News-Work and Public Diplomacy

November 20, 2013

Another package from Amazon; another fascinating dissection of the place of culture in the foreign relations of country y.  Don’t get me wrong I like reading about cultural relations and cultural diplomacy as much as the next person but I’m thinking that we need to think more about the importance of working with foreign media organizations. Newswork remains fundamental to the practice of public diplomacy but I think that it gets neglected in both the academic and policy literature.   Part of this is the perception that the question of news supply has become much less important because of the internet but news is shaped by the routines of journalists and news consumers and the online version of newspaper may well be looking in the same places for news as its print version did years ago.

Why does news matter for PD?  News influences foreign publics but news also influences foreign elites.  News is one of the basic components of policy making.  So if an actor can influence the news diet of foreign publics there should be some benefit from it.

So what I want to do in this post is to lay out the components of a public diplomacy newswork agenda.

How does this happen?  Here there are three sites that we need to think about.

Firstly, there’s the infrastructure of news – the role of news agencies in supplying ‘wholesale’ news.  If I’m running a newspaper where does my foreign news come from? I either steal it from other media or I subscribe to news agencies.  Language and cost are issues here.  If I can only subscribe to one news agency which one do I subscribe to?  Well news agencies, particularly those from different countries offer different news, you can be pretty sure that they’ll have more news about one country and less about others and the stories that they carry will be framed in different ways – not necessarily for any manipulative reasons but because agencies frame news in particular ways.  Hence one strategy that has recurred at various times is subsidizing your own country’s new agency or creating other organizations that provide news stories to foreign media at reduced rates or even for nothing.  By switching a news organization’s foreign news source from one country to another you increase the availability of information about one country and decrease news about another.  For plenty of examples of this see the history of the various news agencies, this is basically what’s going on with Xinhua’s penetration of Africa.

Secondly, there’s the role of the overseas post.  The press job there is to cultivate the local media, make sure that you can deal with their requests for information but also get them to carry your country’s news.  But…the post level depends on a good supply of material from home.  Good in the sense of plentiful, up to date and relevant to where the post is.  There are lots of cases of posts from all kinds of countries complaining about the crap that the ministry sends them: not enough, too late, boring, wrong language, not relevant.  MFA’s needed to run their own mini-news agencies to provide news that overseas posts could try to pass onto local media – the US version of this was the Washington File but other countries operated something similar.

Thirdly, the ministry needs to keep the posts supplied with material that they  can use, alert them to things that are happening and provide lines that they can use, feed the foreign correspondents who cover their country and try and steer the domestic media.  The latter is particularly importance because very often the foreign correspondents take their cue from the home media.  Particularly when countries are in some type of conflict situation (hence paying attention to each other) you get dynamics where the media in one country report criticisms in the other’s media triggering spiral of media antagonism.

How much of this has changed across time?  The further we go back in time the more the operation of the system was shaped by the scarcity of news.  If you can’t just go on the internet and look something up where are your sources of information? In the abstract we can argue that there is more information around but news is shaped by routines – if you’re a journalist where do you look for news.

We also have to factor in variation between sending and receiving countries.  In some countries at particular points of time it was quite normal to pay for news to appear in particular outlets in others this was a complete non-starter.  Some countries are seen as more newsworthy than others.

Some of this stuff has been chewed over in different parts of the International Communications literature – for instance the historical domination of news in the global south by American, British or French sources – but not really at the level of agency, how have official news policies shaped the news and to what extent do they continue to do so?  And for the practitioners out there how can we do it better?




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