Student guest post: The role of editing in public diplomacy

Students in JOMC 457, Advanced Editing, are writing guest posts for this blog this semester. This is the 14th of those posts. Melissa Tolentino is a senior double major in journalism (editing and graphic design) and Japanese studies. As a former intern at the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, she has a passion for public diplomacy, particularly with youth. She also loves pugs. In the fall, she is moving to Tokyo to attend graduate school for international communications.

The relationship between the government and the media has always been a tricky one. In the three years I’ve been taking classes in the journalism school, I’ve heard time and time again that journalists are supposed to act as the government’s watchdog—though sometimes, that role changes to lapdog, depending on the issue. Regardless of the role, we’ve seen how government scandals and officials have been handled by all kinds of media. Just look at the Pentagon Papers, Wikileaks and Valerie Plame’s outing as an undercover CIA agent in The Washington Post.

But let’s take a step back from the notion of bureaucracy for a second. There’s another aspect of government that the media has to deal with every day, and it doesn’t carry the same stiff reputation. It’s called public diplomacy, which is a more grassroots form of diplomacy that relies on fostering mutual understanding among countries through international communication. Rather than do this through bureaucratic channels, though, public diplomacy relies on the people, which is why it’s often called “the people’s diplomacy.”

The most important word in that definition is communication. Any form of international relations would not exist without it, and the media is the perfect channel through which such communication should occur. No matter the region or the culture, newspapers, blogs and news broadcasts carry the same purpose: to inform.

But the way an event is interpreted by the American media may not be the way it is interpreted by media outlets in Argentina or Laos. This is why editing is so important. I don’t just mean editing for style and grammar, I mean editing for the audience, which may be the most difficult job of all. There are so many questions to ask:

  • Is the information presented in the news piece biased toward Americans?
  • Does it make any cultural faux pas that could potentially be damaging to international relations?
  • How can I word this to make it sound neutral and not hurtful to any other people?

Granted, this isn’t usually a job for the typical journalist, especially one who works at a local newspaper. But if you work at a more prominent U.S. newspaper, especially one with international desks, this is something to keep in mind, as the consequences could build into something irreversible.

As an example of this, I spent my senior year writing an honors thesis that looked at how Filipino women are portrayed by Philippine and Japanese media sources, particularly newspapers. The articles I analyzed were rife with negative images, most of which were based on stereotypes, and all for the sake of familiarity and convenience. Most of the images weren’t even obvious — many were subtle, sneaked into a paragraph through a well-placed word or the absence of another. And the prominence of these constructions give the media power to subordinate minority groups.

This is something we have to avoid. Though I know it’s difficult (and much easier said than done), I want journalists to strive not only to inform their main audience, but the global audience beyond, in a way that really and truly promotes people-to-people communication rather than blind bias. Luckily, the U.S. Department of State is helping local and international journalists with that, as they have several journalism-oriented exchange programs, one of which — the Edward R. Murrow Program — is partly held at UNC’s own j-school.

I know the snag in the road is that there is no such thing as truly bias-free media. But I also believe that there is a point we can reach in our journalistic practices and pieces that can communicate the U.S.’ news and messages to the rest of the world in a way that promotes cross-cultural understanding rather than breaks it. Journalism is no longer — and has never been, really — a narrow, bounded industry. It was meant to be globalized and to globalize. We just have to find the right way to do it.