School of Modern Languages Researchers Work to Understand the Global Role of Media, One Region at a Time

Posted September 30, 2020

By Michael Pearson

From the news sites we read in the morning to the social media we devour at work to the late-night comedy shows that often give us the last word on the day’s news, media in all its varied forms sets the stage for how we see our democracy, the world, and the forces that shape them.

What’s true here in the United States also resonates elsewhere in the world, as three scholars in the School of Modern Languages demonstrate with their varied research pursuits into the role of media and democracy across time and space.

Associate Professors Jan Uelzmann and Paul Alonso and Assistant Professor Natalie Khazaal each study the role of media in a different period or geographic region: Uelzmann in post-World War II West Germany, Khazaal in the Middle East, and Alonso in the Americas, most specifically with a focus on satire in Latin America.

“Each of us focuses on how narratives, the way we tell stories about ourselves, about others, and about the world, intersect with politics,” said Khazaal. “Media reflects these common narratives, but also helps in their creation.”

Each of these research projects can help provide deep insights that can help us better understand the tumultuous and ever-changing world in which we live.

“If you look at the PR films the West German government produced after the war, they offer this rich treasure trove of the democratic imaginary of the time,” Uelzmann said. “It really helps us see how the West Germans navigated past and present in ways that resonate today.”

For Alonso, examining how satire plays out in the Americas, particularly, is an essential tool to understand the sociopolitical and cultural tensions tugging at the bonds of society throughout the world and the failures of traditional media to understand and reflect those concerns.

“Contemporary TV satire has been a reaction against the role that traditional news and entertainment media have played as accomplices of antidemocratic forces, power elites, and discriminatory discourse,” he said. “At the same time, it’s become a barometer of the limits of dissent within a particular national media culture and its commercial systems.”

Understanding the technologies involved — and the values they transmit — is crucial, too, for students here at Georgia Tech. Digging into how technology can impact the narratives we consume is vital for students who will help shape the technologies of tomorrow, says Khazaal.

“Understanding the role technology plays in helping shape these narratives shows how technology is not neutral,” she said. “To be a better global citizen and a more interculturally competent professional, to support the processes of democracy from a more informed, thoughtful, and introspective position, the future engineer, computer scientist, or roboticist should explore the human side of technology.”

Here’s more about what each of these faculty members studies:

Unraveling How a Newsreel System Helped Cement West German Democracy After World War II

In his 2019 book, Staging West German Democracy: Governmental PR Films and the Democratic Imaginary, 1953-1963, Uelzmann describes how post-war West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer used PR films produced through the state-controlled newsreel service Deutsche Wochenschau to create a new narrative of a prosperous and democratic German state. Many of the media professionals involved had just made the transition from manufacturing Third Reich propaganda to the democratic postwar media industry.

“These films showcased the successes of democracy in a post-fascist society where democratic principles frequently met with ambivalence or resistance,” Uelzmann said. “Therefore, the films project a celebratory image of an increasingly affluent, thriving democracy, embedded in Western economic and defense networks, that had left the days of uncertainty and need behind and was on a stable trajectory of socio-economic development.”

Adenauer deftly used the newsreel system to suit his needs. He used it to fashion a new democratic image for his country after his efforts to build a state-owned TV network were turned aside on legal grounds.

Uelzmann sees echoes of the Adenauer administration’s PR practices in current German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s image in the Federal government’s YouTube channel. “Although their actual forms differ, the motivations behind Adenauer’s PR films and Merkel’s short YouTube clips are somewhat similar in that they both aim at a positive reinforcement of events or political decisions,” Uelzmann said.

Studying Satire’s Subversive Limits

“When institutions fail, satire flourishes,” says Alonso, whose 2018 book Satiric TV in the Americas: Critical Metatainment as Negotiated Dissent analyzes the influence of such programs on political discourse across the Americas.

Recent years have seen growing debates about inequality, corruption, drug trafficking, violence. Social protests over homophobia, sexism, racism, and other social issues have also been more common, all of which have contributed to satire’s rise, Alonso said.

“Media culture has been a key actor and mediator in all of these processes, and my research positions satire as a unique type of media text that condenses these prevalent sociopolitical and cultural tensions,” he said. In doing so, it has, in some ways, eclipsed traditional news media.

“While modern news became a unique media form that based its authority in being an accurate or objective reflection of reality, satire has arisen as a distinctive media form that purports to be a carnivalesque mirror that reflects the hidden, unspoken, and social uncomfortable aspects of that reality,” Alonso said.

Middle Eastern Media: ‘An International Battleground for the Attention of Arab Audiences’

Khazaal examines Arab media in her contribution to the recent book Global Media and Strategic Narratives of Contested Democracy. Doing so offers rich insights for understanding the evolving place of the United States on the world stage, she said.

“It’s important to see international audiences not as receptacles but as participants,” Khazaal said. “Influence doesn’t only depend on culture, political values, and foreign policies, but also on how these resources are perceived by others.”

Khazaal’s chapter in Global Media and Strategic Narratives deals with how Arab media reacted to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, compared to Chinese and Russian media described in the other chapters. Unlike Russian and Chinese narratives, which sought to undermine the United States' image as a world leader, Arab media offered a more ambivalent, culturally positive, but politically negative narrative.

“One of the most striking and consequential of our findings is that while Russian narratives largely sought to displace U.S. leadership, and Chinese narratives sought to fit China’s own national strength alongside the United States, Arabic news media had positive evaluations of the ideals of democracy.”

 “Such positive narratives of democracy in Arab media stem from an older, culturally positive Arab view of the United States,” Khazaal said. “They also connect to a more recent Arab advocacy for human rights that has been most visible since the 21011 Arab uprisings and the regional struggle against authoritarian regimes.”

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