Media & Development Challenge

 Media and the Development Challenge, July 25, 2016

Held at the University of Westminster in London, Media and the Development Challenge: New frontiers in international media development research was a one-day pre-conference to IAMCR 2016. It was sponsored by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and the Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) of the University of Westminster. Susan Abbott, an independent consultant and one of the event's organisers, reflects on the event.

Is media development at a crossroads?

What is the future of media development and what role will it play in supporting poverty alleviation, good governance and accountability, not to mention numerous other development goals that are part of the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals? Moreover, what role will researchers play in the endeavors of media development work around the world? These questions were at the heart of a one-day conference on New Frontiers of Media Development Research held in London and organized by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and The Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) at the University of Westminster in advance of the 2016 International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) conference, an annual gathering of media, journalism and communication studies academics.

CIMA and CAMRI brought together more than 60 academics and international development practitioners to assess the state of research and theory that drives the field of media development as well as to examine how and where researchers and academics could improve the design and impact of media development programs. The goal of the conference was to figure out how to better integrate the work of researchers into media development programs, and to improve awareness about the research and scholarship that is being done in order to inspire debate, inform policymaking, and above all to design better media assistance programs.

Examining the motivations for media development research

Is ‘development’ a self-explanatory term? What are the politics of (international) development? With a nod to the loaded nature of the term development and the inherent politics that are part of much of media development related work, these questions from the audience opened up the conference in a provocative way, and set the tone for the opening statements from Christian Fuchs, director of CAMRI, and Mark Nelson, director of CIMA. In his remarks, Fuchs put in perspective the grander context of the development challenge, namely, media development takes place within and against a globalized, hyper-connected world wherein there are great inequalities on many levels, a high-level of corporate ownership and control of media, internet and telecom interests, and relatedly, serious questions about how media development, let alone journalism, can advance a public interest agenda.

Nelson focused on what could be summarized as media development past vs. media development future. Nelson opened by saying, “the way media contributes to the evolution of our societies is a critical issue.” Citing the tendency, historically, of media development programs to focus on skill building, training programs and technical assistance, Nelson pointed out that if media development intends to have higher level outcomes, more focus is needed on activities and programs that will have a more direct influence on political will and the enabling environment. Nelson said that one of the motivations for CIMA coming together with CAMRI to organize a media development researcher conference is that “We want to find out how we might be able to improve the engagement with the academic world… to help make the case for why media matters.”

(Re) Formulating why media matters to development

In recognition of the continued call for results based thinking with regards to media development programs, the conference started off with a re-examination of the scholars and history of ideas and theories that have underpinned why media matters to development outcomes. The first session of the conference was organized around several key questions: Where is media’s development’s place in the scholarly cannon? Who are the most important scholars writing about media development – past and present? What is the research agenda that will help donors and practitioners improve how aid programs for media development are put together and what types of focus they will have?

Demonstrating the impact of international media development programs has long eluded academics and practitioners alike in terms of producing evidenced-based understandings of how media contributes to poverty alleviation, peace and conflict resolution, and governance reform. As noted by panelists at the London gathering, rationales for media assistance can trace their origins back to modernization theorists like Daniel Lerner and Wilbur Schramm, and the influences of 20th century ideas around media and development still very much influence thinking in terms of why media development matters. Similarly, media development has long been rooted in Western ideals and normative understandings related to the centrality of freedom of expression and access to information as central underpinnings of a modern democracy. Many speakers at the conference commented that economists like Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz have done much to help support the importance of development aid that supports a free press and an independent media. Sen’s seminal work Development as Freedom (1999) in particular stands out as a key contribution for advancing the claim that media matters to development. Sen’s contributions have helped substantiate the claim that freedom of expression and media freedom writ large are fundamentally linked to broader freedoms and improvements to overall levels of economic, political, and social development.

Even with a rich literature about the importance of press freedom to democracy and the role of media in helping to bring about social change, the media development community has historically found it very challenging to put forward coherent theories of change and appropriate metrics and indicators that can be applied to understand the impact that media assistance programs have towards their targeted goals and objectives. This challenge is particularly heartfelt in terms of media development program monitoring and evaluation. Media development scholar Martin Scott of the University of East Anglia pointed out that there is “a mountain of research on how journalism works, particularly in the West, and in particular contexts,” but that there is a “lack of research and literature addressing the media development field. (There is) no long, detailed scrutiny of how capture happens.” Furthermore, Martin pointed out, “There’s plenty of development research, but much of it doesn’t help to answer how to get (a media system) from point A to point B, or how to scrutinize political economy of media development.”

In critiquing the idea that the media development sector as a whole lacks a coherent theory of change, James Deane, of BBC Media Action, said “There never has been a unified theory of change for media development. That’s not such a bad thing for such a varied, context-specific and fragmented field.” “Certain things bind the media development community together: theory particularly matters for underpinning practice; there are fundamental components of media – e.g. that it should serve audiences in some way.” Deane further elaborated that different media development organizations, like BBC Media Action and Internews, for instance, have different starting points and that they are solving very different problems. In this regard, research and the theories of change that drive the media development approaches that different media development organizations offer will differ.

Still, as noted by IREX’s Tara Susman-Pena, “Where is the evidence that healthy media systems matters? Where’s the data? Who and where are the donors?” Drawing upon her work on the Media Map Project, a joint initiative between Internews and the World Bank, Susman-Pena said that media development organizations struggle to act on the information and research that gets collected. Her take on the problem is that research (and researchers) have struggled to fit into the ebb and flow of media assistance work, which has resulted in an awkwardness in terms of carrying out research that will be useful and actionable for a media development organization. Simply put, research takes time and it is expensive, and thus the place of researcher within a wider context of media development work is often questioned and even overlooked in favor of more immediate needs and interests.

Where Research Will Make a Difference

One of the greatest aspects of having a conference jointly attended by academics and practitioners was the opportunity to hear different perspectives and competing visions for understanding media development and how it can be evaluated. In this regard, the conference’s second session on The Global Crisis of Local Media offered a range of opinions on where to best focus research expertise for media development.

One of the standout remarks on the quandary of media’s place on the spectrum of priorities for international development was from Simon Haselock of Albany Associates. He offered that, “it’s important to understand what the problem is, and how to cope with that problem, not how to create matrices that are universally applicable.” In his opinion, research that offers more insight on the incremental progress of media development programs would be more useful and context driven. He went on question the fundamental nature of media development as it is currently practiced, saying “are we in a business that no longer exists? Should we be developing media or developing people’s media literacy so that they can understand what’s coming at them from all angles?”

Fondation Hirondelle’s Sacha Meuter weighed in on the challenge of doing research about media development. Drawing upon Fondation Hirondelle’s experience of designing media development programs in a post-conflict environment he shared the challenge of producing radio in Rwanda after the genocide – creating programming amidst an environment where there was so much hate speech and use of media in an irresponsible manner necessitated a strong research strategy to inform their work and to make sure it was having the desired impact. Alluding to the enormous amount of research that has been done in relation to the Rwandan experience, he said, “Why don’t practitioners and researchers meet, get around the same table? Why isn’t (research) collaboration funded?”

Haselock and Meuter’s points are both well-taken. Media development as a sector is changing and we need research and better understanding related not only to the type of information and media that is being consumed, but what people think about it, how it informs their thinking, and what time of effect it is having both at an individual and societal level. Moreover, as the media development sector has matured, there are many case studies and examples that we can learn from as a community of practice. Rwanda is indeed a standout example related to the role that media plays in inciting as well as diffusing conflict. We need to reflect on the lessons learned and take time as a sector in shared learning experiences – opportunities to exchange data, program evaluations, insights learned from assessments and independent studies, and to present this information to new generations of media development researchers and practitioners who will pick up the mantle for leading media development’s charge in the future.

The future is now: Navigating the digital

The final session of the conference dealt with the internet’s impact on information flows in developing countries, and it seemed to raise more questions than answers. In terms of informing future strategies and responses to local conditions for media assistance programs, conference attendees discussed a wide range of topics related to digital media and its place in media development.

Reactions and opinions on digital media’s place in development raised a number of questions, critiques and frustrations. As noted by James Deane of BBC Media Action, “We’ve been talking about digital media and development for a long time (more than 20 years) and we’ve seen very little evidence of impact.” Still, he further added, “We’re irrelevant if we don’t keep thinking about digital media. While social media and texting platforms are undeniably important and popular among users, so-called legacy media shouldn’t be counted out. As noted by many conference attendees, media consumption is still very much a multi-platform experience, and when it comes to understanding local media and information ecosystems, research has a significant role to play. For instance, knowing what to research, what data to make use of, and what questions to ask in terms of digital strategies for media development is a big part of the work that needs to be done – work that lends itself nicely to collaborative and networked approaches to research and scholarship. Notable in this regard as many attendees commented is the recent Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2016, which featured a number of key partners, shared data, and insights.

Conclusions and key takeaways

The London gathering yielded many interesting thoughts on the current state of research related to media development. First, while there is a rich intellectual history related to media and development, there is a dearth of contemporary theorization and scholarship representative of today’s contexts, needs and realities – media development is for the most part still very much inspired by modernization theory. Relatedly, the advent of digital communications coupled with globalization has presented both opportunities and challenges for media development, bringing to the fore the need to reboot strategic thinking about media development in line with 21st century realities – what is the goal of media assistance in a hyper-connected, digitally saturated world? Finally, there was quite a lot of discussion on the need to include media literacy as a core component of media development programs – the prevalence of misinformation, hate speech, media bias, coupled with a world of citizen journalism and user generated content, requires media development programs to adapt to media and information landscape that is constantly in flux and one in which definitions of journalism and what it means to be a journalist are still up for grabs.

These insights underscored the need to develop mechanisms to improve collaborations and partnerships between academics and their practitioner counterparts. Collaborative approaches to media development research would lend themselves nicely to improving our understanding of theories of change related to media development, amassing a more robust evidence base on understanding the link between media assistance and development outcomes, and relatedly, making better use of analysis and program evaluations from the media assistance sector to inform policy debates and helping the sector better achieve its long-term goals.

This conference was a good step towards developing a mechanism for shared research and collaboration between media development practitioners and researchers. The next step will be to continue this type of dialogue and to have an annual convening whereby people can come together to share their research, experiences collecting data, and learnings from the research, evaluation, and studies undertaken about media development programs. CAMRI and CIMA have helped start this conversation, and hopefully it will carry on at other conferences and forums such as the Global Forum for Media Development and the German Forum Media and Development (FOME). Interest in developing a stronger academic and practitioner partnership for media development is strong, and if the turnout and participation at the London conference was any indication, there is a real potential to build bridges between scholars and practitioners and to support collaborative approaches to researching media and development issues.