America's International Image Problem. (Mass Media)

By Sharpe, Melvin L. | USA TODAY, July 2002 | Go to article overview

America's International Image Problem. (Mass Media)

Sharpe, Melvin L., USA TODAY

WHAT? America is not loved like we once thought it was? After the Marshall Plan, billions in foreign aid, and successful World War II and Gulf War rescues, what has gone wrong?

The U.S. has an image problem, and it may largely be due to our own communication as a nation. This has become increasingly apparent to me over the past 10 years in travel to countries such as Nigeria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Poland, France, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay, where I have marveled at my increasing ability to watch CNN and then see American films and television shows at nearly every switch of the channel.

Programs like "Gilligan's Island" and "Dallas" and almost every gangster and inner-city crime movie produced by Hollywood are now available for international audiences. Images abound of wealth and excess in Americans' lifestyles and of inner-city life with its crime, drugs, and prostitution.

In addition, CNN has kept viewers up-to-date with news on sexual abuse by priests, Enron financial manipulations, the latest White House or Congressional scandal, illegal campaign contribution accusations, school violence, drug problems in rural areas and major cities, police brutality, racial strife, and the political accusations made during the Florida presidential vote recount. All received the same repetitive replay overseas as seen here.

Where in this mix are the images of the real America--the America we want people in other nations to know? Where in the communication are the projections of the values we treasure as Americans--such as freedom of religion and speech, charity for those less-fortunate, and openness in the performance of government?

The distortion of the image projected of average American life was impressed upon me by a group of Brazilian mothers preparing to send their sons and daughters to a high school exchange program in Indiana. Their concerns were about the safety of their children and the drugs to which they might be exposed.

International graduate students also confirm the skewed view in the messages this nation is communicating. Students tell me of their fear in coming here and that of their families for their safety. Where did they get their perceptions of life in the U.S.? They came from television--a communication tool that is now increasingly available along with growing viewer access to satellite news and successfully marketed American television programming.

Don't get me wrong. Freedom of the news media and access to information and government records are two of the primary reasons our nation has an edge in the integrity of the operation of its law enforcement, judicial, political, and government systems. The trouble is the lack of international viewer understanding of what to them is the repetitive communication of our social problems. Without a frame of reference or an understanding of what we view as entertainment rather than reality or of the way the news is reported in an open society, the existing visualization and communication of life in the U.S. through the news media and television shows contributes to more misunderstanding than understanding.

An example is the George W. Bush/Al Gore national election Florida recount, which was highly publicized internationally. To most Americans, the contested ballots did not mean that our election process is equal in its corruption to that experienced in nondemocratically controlled nations or in countries without a longer history of democratic performance. It was simply an eye-opener that communicated to the average American that here was a situation that must be addressed. Why? In part, the answer relates to American confidence in the media in exposing and analyzing the problem and results. It also relates to our knowledge of the strong government evident in the "sunshine" laws that have gone into effect at the state and national levels since the 1960s, campaign reforms in spite of existing deficiencies, and the election process. …

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