Communication is basic to community, and the right tocommunicate a basic human right.. It is a precondition of a just and democratic society. It is necessary if ever peace is to be achieved. This policy statement first reviews the biblical and theological basis, then looks at the role of the church, the influence of communication technologies and resources, regulation of a public resource in the public interest, the proglrm of concentration of media ownership and control, and the impace of global media on indigenous cultures. A Call to Action lists specific next steps.
IntroductionThe National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, through its programs of mission and witness, seeks to join with others in defining and creating the conditions for a more just world order. As a new millennium approaches, a unique opportunity exists to replace Cold War animosities, which have dominated the last half of this century, with a more humane international community. The Council affirms that communication and just uses of communication technology are essential for a just world.
We understand communication to be basic to community and the right to communicate a basic human right. The right to receive and to provide information is as fundamental to the quality of life as worship, food, clothing and shelter. The right to communicate is essential to human dignity. It is a precondition of a just and democratic society. It is necessary if ever peace is to be achieved.
We acknowledge that every right brings with it responsibilities, and that the whole community is responsible for the functioning of communication in society. Christians, as citizens, have an obligation to exert whatever influence they can to ensure that the mass media in our society operate to serve the public good rather than merely commercial interests or those of individuals.
This policy statement addresses the issues of global communication and justice outlined above. It suggests steps our churches may take to provide alternatives to the increasing centralization of control and ownership and to the politicizing of world media by a few powerful governments and transnational media giants.
In this document we affirm communication as both message and process. When we speak of communication, we speak of that which takes place between persons, in family and community, as well as the more formal communication structures that society has built and continues to embellish. We speak also of messages both overt and covert and the intended and unintentional impact or results of such messages having been “heard” and internalized.
We affirm communication as both message and process.When we speak of communication, we speak of the various forms through which messages are communicated. These encompass audio and video images whether supplied by video cassette, cable, satellite or over-the-air broadcasting. We also speak of telephone and computer communication via land lines, satellite, or undersea cable, and the control of society that these forms or tools of communication make possible because of their superior speed and all encompassing “view” of the globe.
When we speak of “mass” communication, we speak of its current and potential uses for information, entertainment and education. When we speak of the communication industries, we include their structure, politics, economics and regulation, as well as their responsiveness to the public agenda.
When we speak of “informal,” “alternative” or “people’s” communication, we speak of those forms of communication used by individuals, family or community groups to exchange messages and information and/or to provide an alternative (in form and content) to the more institutionalized “mass” communication largely controlled by corporations and/or governments.
The Biblical and Theological Basis for Our UnderstandingThe convictions expressed in this policy statement are based on a biblical understanding of communication. God is a communicating God. Christians believe that the creation of the world is rooted in the spoken Word of God. God made all persons — women, men and children — in the divine image. God created the world and all living things for relationship.
Communication is one of God’s gifts to humanity, the gift that binds individuals together into communities, and communities into one human family. The capacity for sharing knowledge and love with God and each other is the foundation of our human dignity.
While we honor the beliefs of other faiths, as Christians we affirm that the supreme act of God’s communication with the world is the incarnation of Jesus Christ. As God’s “word became flesh” in Jesus Christ, the promise of creation was restored and human beings experienced the possibilities of dialogue with God and with each other.
Christ communicated through acts of self-giving. He “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). He ministered to all, but took up the cause of the materially poor, the mentally and physically ill, the outcasts of society, the powerless, and the oppressed. Therefore, we boldly state that communication by Christian churches and people should be acts of love that liberate.
The abuse of communication is one form of humanity’s alienation from God and neighbor. The consequences of this alienation can be deadly. But Christians do not speak with a single voice on communications policy. Some Christians seek to impose censorship on the mass media to exclude some opinions and enforce others. We reject this agenda as incompatible with the belief that no community should be silenced, and, therefore, that all communities should have access to the means of communication.
Communication by Christian churches and people should be acts of love that liberate.Christians — as citizens in a democratic society in which many religions, ideologies and political viewpoints coexist — should hesitate before pronouncing that this or that use of the means of communication is “good” or “evil.” But we do have the right to speak out on this subject. In seeking to keep the means of communication open to the widest range of opinion, in struggling to preserve the right to communication for oppressed and persecuted communities, in opposing efforts to deny citizens the right of information, in demanding that the mass media protect children from exploitation, Christians will find allies among citizens whose worldview is determined by secular ideology as well as other religious traditions.
The Bible, the inspired word of God, is also a book of communication and relationship for those who call themselves the people of God. In its account of the tower of Babel, we see a classic example of the integral relationship between communication and culture, for here is a story of communication broken by pride and the search for power. The theme repeats itself in a positive way in the story of Pentecost, the birthplace of the mission of the church. Being filled with the Holy Spirit and in communion with God and one another, the people of God spoke and heard the divine message of God in their own languages. They were empowered to communicate the Word.
The Role of the ChurchThe existing global web of communication — symbols, images, and pictures simultaneously transmitted into scenarios and sequences of events — catch and hold the lives of people everywhere. The web envelops people’s perceptions and understanding and finally invades the innermost chamber of consciousness, deeply affecting spirit as well as life. The church is called to resist when any force subjugates the spirit, mind, will and voice of people to the dictates of any worldly power.
The church has a critical interest in media structures, control, audiences and effects.Christian theology recognizes the tension between values of individual consciousness, articulation and self-determination, on the one hand, and corporateness and need for community, on the other. Today the church struggles with this tension in the midst of a media environment that provides its own competing definitions of these realities. Thus, the church has a critical interest in media structures, control, audiences and effects.
Churches recognize that issues of justice in local and national development cannot be addressed without a consciousness of the role of communication, nor can any group do so without the tools with which to make their views known.
The churches of the world are a global communication system through which the voices of those rendered voiceless because they lack access to the media can be raised to question societal trends that may be antithetical to justice, freedom and human dignity.
As Christians, we recognize that religious organizations and individuals have been guilty of not using the communication media primarily for the public welfare, and we repent both our inaction and transgressions in this regard.
Often we, as religious groups, have put our institutional self interest above the public interest. We have failed to give serious attention to the forces that constrain the press and other communication media and often have sought simply to put forward our own special interests rather than challenge the use of communication as a cultural force that supports the powerful and that victimizes the powerless.
We have ignored the use of communication by Western societies as a tool of cultural domination of other nations instead of speaking to marketplace, industrial and government interests in our own society on behalf of our brothers and sisters in other countries. We further observe that sometimes parts of our churches have subjugated the spirit, mind, will and voice of our people, particularly when Christian media initiatives invade other countries and cultures without an understanding of the life, realities and involvement of the local churches and Christian councils in a particular nation.
I. The Influence of Communication Technologies and ResourcesCitizens of developed and developing nations alike live in a global information context where information is a commodity that currently rivals factors such as control of natural resources, capital and industrial production as an important determinant of global power.
The traditional arbiters and purveyors of “culture” (including governments, churches, educational and scientific organizations) have lost much of their influence when compared to the influence of mass media.
Public discourse increasingly takes place around an agenda set by the media. People, whether they live in Manila, Moscow or Morgantown, now have nearly simultaneous access to the same images and viewpoints in the interpretation of events.
In long industrialized nations and newly industrialized nations alike, the social, political and cultural arenas of life are defined and debated in ways controlled by the media. The media play an ever more important role in such events as political campaigns, the overthrow and creation of governments, and in the way wars are planned, fought and interpreted. The media increasingly shape consciousness and define the quest for the meaning of life.
II. The Regulation of a Public Resource in the Public InterestCommitments to public service obligations, once a part of a social contract involving the government, its citizens and the media industries, have been abrogated in the United States in favor of marketplace regulation, a concept now being exported to other nations as well. Experience during the decade of the ’80s and following has shown that this type of regulation has not served the public interest but rather has pandered to what interests the public.
At the same time that mass communication has come to be more important to social and cultural processes, the media themselves are undergoing great change. Traditional definitions of media practices, such as the line between entertainment and news, have become blurred. In the electronic media, producers now enjoy greater freedom in what may be “aired” regardless of consideration of the nature of the audience or community sensibilities, which once were honored.
The media, particularly television, have enormous impact in the lives of people and societies over a relatively short time. This impact may at various times be positive or negative, but currently the negative impact of the entertainment media, advertising, and even the way news programs are constructed appear to outweigh the more positive benefits.
Media have enormous impact in the lives of people and societies.Television, whether in the U.S. or in other nations, is creating a “mass” culture of the lowest common denominator of all of society. TV programming and images often appeal to the base instincts of humanity and exploit such instincts for private gain. Thus, both entertainment and news media are dominated by affirmations of greed, instant gratification, the use of violence rather than negotiation as a way of solving problems, titillation (sex rather than love), exploitation of the weak by the strong (particularly women, children, older persons, and ethnic minorities), satisfaction of curiosity rather than a deeper consideration of issues, and single viewpoints rather than multiple viewpoints.
We do not attribute the negative effects of media to the individual creations of writers, reporters and producers as much as to the cumulative effects of a way of viewing the world brought about by the technical demands of the media themselves.
We recognize that international journalistic and media organizations have their own codes of ethics. These, however, most often stress the right to know, objectivity in reporting, freedom of movement in order to report freely and responsibly on all issues, and the freedom of journalists to communicate without restrictions. As Christians, we endorse these ideas, but insist that this agenda is not adequate to deal with the deeper issues of the cumulative effect upon cultures, nations and individuals by the mass media.
The church’s role in combating the negative aspects of the media while upholding freedom of speech and opposing censorship has been discussed at length in other policy documents prepared by the National Council of Churches. We would particularly call attention to the Council’s stand against the inclusion of gratuitous violence and sexual violence in film and video materials. Rather than address the issue in detail in this paper, we commend to all the Council’s policy statement on “Violence in Electronic Media and Film.” 1
III. Concentration of Media Ownership and ControlConcentration of ownership of print media and the film industry has coincided with a trend toward private ownership and commercialization in broadcasting. Where once public service traditions dominated in much of the developed and developing worlds (in both non-commercial and commercial media), Western (specifically North American) notions of commercialized private enterprise and “deregulation” are spreading.
A very few media conglomerates (probably no more than a dozen) dominate the struggle for hundreds of millions of minds in the global community. These media giants control television and radio, magazine and book publishing, newspapers, movie production, cable and record companies. They shape the consciousness of millions and control access to news and information.
Global media establishments are more and more driven by the needs and demands of world markets and less and less driven by national or cultural needs and interests. By concentrating on the commercially successful strategy of serving “mass tastes” in entertainment, the media have never adequately served the interests of the majority of people and seldom those of marginalized peoples. Neither have they served minority groups, neglecting to program for their cultural, racial, artistic and justice concerns.
Media increasingly represent the interests of forces at the centers of political and economic power, neglecting the concerns of churches and other institutions that advocate for alternative visions and futures.
As a result of the concentration of ownership and power, a narrower range of viewpoints is represented. Fewer persons, nations, groups and societies have the possibility to get their stories told, their views made known or taken seriously, their cultures considered, honored or preserved. Instead they are swept away in the flood of mass images (mostly provided by the United States or other “Western” nations).
IV. The Impact of Global Media on Indigenous CultureMedia today have an unprecedented ability to define what exists and what does not. Media images, often created to appeal to a transnational, predominately Western audience, undermine other countries’ local and national definitions of what is valuable and desirable.
Individuals and whole communities of persons within nations are frequently victimized rather than assisted by the way in which information is controlled and often distorted. The powerless, whether in the United States and other developed countries or in the developing world, rarely have opportunities to tell their own stories. Others tell the stories for them, often filling these stories with unacceptable stereotypes.2 The reality of those without power is not depicted fairly. Neither is the information provided geared to their best interests, but rather is tailored to the demands of their own nation or those of foreign commerce.
In this post-industrial era there is an erosion of dynamic culture alive to its own needs and true to itself. While traditional modes of communication enabled development based on cultural autonomy, mass communication discourages such development. Through mass media, people in every nation have become consumers of the values embodied in the entertainment and advertising supplied by their own or “foreign” societies.
Media today have an unprecedented ability to define what exists and what does not.The global community now finds itself in an unrelenting transition from traditional communication, where face-to-face and oral interaction predominate, to modern society’s top-down, one-way, technology-driven and “mediated” communication.
It is the nature of this global discourse that it can define and limit human prospects for successful common life. The media encourage an artificial transnational culture based on a selective vision, which affects the relations between nations and peoples throughout the world.
As churches, we say we have placed ourselves on the side of the social, cultural, economic and spiritual development of all peoples. But we have not always recognized that such development must be based on a strong cultural identity and autonomy through which peoples define themselves, their situations and their needs.
V. The Positive and Negative Potential of New TechnologiesMedia need not divide peoples and cultures. Media can make it possible for persons, communities and nations to participate fully in their own cultures as well as in shared world meanings and values. Media can enable people to participate in community and national life.
While it is not the purpose of this policy statement to discuss individual technologies, which are being introduced at an astonishing rate, it is important to note certain specific attributes of transborder electronic data flow and its potential impact on the economics of every nation on the globe.
Unfortunately, most of the people of the world do not share in the real benefits of these technologies. The problem is not only the relative lack of communications media available for use by the developing world. Equally significant is the quality of information that is offered.
New technologies and mass media have separated us from control over our cultural and economic lives. Control has been transferred, in large part, to those with technical expertise in the service of the mercantile and the military.
These technologies allow those who own them to manage information and resources at increasingly remote distances from the local cultures and economies affected. The instantaneous nature of global data transmission means that economic powers (both governmental and non-governmental) have access to current information about weather and agricultural conditions often before people “on the ground” do. The global-technological nature of the economy gives tremendous fiscal power to these same first-world and transnational interests.
However, these technologies also have benefits. They enable global contact, and when made available for human uses and to address human needs, can significantly enhance life, development and global consciousness. Such uses will not become widespread unless concrete enabling steps are taken. Such uses are not of primary concern to the current media industries, so the voice of the churches is significant.
VI. Toward a Forum for Global DialogueAs we have said, media are powerful resources for education, promotion of health, and other components of development. Modern media technologies offer unprecedented opportunities for the exchange of information between peoples and nations. Media technologies have great potential to bind the world together, when not beholden entirely to transnational commercial interests.
One result of the trends toward “privatization” has been a virtual elimination of any basis for global dialogue about equity and justice in communication. Whereas for a brief period in history there were influential public arenas (such as UNESCO, the International Telecommunications Union, etc.) where such issues could be addressed, in a totally commercialized world marketplace such discussion may disappear. Media are being viewed instead as products and thus discussion is taking place in the realm of trade negotiations where issues of justice and equity are often ignored as irrelevant.
We ask that appropriate United Nations agencies, governments and the communication industries in the United States and around the globe consider exploring and undertaking some strategies that could work toward change. For example:
- Establishment of a forum for domestic dialogue on the matters discussed in this paper. The object of such a forum would be on-going dialogue among citizens, government and industries on the country’s communication agenda, to the end that such a dialogue would result in specific actions and recommendations that would deal with communication policy in society globally rather than be limited to short term response to specific and immediate situations.
- Establishment of a number of global forums of the type described above where true international dialogue around all the issues outlined in this paper could take place.
- Providing opportunity for citizens to be heard and taken seriously by government and industry circles regulating media in this country at federal, state and local levels. Such an approach might well mean the reinstitution of formal community ascertainment procedures as a prerequisite to license renewal and would certainly embody mandated responsiveness by the media to the local community being served. It could also take the form of citizen public utility boards affording an opportunity to consider effects of policy in advance of its adoption.
- Providing opportunity for individuals and citizen groups to participate in producing and disseminating their own messages to their community, to have access to all the media of communication in some proportionate way without the need to purchase advertising time and space, or costly production equipment.
- Providing opportunity for all citizens, but particularly children and youth, to receive media literacy training and to become active in determining what they will see and hear rather than simply being passive consumers.
Call to ActionIn a faithful response to God and the mission of the church, we, therefore, adopt this policy statement on Global Communication for Justice. We call upon the member communions and all units of the National Council of Churches to pursue such strategies as:
In Local Church and Family LifeA. Educate families about the way media work and how they as individuals and groups can become both responsible consumers and users of media. To that end, local churches should:
- Sponsor media literacy classes for all age groups within the church and community.
- Provide information about public interest groups that have organized to combat various abuses by the media — from the use of excessive violence in programming to misleading advertising in children’s programming — so that those who wish may join in these advocacy activities at the local and community level as well as nationally and internationally.
- Provide commentary from the pulpit on the impact of media on the quality of life and values of individuals and society and suggest ways congregations and individuals can both work with the positive forces and resist the negative.
C. Urge local public broadcasting stations to carry more programming from other nations, particularly developing nations, such programming to encompass artistic and entertainment programming as well as news and information.
D. Affirm the church’s support for the integrity of women and challenge the media’s stereotypes and exploitative representation of women.
E. Work with regional and national bodies to provide support for such activities as:
- Scholarships and training of persons, especially women, in developing countries in communication policy issues and communication management in order that they may be fully prepared to participate in planning for the communications policy, programs and infrastructure in their respective nations.
- Assistance to independent local film and video makers in every nation so they may share their works in international film festivals and with people in other parts of the world.
- Participation in grass-roots communication efforts that offer alternatives to the mass media.
In Regional and National Church SettingsA. Provide resources to assist local churches with all the activities outlined above.
B. Integrate sustained work for global communications justice into current peace and justice advocacy agendas.
C. Oppose gender-biased reporting and encourage the equal participation of women in mass media and alternative media.
D. Support opportunities for women media practitioners in career training/development, and advocate for promotions based on merit, for independent decision-making and for freedom from sexual harassment in the workplace.
E. Strengthen and support our nation’s public broadcasting system.
F. Work with U.S. companies through such groups as the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility3 on shareholder actions to persuade U.S. companies to respect nations’ attempts to protect their cultural sovereignty.
G. Assist church members in the United States and in countries around the globe to meet together to share information and to understand the importance of their participation as citizens in the development of policies that determine their own nation’s telecommunications infrastructure.
H. Urge a U.S. policy of neutrality toward actions taken by less developed countries to preserve their cultural heritage through restrictions on the importation of cultural products.
I. Support freedom of movement for journalists of every nation, so that they may report freely and from first-hand observation.
J. Work with other communions through the National Council of Churches and the World Association for Christian Communication on the agenda outlined below.
In Our Ecumenical LifeA. Encourage the NCC Department of Communication to assist in gathering persons with appropriate expertise to help re-articulate and develop a public model of administration that neither leaves communications policy completely to government and government ownership nor to industry but reasserts that communication and the channels of communication belong to the people and must be managed for the benefit of all citizens.
B. Assist in developing guidelines for the organization and functioning of citizen advocate groups.
C. Provide research and information to citizen advocate groups on the process for obtaining “leave to participate” in governmental proceedings, public policy development and rule-making in the communications arena.
D. Work with U.S. counterpart agencies, which are often invited to provide models of communication policy for developing nations, to ensure that means for such access is an integral part of the advice provided.
E. Urge that all ecumenical and global churches and agencies work to assist their members to become media literate. As part of becoming aware of the power of the media, we particularly suggest the study of the Principles of Christian Communication developed by the World Association of Christian Communication.4
F. Urge all church bodies, as well as UNESCO, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and other similar groups, to place more emphasis on funding of training and technical assistance for communications policy in developing nations.
G. Seek inclusion for local cable programmers, local public radio broadcasters, computer network operators and similar professionals operating in the public interest as members of training delegations going to developing nations in order to propagate the concept of a vigorous, involved public citizen movement.
H. Work together on ecumenical productions that stress the values and address the issues about which we are concerned.
I. Work with institutions of higher education, particularly communication and theology faculties, to encourage them to address societal communication issues in a systematic way.
Notes:1. Violence in Electronic Media and Film, available from the Communication Commission, National Council of Churches, Room 852, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, New York 10115.
2. As a result of the gender bias prevalent in the media, women are likewise frequently ignored or presented as stereotypes.
3. The Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, Room 550, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, New York 10115.
4. Christian Principles of Communication, available from the World Association for Christian Communication, 357 Kennington Lane, London SE11 5QY, England.
The Church and Media Series:
- Violence in Electronic Media and Film
- Global Communication for Justice
- The Churches’ Role in Media Education and Communication Advocacy
- Member Communions of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA
- For more information, contact:
- NCCC Communication Commission
- 475 Riverside Drive, Room 850
- New York, NY 10115