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May / June 2003

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Portrayal Betrayal

Portrayal Betrayal
Globalization of the media opens new channels of communication and contributes to cultural misunderstanding

About the Photo: "You must bypass the media images to get a realistic picture of what the world is like. Go visit. If you can't do that, seek out realistic documentaries that don't feed the usual developing world stereotypes of famine and earthquakes." Lyombe Eko

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Lyombe Eko was introduced to America by John Wayne. A French-speaking John Wayne.

Eko, a native of Cameroon in West Africa, experienced firsthand how the mass media created a distorted picture of life in a distant land when he watched those dubbed films depicting America's mythical Wild West. That was 25 years ago.

Now an associate professor in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of Maine, Eko says that the globalization of the mass media continues to contribute to misunderstanding and conflict throughout the world. At the same time, the globalization of the media also opens communication channels that enable powerless people in developing countries to circumvent political repression and censorship.

His research on comparative international communication law and policy, Internet law, and African communication and cultural studies highlights the possibilities and the limits of the globalized mass media.

"Globalization of the mass media is a two-way street. It may perpetuate stereotypes and misunderstanding, but it also makes it possible for victims of injustice to make their voices heard," Eko says.

Student projects

In Lyombe Eko's video production and electronic news reporting classes, students use the Digital Mass Media Lab on campus to produce multicultural programs that promote their understanding of other cultures. They have produced programs on the international cultural groups that have performed at the Maine Center for the Arts, including the Shanghai Ballet from China, Ballet Gran Folklorico de Mexico, Inca Son from Peru, Native American Dance Theater, the Grigorovich Ballet of Russia and others. Such student productions often find their way onto The Maine Channel (42), a student-run and staffed, closed-circuit educational cable channel, supported by UMaine's Department of Communication and Journalism and the Department of Information Technologies. Eko has overseen the long-term development of the television channel.

Apart from those Westerns, Eko's adolescent vision of America was based on episodes of Dallas and Miami Vice. Today, American movies, music and news programs are on more television and computer screens than ever before. The Internet has exponentially increased the availability of American images around the world. Those images help to form the kind of stereotypes Eko held when he arrived in the United States in 1978 to attend the University of Sioux Falls in South Dakota.

"The America we saw in Africa was one where everyone was wealthy, drove big cars, lived in a big ranch, stabbed each other in the back and slept with each other's wives. We thought that there were gunfights every day on the streets. Hollywood has been stunningly successful in selling a fantasy image of America. When I arrived, America didn't look the way I expected," Eko says.

Increasingly, stereotypes about American people and culture lead to fears that the U.S. is bent on forging an Americanized world order based on political, economic and cultural domination. The rest of the world from French intellectuals and politicians to Islamic fundamentalists have reacted against that, he says.

"It looks to them like America is trying to take over the world. The French, who are protective of their culture, say that it is being eroded by the American culture propagated on radio, TV, film and the Internet.

"Islamic fundamentalists get that same image of corruption, violence and depravity from the movies. The result is that America is called the Great Satan. They don't realize that America is nowhere close to that picture, and that they are fighting against the movie shadows," Eko says.

Likewise, the images that Americans see of other countries around the world are not accurate. The media focuses on disasters and dictators, rarely reporting on non-materialistic achievements.

"In the news media, if it bleeds, it leads. Americans see only the disease and pestilence. Good things happen, but they don't make the news. The American mass media have given American viewers a very selective and jaundiced picture of most of the world," says Eko, whose 11 years as a broadcast journalist in Cameroon and Kenya took him to Egypt, Ethiopia, Mauritius, Tunisia, Zimbabwe, the Mideast, Europe and Canada.

The media stereotypes are underscored and compounded by the globalization of the economy, which is driven by institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. These institutions provide financial aid for developing countries that agree to privatize their economies and remove trade restrictions and agricultural subsidies. The regulations allow businesses from wealthy countries to relocate, often wiping out indigenous economic development, paying low wages and charging the native population high fees for services. At the same time, some leaders of developing countries use the aid money to support their own lavish lifestyles while their people languish in poverty.

"When corporations have gone to the Third World, they have been on the side of profits, not justice. The lack of regulations and enforcement of those that do exist allows them to take advantage," Eko says.

It's that combination of media-induced stereotypes and actual corrupt and unjust practices that produces despair and violence, Eko says. But there's much that can be done to close the gap between stereotype and reality, between injustice and justice. Eko believes that the globalized mass media, along with reforms to international institutions and national laws, can serve as vehicles in that process.

The globalized mass media can provide communication channels that put pressure on policymakers and businesses to alter their practices. For instance, African Internet discussion groups raise funds from Africans abroad for development or cultural projects in specific villages. Eritrea, which gained its independence in 1993, has a lively online discussion group that helped to bring about the nation's independence and continues to work on projects that benefit the country. Eko is active with an online group that is seeking to prevent the sale of the lands of the Bakweri people in Cameroon to an international corporation.

"The communications revolution has given the poor and dispossessed a chance to complain against the corporations or governments that are treating them unjustly. It calls their oppressors to account," Eko says.

Furthermore, the mass media are a means of cross-cultural exchange, transporting non-Western aesthetics and culture to Western societies. For instance, media have provided the forum for African music to become the cornerstone of the World Music movement, Eko says. Such cultural exchange promotes understanding, and provides an alternative to images of pestilence, war and disease.

"You must bypass the media images to get a realistic picture of what the world is like. Go visit. If you can't do that, seek out realistic documentaries that don't feed the usual developing world stereotypes of famine and earthquakes. Some channels, like National Geographic and Discovery, go out of the box and show a different picture," says Eko, himself an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose works on Africa have been featured in a number of international festivals, broadcast in New York, and acquired by universities throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The best way to further mutual understanding and respect is human contact, he says. "For someone born in the Third World, America's greatest ambassadors are the Peace Corps. They give the best image of American ideals in action, and are the best counter to negative stereotypes.

by Gladys Ganiel
May-June, 2003

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