Czech and Slovak journalists, who in this way tried to acquaint their readers with distant countries, with the present situation there is an interesting disproportion. Today, the borders are open and we can write about topics which were taboo in the past, including problems in the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic and in neighbouring countries. Countries like the United States, South Korea and South Africa which had previously been "forbidden" countries have, nowadays, become the prime focus of my colleagues. They travel to these countries and inform the public here about events there as they know nothing about them. In relation to the reports on these countries, the number of articles written on the Third World is decreasing.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the former government had many cultural agreements with, amongst others, developing countries. These agreements always included an obligatory clause about the exchange of journalists and other personalities. When the state signed such an agreement, it had to support, directly or indirectly, trips of journalists to developing nations. This meant that besides the personal interest of journalists in the Third World, there was also a kind of pressure exerted by the administration in order to fulfil the clauses included in the cultural agreement. I will not assess the materials they published afterwards, but some facts, data and information, which were published in different forms, were distorted. Besides these distortions, there were descriptions of ordinary life in those countries which were very Useful to the reader.

Currently, I believe, it is a moral issue for journalists whether they become involved in the complicated matters of developing countries, or whether, having the freedom and the finances, they prefer to cover more attractive areas like South Africa, Honolulu, the United States and South Korea. I would like to ensure you that, on our paper, there are a number of young colleagues with moral responsibility and strength who are getting ready to travel to several developing countries, including those where journalistic work is very hard and where it is physically difficult to travel, such as Somalia. On behalf of them, I can promise you that we do realise that our responsibility is to realistically illustrate the world to our readers. We are very happy to be engaged in realistic reporting and we shall not sacrifice this. We will certainly write openly about all the global problems and not describe situations in rosy colours. Such reporting should create an interest amongst our readers, so that they themselves might try to find further information. This may be our modest contribution to the realisation of global interdependence.

Mr Daniel Nelson
With horror, I noticed that this session is called "How the Media Influences Public Opinion". All the academic resources in Britain suggest that the media does not change attitudes, but that it reinforces existing ones. So, I will talk about how to influence the media. It is called "media management" and everybody engages in it, except for sometimes, it seems, NGOs who really need to engage in this too.

Media management is actually very easy. Journalists want a story and if you can provide a story, it will usually be used. The difficulty comes in agreeing with a journalist what a story is. A very non-controversial example of what I believe to be a big story, is that 40,000 children under five years of age die each day from preventable illnesses. This ought to be in every newspaper because it is a large number of deaths. In fact, the only time it reaches the news is once a year when the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) presents its "State of the World Children Report". It is not news because it is a process and not an event. Journalists are absolutely hopeless about reporting processes as they do not know how to work on that. Also, 40,000 deaths is a fact of life, it is like the sunrise and journalists do not like to report on the facts of life because, by definition, it is not news and not out of the ordinary.

Journalists have to be convinced that whatever you would like them to write about is not a fact of life, but that there is someone who is to blame. That if, in the case of the 40,000 deaths, governments, NGOs, pharmaceutical companies, doctors or all of them took action, they could prevent these deaths. This is what UNICEF has gradually started to do over the years. It began by pointing the finger and blaming people. It was a very daring step for a United Nations' (UN) agency at first and, in fact, they got into terrible trouble with the director of the International Monetary Fund. Journalists have picked up on the idea that the deaths are preventable, someone is to blame and is doing or not doing something. UNICEF is in this sense a very good example of an organisation that has influenced the media or, to be more precise, that has influenced a very tiny part of the media on a very specific subject. That is an achievement and it was done through all the usual techniques which are actually open to everybody. Catchy phrases were used. Instead of saying "40,000 children die every day", phrases were invented which were included in UNICEF's press releases, like "The number of deaths equals the toll from 100 jumbo jets crashes each day". UNICEF staff argued that journalists would write about this, so why could they not write about these deaths as well. Informing on oral rehydration therapy, which is a simple and cheap mixture that can save the lives of many children, they say: "Oral rehydration therapy - the greatest medical breakthrough of the century", which is what the British Medical Magazine called it. Journalists like the biggest, the smallest, the largest, the shortest, the most serious, the first. Anything like that is automatically news. Diarrhoea is, for instance, the biggest killer of children today. It is not news that Nelson (Agyemang) comes to Prague, but if he comes as the first Ghanian, or the first since a certain event, or the last Ghanian, it is news. The message needs to be broken down for different markets.

NGOs are terrible complainers as they say that the media do not report what they say. Yet, they do not aim the message enough at the right market. The business pages would not be interested in a story about child deaths, but it would be interested when you talk in terms of the number of sales and profits of companies who make oral rebydration therapy, firms who produce measles vaccines or those who are marketing cows milk, one of the causes of children's deaths, against UN guidelines. I have myself been writing about these stories and they have all appeared on the business pages of newspapers. The medical magazines will take a story about doctors who refuse to prescribe oral rehydration therapy because they do not make any profit from it, or companies who research anti-diarrhoea drugs. The "lifestyle" pages will take stories on the myths of diarrhoea, e.g. that you should stop feeding a child with diarrhoea, which is one of the worse things you could do, or about the dangers of antibiotics which are now grotesquely misused, in both the North and the South. Due to this misuse, many doctors predict that antibiotics could well be useless within 20 years. Encourage journalists to write features by turning obvious statements around or by suggesting that keeping babies alive actually helps to decrease the birth rate. Journalists are quite ignorant, which is something that should not be underestimated.

If all else fails and you cannot get your story into any paper or magazine, then write letters. In Britain, it is almost impossible at the moment to get articles written by journalists in the mainstream newspapers which are critical of the General Agreement of Tariffs and Trade (GATT). The consensus is that the trade arrangements are good news. Some development agencies have had several good and punchy newsletters published on this subject. Journalists often monitor the letter page and they may pick up on something and subsequently write an article on it. The more newspapers and the stronger the specialised press, the easier it is to direct a message. It is very hard to get into the large prestigious television programmes or the big national newspapers. A story in a local paper or a specialist publication can carry a lot of weight and will often be picked up by a journalist. The main source of stories for journalists are actually other journalists. We are not writing literature, but we are actually plagiarising and taking each others' ideas. If something has been published it is, by definition, news. Once a story is in a small paper, it may appear somewhere else.

Conversely, do not expect everything you say to be reported. The truth is that most of it will be ignored. In addition to providing specific stories, build up a reputation of reliability and do not exaggerate and pretend that what you have is more important than it is. Most of all, do not complain when stories are not used. Your story is one of thousands every day and be patient when journalists ask you idiotic questions and then ignore your very sensible answers. One area that has changed in the UK is that NGOs are now allowed to write their own stories due to the trust they have built up. Five years ago, an organisation may or may not have persuaded a newspaper to write a story for it, but a member of staff would not have written it, being a non-professional and biased. Increasingly, however, NGOs have build Up such expertise that they are seen as authorities and allowed to write articles directly. They will certainly be turned to for a quote and so get their name in print with a succinct comment. Yet, it remains important to lobby and to "spoon-feed" journalists.

One of the developments in news management is something Margaret Thatcher started when going on foreign trips. She would not take the diplomatic or foreign correspondents as these might know too much about the country she would visit. Instead, she insisted that the correspondents she knew, often the lobby and parliamentary correspondents, went into the aircraft with the free seats because they could be briefed and had no real background in foreign affairs. When John Major came to the Rio Summit, the correspondents were not briefed very well either. At the end of the press conference, OXFAM, Action Aid, Christian Aid and other NGOs would be present to ask them if they realised that the British aid budget had been cut in the last five years and also gave them the figures. The organisations more or less gave the correspondents the stories in this way. They would often not be quoted, but the message had at least come across.

Over all, the standard of reporting on development issues has improved quite radically in recent years in Britain, largely through the efforts of NGOs. All this stems from the invention in Asia by a group of journalists about 30 years ago of something which used to be called "development journalism". If a journalist went to Zimbabwe 10 or 15 years ago, he/she would probably do a story about the personality of Robert Mugabe or lan Smith. Today, he/she would actually refer to population growth, employment generation, the prices of commodities, health issues, etc. Through intense lobbying and educating journalists, the message can come across that these issues matter and that reporting is not about simple personality politics. Yet, it is also necessary to say that, in Britain, there is a very sharp division between the so-called quality newspapers and the tabloid or gutter press. The qualities can be influenced, but the tabloids have not been reached. They continue to purvey ignorant rubbish and nobody has yet found a way of altering their editorial agenda. Similarly, the frequency and standard of television documentaries on development issues are very high, but television news continues to be absolutely appalling, in my opinion. Like the tabloid newspapers, it is far more influential than the documentaries. It is very important to keep these differences in mind when discussing the media. The media is not monolithic, it is in segments of specialised and general newspapers, radio, television, and so on.

In short, do not expect to change the media as you are not able to. Do not expect the media to be an ally as it will not be. You can, to some extent, use it to put your views across in a limited way and that is probably, except in the very long term, all you can do.

Finally, I want to mention racism which is something that seems to have become very important to me as a journalist in the past five years. All European culture is steeped in racism for reasons I will not go into now. But, during the last 20 years, Western Europe, following the United States, has begun to look for ways of tackling its racism, not only by legislation and through organisations such as the Commission for Racial Equality, but also by codes of conduct for journalists which some of us keep and others do not. But they do exist. Almost all the major NGOs have a code of practice for the use of photographic images, which is really quite new, about the type of picture they will release to the public. In my opinion, racism has been fuelled, not caused, by the activities of NGOs, especially their fund-raising activities. Their constant images of famine, starving children and disasters, which they feel they have to use to raise money, have reinforced racist stereotypes in Britain in a very alarming way. If you see North-South relations in terms of aid or emotive images of suffering, even if it is to raise money, you too will reinforce racism. Although we always talk about the victims of racism, rightly, as they are at the sharp end, it is rarely pointed out that racism also corrupts the racist. If it is left to flourish, it will corrupt our societies even more.

Mr Slavomir Hajet

I am going to speak in a slightly different vein. I am concerned about the superficiality of the approach to problems of global interconnection and aid to the Third World. The time period we are now in is a phase of history which is very important. It is a phase of transition from a world divided into several more or less separate civilisations, into a world of one global civilisation. This process is obviously a very complex and complicated one. It means that the big cultures, or civilisations, thanks to scientific and technological progress, have all come together, as if to a single backyard, and all more or less clash together. This brings terrible destruction and this is probably the most important element in history today.

An example is Marxism, to which we, in this part of the world, have been strongly sensitised. It was invented as a socio-economic theory in the West in the last century. It predicted the development of Western industrialised society. That prediction did not come true and Marxism was adopted in non-industrialised, agricultural Russia. It was implanted there very inorganically and it played terrible havoc. It was also implanted further away from its place of origin, in China for instance, and it still plays terrible havoc there. This phenomenon of cultural inventions that rise in one part of the world and are transposed in quite different parts of the world, as I say "inorganically" without the factor of steady growth is disastrous. Western civilisation, as such, is to a great extent also acting as such an influence in non-Western parts of the world. We know that the Islamic countries, for example, are reacting vigorously and wildly to this impact of Western civilisation which comes without due sensitivity for local conditions and cultures and acts in many profound ways destructively.

On the other hand, the Far East has also begun to influence life in the West. High immigration, cultural and religious influences. All these processes have, of course, not culminated by far. The world, in global terms, is facing a very difficult time. This is a time of profound instability as whole cultures are being gnawed at and erode and life is negatively influenced by politics or, on a social scale, down to family life and to personal world outlook. The feeling of security is weakening in all parts of the world. These are aspects which should be looked at and given due analysis and attention. The serious press should also pay increased attention to this.
There is hardly any hope that, in some way, in the time ahead of us, means will be found for channelling all these profound changes which are taking place and which, I believe, are in fact signs of the emerging world civilisation. What should be done is to create, say, braintrust groups that pay attention to problems related to these global interconnections and try to find solutions. These study groups must be untraditional because the situation is so completely new and should, gradually, make the public aware of the complexity and the gravity of the situation. Again, the times ahead of us will be very difficult times. They should also concentrate on building up a global ethos. An ethical system which would be mitigated, if accepted or expected to be accepted, during this great transition. Hans King has written a very interesting book called "The World Ethos, A Project' in which he stresses the importance of dialogue between the main religions and the significance of that dialogue for world peace. The moment of dialogue on all cultural levels is something which cannot be overestimated. Let me end by stating my appreciation for the dialogue of which I have, in part, been involved.

Mr Federico Nier-Fischer

The distortion of actual information, the production, use and presence of such information, together with what NGOs could learn from this process, is what I would like to talk about. The media, basically, exists to entertain an audience. Once it succeeds in doing so, it can sell the audience to the advertisers. That is the work of the media in a market society. Its role is not to inform, before having to report on certain events would be too restrictive and, in any case, there is nobody to say what to report about. The media people, therefore, feel it is necessary to entertain, to win a certain audience and to then sell this audience in order to get revenue. That is the business of the media today.

On an international level, the distortion is produced by a total lack of pluralism. Pluralism is a value we should all realise and implement. There are only four news agencies for the print media providing the bulk of news, about 90%. Associated Press (AP), today the largest new agency, was founded in North America before the First World War with the argument that it was unacceptable that people should rely on what the British, French and Germans considered important in the world. The founders wanted to report for their own audience. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It was not seen as pluralistic or to have an own perspective. So the rest of the world, approximately 65% of the world's population, now rely on four new agencies: the British, German, French and North American. This, by far, cannot be said to be all the perspectives of what people consider important for themselves.

This is a distortion in the market. These new agencies have to build up telecommunication networks, use satellites and computers, i.e. create an infrastructure, while also employing thousands of people. Who will pay for that? Three of the news agencies are subsidised by very strong states. In the case of Agence France Press, 50% of the budget is subsidised by the French State, while in Germany every town has to subscribe to the Deutsche Press, which effectively works as an indirect subsidy. Not every state in the world is capable of doing so. Only one news agency, Reuter, is fully financed by the market. Services to the media constitute a mere 6% of Reuter's turnover. The rest comes from stock market services. For example, if you want to change money in Argentina, the change office will use the Reuter services available for easy dealings with US dollar, British sterling, Deutsche Mark, etc. It is a worldwide, and very differentiated network where revenue comes from services to, amongst others, banks and transnational corporations, i.e. providing telecommunication networks for those huge concentrations of money capable of paying for that. These are some of the distortions which explain who the partners in communications are, which partners are consultants and which have a voice that is heard and transmitted. It is important to analyse this.

Inter Press Service was launched 25 years ago and started an alternative type of coverage, despite the North Americans claiming that it must be a KGB exercise and the former Soviet Union saying it had to be a CIA exercise, as they could not imagine that the Third World could launch such an activity itself. The Northern societies, and the ruling interests therein, receive the information they need. But the Argentinian population might not agree with what the British or French think is important. The idea was to report not for the media here in Europe or North America, but in Latin America for the Latin American media and the same for Asia and Africa. The information would then pass on to other regions, but it originated in each developing area. The result was quite different from what the other news agencies were, and still are, producing.

There was a meeting in Mexico some time ago where the Latin American and North American Foreign Ministers met for the Organisation of American States. IPS asked the Mexican government to provide a small fund in order to make a simple analysis of the coverage of the largest North American news agency of that event. Of all its news, 70% concerned the US Secretary of State, what his opinions were before, on and after he got off the aeroplane, etc. There were many steps continually providing the latest news on how this event was interpreted by this man. Uruguay does not have a news agency, so a person buying a newspaper learns much about the North American's views, whom he/she does not even vote for, and very little about his/her own representative. This could be democratic scrutiny, though not as long as we are only informed about what the "others" consider important. The CIA was not needed to ensure this 70% coverage. This percentage is exactly the market share of AP in the US. Seventy percent of the turnover is made in the US, 14% in Europe and the rest from elsewhere in the world. The news agency would have worked against the market if it had produced that much coverage on the Mexican perspective. It would not have been interesting to their market. But, in the meantime' the rest of the region was not covered.

I work in Vienna as the chief editor for the German service of IPS and am involved in the production of the daily cast of news for the German speaking media, i.e. Germany, Switzerland and Austria. How to bring our news into that media has, for the past four years, been part of my exercise. We find that in the past two years in Eastern Europe, where you are organising the very substantial exercise of transforming these societies, most of the events are seen through the eyes of foreign correspondents. They come here and determine what is important to report and this is how, for instance, the Hungarians learn about the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic. There is practically no international relationship on how the transition process reports itself nor on the experiences and views of the other media, which are important for the media in this region that is involved in a similar exercise.

It was difficult, at first, to bring development into the German-speaking media because the only player we had was the claim that the voices of the poor should also be heard, or something similar to this. It was like going to church to ask for a few shillings. When people see the development issue as a global problem and how they are directly affected, it gives, in these dimensions, the opportunity to include development. This should be considered when discussing strategies for the media. The prerequisite is, however, that the communication process opens to permit the voices of the affected societies in the Third World to be heard. Otherwise, the reaction would be too direct. For example, to the question of how to solve the problem of atmospheric change, the reply would be to protect the rainforests. If you do not hear about people working in these rainforests and how Brazilian society depends on them, you can easily decide to "protect the rainforests", instead of reducing the number of cars which are responsible for carbon dioxide emissions. Drug abuse happens predominantly in the rich countries, but the peasant producers of coca leaves in Latin America are blamed. We even know the faces of the so-called narcotics mafia instead of those directors of European banks who launder the money and of the people distributing the drugs here. Many European correspondents go to Colombia to learn about drugs, but the problem is here as long as there is a demand and the money to pay for it. The peasant in Latin America without an alternative will continue to produce. There are many global problems and the reaction is to blame those who cannot express what their needs are and the extent of their involvement in global problems.

The objective we may discuss now is the democratisation of national and international communication processes. To look not only at how to use the distorted media, but also at how to complement it, find alternatives and to promote these. We should not only depend on these partly monopolistic structures called "the media".