Pitfalls of “voice” and transparency


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A new paper by David Yanagizawa finds tragically large effects of access to radio on violence in Rwanda, concluding that “hate radio” may explain as much as 9 percent of the genocide.

Aside from such blatant risks of propaganda through mass media, there are more subtle arguments cautioning against wholesale enthusiasm for greater transparency and information to improve governance and accountability.

Theoretical work suggests that greater information could be used for political “posturing” and “pandering”, reducing incentives to pursue actions that contribute to broad public goods. On media, the mantra seems to be independence from state control, which while probably necessary doesn't address other incentive issues in competitive media markets.

There is a growing literature on whether competitive media are "lapdogs" rather than "watchdogs"-- another paper title from Yanagizawa—although others have used it as well. Also, media have incentives to “slant” the news to cater to people's priors, instead of reporting unbiased information.

The relevance of such arguments is perhaps best demonstrated by the lack of systematic evidence that mass media improve the quality of public services.
Do media help to make public-payroll teachers show-up and teach in schools? Do they improve the implementation of public health programs? There is plenty of evidence, in contrast, that access to media helps some constituents get more redistributive benefits from targeted spending programs—for example, welfare in the US and disaster relief in India.

What media, what information, might facilitate greater demand (and government response) for better quality services?


Stuti Khemani

Senior Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

Join the Conversation

February 12, 2010

My take on this issue is that large media (private or state-run alike), when broadcasting at a nation scale tend to embrace big interest (big business, big politics) as opposed to localized information of interest to ordinary citizen. Empirical evidence here in Mozambique shows that once small, most of the less-than-ten-year old private news agencies now populating our media landscape, started by producing localized and useful news (from the citizenry point of view), and with time, as they grew bigger in importance and size, their information lost touch with citizens and a great deal of their localized nature.

To answer your question on what media, what information might facilitate greater demand (and government response) for better quality of services, I would say that when localized (e.g. community radio and television) mass media can be instrumental in promoting development agenda. However, the same localized media can serve evil when captured by hatred as seen in other parts of the continent, and irrespective of their ownership nature (state or private).

In other words, mass media is an instrument as other mediums, including theater, cinema, internet, etc, and as such they serve different agendas, and therefore have the potential to serve good (development, transparency, accountability, voice) or evil (hatred, 'small' politics,etc) depending on the interests of those in control of it. And there's where quantity matters. The more abundant news agencies are in a given place, the greater is the chance that some of them broadcast issues of interest for citizens, not to please those in development business, but by necessity to try new messages and capture new audiences as a matter of survival from competition.

Rafael Saúte -Mozambique

Mohamed Sidie Sheriff
February 06, 2010

Development is simplistically about yielding 2 benefits to man and his environment: (a) condition change and (b) behaviour change, both for the better ofcourse. But the process of both changes is so seemless that the two forms take place almost always concurrently. Similarly, communication support to induce developmental CHANGE should go on concurrently with the substantive actions and reforms that contribute to the broad public goods - all administered as "a single dosage". Hence, the use of mass channels of communication such as radio, TV and newspapers should be seen as elements of this single dosage. Dissenting voices in the mass media against any given type of reform and developmental action are themselves important in putting checks on the reformers to either defend themselves by turning the tables against their critics with convincing arguments or modify their development strategies and adapt. Against this background, I neither consider the possibility of a "hate media" emerging under these circumstances nor the justification for cautioning against wholesale enthusiasm for greater transparency and information to improve governance and accountability.

Leonard Doyle
February 09, 2010

You rightly point out that competitive media can be as problematic as state media - but the answer surely lies in improving the quality of the outputs by enabling a robust and ethical journalistic culture.
The constraints imposed on independent minded journalists by their supervisors (often the placemen of commercial interests) can be as stultifying as the effects of official censorship.
Whats surely needed is a variant of public media, which is neither private nor state owned and allows for transparent journalism with high standards.
The costs of publishing and broadcasting are tumbling with the spread of mobile media and governments are reacting by imposing censorship and charging these new media players with 'sedition' at the drop of a hat. Its probably a good idea for outside institutions to step in an create a space for these new actors to grow in a responsible way.

Fani Dili
February 23, 2010

We are still unable to hold our leaders to account; our democracies are not what we would like them to be and until we get there it seems to me the media fit the image of the mailman. The saving grace is that we do have those willing to sacrifice everything to hold our leaders accountable. They need the rest of us not only to try to immortalise them but to stand with them and behind them if ever its possible.

March 10, 2010

In Ghana l think the best people to provide feedback about the effectiveness of the media are the politicians or political actors, service providers and the people themselves. When radio especially decides to focus on an issue, the scramble by decision makers, service providers to ensure that they have the "right answers" for the media shows its power. This is not to say that they do not err, they do and we have some who are paid to do the bidding of their paymasters. l would like to see a lot of follow-ups when they take up issues about lack of service delivery etc. They have demonstrated that the MEDIA serve as powerful tools for accountability purposes. Access to Information alone would not be enough. bout what Information We need to encourage bodies (thinktanks or clearing houses) which would package the information so the media can make a sense of what the issues are about. History has also shown that we need both private, state and public media to ensure quality service from providers.