The Intercultural Communication Conference, an annual conclave of communication scholars sans frontieres in Coral Gables, Florida, is nothing if not diverse.
The 18th meeting of the conference, sponsored by the University of Miami School of Communication March 1-3, had human rights as its central theme, but even that could cover a multitude of sins--literally. Papers provoked discussion on every aspect of rights, human and non-human, from insurance coverage for "sex workers" suffering from TMJ (temporomandibular joint syndrome--jaw disorders) to protection for Mount Everest and the Nepalese suffering from tourism hype.
Ain't no mountain high enough, ain't no valley.... nothing's off limits for communicology.
To perhaps set a diverse tone, the conference was supposed to be keynoted by James Randi from the James Randi Education Foundation, which bills itself as an educational resource on the paranormal, the pseudoscientific, and the supernatural. The headline on a recent Randi commentary--on the foundation's March 9 website--was a paean to diverse topics: "Text from Korea, a Herd of Psychics on Larry King, Pop Psych on Today, Galileo's Day, and Bye-Bye to Triangles."
Randi didn't appear, and conference director Thomas Steinfatt had to take over. Randi canceled at the last minute, as did heavyweight journalism scholar and emeritus professor from the University of Missouri John C. Merrill. Merrill was scheduled to moderate a session and speak on the role of the press in democratization.
A number of other speakers, however, picked up the theme of the relationship between the press, and other news media, and human rights broadly construed. These included Michael K. Perkins of Brigham Young University-Hawaii, who discussed the interstices between culture, international human rights, and freedom of the press in Latin America, and your correspondent, who presented a paper on developing a news agency to help reintegrate a fractured country and Europe's most notorious recent venue for human rights violations, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Minabere Ibelema of the University of Alabama at Birmingham, in his analysis of press coverage of African elections, observed that human rights violations in countries with a "communalist" social structure, such as those in Africa, may be framed differently than in countries with a more individualist tradition, such as in North America and Europe. "Communalist values (in Africa) determine the news frame by which human rights are covered," he said. "The question is how will they [human rights violations] affect groups, not individuals."
As several speakers pointed out, the concept of human rights itself is relatively new coinage, most notably defined in the 1948 UN Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the Genocide Convention. Today, it is difficult to conceive of a time when such rights were not an integral part of the global lexicon, however much ignored in practice. Participants combed over human rights issues in China, Chile, India, Nigeria, Korea, Morocco, Latvia, Liberia, Canada, and the United States, among other countries.
Leavening was provided with occasional papers on popular culture, such as University of Miami doctoral student Rasha Abdulla's intriguingly titled presentation, "Modernism, Post-Modernism, and Pink Floyd: Is There Anybody Out There?"
Papers on transnational broadcasting were in short supply, except as implied under the broad and now unavoidable rubric of globalization, which, to its critics, is just a euphemism for the Americanization of the world.
Take the influence of the American news media not only in setting the world news agenda, but in establishing the way in which news will be covered by other countries. Heloiza G. Herscovitz from Florida International University presented research showing that the pervasive influence of American culture generally has penetrated Brazilian news organizations in particular. Its impact is felt not only in how Brazilian media institutions set up their administrative and economic structures, but in their professional news standards. "Brazilian journalists perceive themselves as emulating an American journalistic model, which includes a concern with objectivity and accuracy," she said.
The impact of American journalism is a topic that needs to be examined more broadly, since the Anglo-American model, which had been transforming journalism practice in Western Europe and elsewhere for more than a century, is being propagated with missionary intent in the post-Cold War era of capitalist triumphalism. American agencies and organizations, from the U.S. Agency for International Development to the Knight Foundation, Freedom Forum and many others, are trying to get news media everywhere else to do it the American way. That's fine and probably signals an improvement over the way the news has been processed in post-communist, "transitional" countries and developing countries under autocratic regimes. But anyone who has watched the spastic and silly fare of local news broadcasts from Seattle to Miami might be forgiven some skepticism that, for all its virtues, the American news system is perfection itself.
American journalism's performance came under examination in several papers, most notably in a paper from the University of West Florida's Mohammed el-Nawawy on the distinctive perceptions of American correspondents toward Egyptian and Israeli cultures. Guess what. Journalists are not free of stereotypes.
The presence of Latin America was certainly palpable, if not as strong at the conference as at the Bayside Market Place, a great place for fruity rum drinks and Miami memorabilia (check out the magnetized pink flamingo refrigerator art) down the road from the university's expansive, lush campus. Among the speakers addressing Latin American topics was University of Miami graduate student Ileana Oroza. She reviewed some of the difficulties in trying to assess the impact of Spanish-language television on U.S. Hispanics. Is there really a Hispanic audience? Will people from such diverse countries, with such distinctive cultures, as Colombia, Mexico, Cuba, and Venezuela really constitute a unified audience? Media marketers seem to think so, though journalists are not so sure, she said. Spanish-language TV seems to be creating an audience in the United States with shared knowledge and experience, but not necessarily united by ideas or attitudes.
The implications of globalizing pressure from the Internet also came under scrutiny. Alex Mwakikoti of the University of Texas at Arlington made a general argument for regulating Internet as it accumulates knotty issues, but he acknowledged it won't be easy--or perhaps even possible. The range of problems created by the Internet includes lost tax revenue from e-commerce, rampant copyright violations, the selling of body parts, the fostering of terrorism and vice, fraud, and invasion of privacy. At an even more profound level, it may be draining human relationships of depth and prompting cultural conformity. "We have, somehow, created a monster," he said. Mwakikoti said national efforts at control in China, Japan and elsewhere have been largely ineffective. He argued that the International Telecommunication Union should be able to take the lead in looking for ways to regulate the Internet, perhaps incorporating some controls at the national level.
The very diversity of the conference topics made it difficult to lump similar topics into single sessions. That, plus the fact that up to five sessions were going on at any one time, makes a good argument for reprinting the papers, or at least the abstracts, in a proceedings. No one could get to all the presentations that might be of interest, and scholars trying to do so were continually sprinting past each other in the corridors after skulking out of one ongoing session to bee-line it for another.
Here's an idea: Put the proceedings online.