Queen Noor of Jordan delivered the keynote address at an Oct. 1 conference at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, DC that brought together communication experts in U.S. public diplomacy, independent film and media producers, and scientists. In recent years experts have debated which public diplomacy strategies will improve America's image abroad and win hearts and minds in the digital age. Can media be used to make peace-or even prevent conflict from occurring in the first place?
The traditional media of television, radio and print have been joined recently by independent or citizen media in the form of digital publications, blogs, YouTube (online video sharing), Twitter, text messaging, social networking and more. Add to that the power of entertainment media, TV shows, films, advertisements, public service announcements (PSAs), street theater, plays and concerts...and the possibilities for building peace-or sowing conflict-are staggering.
"We are living in a media-saturated world," Queen Noor declared, "in the midst of troubling events, some of them manufactured." It's easy for extremists to use media to promote hatred and intolerance, like the controversial cartoons published in a Danish newspaper; the anti-Muslim DVD "Obsession," which circulated in American newspapers during the 2008 elections; and talk radio show agitators. A 2006 Gallop poll asked how the West could improve relations with the Muslim world, Queen Noor noted. The most offered response was: stop disrespecting our religion and portraying us as inferior in your media.
Media play a huge role in shaping culture, according to Shamil Idriss, executive director of the Alliance of Civilizations Media Fund, which co-sponsored the conference. The alliance is a consortium of media industry leaders and philanthropists dedicated to using mass media to improve cross-cultural understanding and respect. For a start, Idriss said, Hollywood could begin to reverse the negative stereotypes it has helped create and introduce more positive and believable Muslim and Arab characters.
This can work. The 1993 film "Philadelphia," for example, changed forever the way Americans look at homosexuality and HIV/AIDs. "The Wire," an HBO series, challenged viewers to examine inner city crime. It is quite possible Americans would not have elected an African-American president if it hadn't been for the 1980s hit "The Cosby Show," or Dennis Haysbert playing president in 79 episodes of the TV drama "24."
U.S. media, especially films and TV shows, have a huge influence on the world and can also shape how the world perceives America's culture. Afghanistan has its own version of "American Idol," and Egyptians enjoy watching "Friends." Producers and directors should take their roles more seriously.
Equally, media's portrayal of events can inflame tensions. When people believe that one's ethnic, racial or social group is threatened by violence, their allegiance to that group is increased. Riots in Los Angeles broke out in 1992 after a jury acquitted police officers charged in a videotaped beating of African-American motorist Rodney King. Imagine the impact on Arabs who watched Israel's 22-day assault on Gaza for 24 hours a day.
Rebecca Saxe, a professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), gave a fascinating perspective on the possibilities of using science in conflict resolution. …