Researchers at the University of North Carolina's School of Journalism are refining a two-year study that disputes Third World contentions about Western news media.

Third World countries, in loose alliance with communist delegates, continued their debate about the role of the press in a recent UNESCO conference in Belgrade. They argue, as they have for a decade, that Western news agencies dominate international distribution of information to the detriment of Third World priorities.

American and Western media have been extremely cautious, even belligerent, about the goings-on out of fear that any concession could damage the principle of free expression. After the Belgrade conference, The New York Times spoke for many American newspapers when it thundered that no negotiator speaks for the free press of the United States. Governmental control is the monster the U.S. press sees behind the UNESCO deliberations.

The university's findings concentrated on Latin America and Africa. In all countries studied, the immediate region gets most attention when foreign news is published. Third World news dominates the Third World, Western news dominates the West, and communist bloc news in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Coverage of disasters and accidents gets very little attention in the media of any country. In fact, news universally seems to be politics. Western news agencies are important, but their significance seem to lie in their ability to provide timely, mostly non-partisan accounts of world news.

Significantly, the report finds that 104 Third World national news agencies, many of them extensions of government, receive news from any number of foreign news agencies. These national agencies become the gatekeepers of what their countrymen read and hear.

In Ghana, the national agency receives six international news services and uses about one word out of 10 for its daily distribution to Ghanians.

Generally, Third World countries, and clearly communist countries, control foreign news within their boundaries. They also admit or exclude visiting reporters, and it goes further. Recently a reporter from The Post was allowed into a Middle Eastern country, but his appointments were made by government representatives and his interviews were monitored. It was not an unusual procedure.

What is happening at UNESCO sessions is a prolonged collision of Western values and Third World aspirations. Veteran newsman Elie Abel, chief spokesman for the American delegation at Belgrade, advises patience. He believes the U.S. press should take a broad historical perspective while the Third World develops its own communications system.

That's rational, diplomatic advice, but the penalties for compromise on the idea of an independent press can be grotesque. And there is good reason to worry.

On Nov. 6 the story of the Republican victory in the U.S. election appeared on page 5 of Addis Ababa's English language daily. The story, in its entirety, read:

"Washington (Agencies) -- Republican Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States Tuesday.

"Reagan advances the philosophy of militarism and is a staunch supporter of the preservation of exploitative capitalist production relations.

"His vice president, George Bush, a former congressman and ex-director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), is a millionaire.

"Mr. Reagan will be the oldest man ever inaugurated as a U.S. president."

While it is patently unfair to use that story as representative of Third World press coverage since Ethiopia is a Soviet ally, it does serve as a graphic reminder of the effects of a press that is under control by its government.