Unknown to many newspaper readers, television viewers, and radio listeners, an international debate has been going on for the past decade about how they are informed of world events.
The news media of advanced industrialized nations - the United States, Canada , Western Europe, and Japan - are accused by developing countries of presenting a one-sided picture of international events.
Spokesmen for poor countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America claim they are only reported when things go wrong, giving an unbalanced image of revolutions, civil wars, earthquakes, famines, and corruption.
At the same time, these countries say the news they receive is not designed to meet their needs but is part of a process by which Western viewpoints are spread by the four major international news agencies - Associated Press (AP) and United Press International (UPI) of the United States, London-based Reuter, and the French agency, Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Calls for a change in the world information system began to gather strength in the mid-1970s, primarily in the forum of the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). What was needed, the critics said, was a new world information order that would enable the large number of poor countries in the world to put across their news in their own way and escape from reliance on the big four news services.
Western media organizations generally sympathize with the desire of developing countries to build up their own media. But they deny charges that they are ''cultural imperialists'' who distort news from the developing world and exercise a stranglehold over the flow of information.
The debate touches participants on both sides deeply because the poor countries feel an urgent need for concrete steps to strengthen their position while Western media organizations fear the proposed new information order could be used as an excuse for censorship and government control. They are hardly reassured by the fact that some of the loudest advocates of the new order come from countries where many claim freedom of the press is virtually unknown.
Some progress appeared to have been made at a UNESCO meeting in Paris late last year. The function of the press as an independent watchdog was recognized. There was a critical reference to censorship in the final conference papers. As a result, there was some hope among participants that the two sides might work together on projects which would end the debate and build up media in the developing world.
A new UNESCO document just drawn up in Paris makes it plain, however, that little has really changed. The document lays out UNESCO's draft program for 1984 -85. It deals with news in terms of ''national news agencies'' - that is, state-run agencies. It provides for studies on ''codes of conduct'' for journalists, which the Western media generally sees as a lever for governments to influence or control reporting. Similarly, the document contains provisions to ''assess'' the responsibilities of journalists, without any reference to the rights news organizations have to operate freely.
The underlying criticism of the Western press approach comes through in a section dealing with the elimination of obstacles to the flow and exchange of books, news, and programs. This proposes analysis of ''those specific obstacles which restrict the circulation in industrialized countries of information produced in the developing countries.'' Many say that UNESCO is unable to recognize the prime obstacles to the circulation in North America or West Europe of news dispatches produced by the Libyan news agency, for instance. Such news agency reports, it is said, are simply of little or no interest, poorly presented, and often consist of mere propaganda.
The latest UNESCO document, which will be submitted for approval by member states later this year, contains none of the references to a watchdog press or the wrongs of censorship which the Western minority in the organization would have welcomed. The document appears almost certain to be approved, more or less as it stands. The question then is whether the funds will be available to carry out the long list of programs bunched under the heading ''communication in the service of man.''
Total program spending is budgeted at $28.8 million for 1984-85, a 34 percent rise on 1982-83 program. The US, which pays 25 percent of UNESCO's overall budget, will be the single biggest source of funds.
But a substantial portion of the communications projects planned by UNESCO will be financed from outside the organization's regular budget, meaning that UNESCO will have to attract grants from other sources. So far, its communications program has been hampered by lack of outside contributions. Requests for help from developing countries have far outstripped the money available.
The American attitude has been to hold back from putting more money into a general fund which could be used to finance projects that will strengthen state control of the media. The latest UNESCO document is not likely to do much to change that attitude.