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Defining and Evaluating Media Development

Tom Jacobson's picture

The Media and State Accountability, from DfID's Media and Good Governance BriefingAnne-Katrin notes in her post “Defining the Public Sphere (In Three Paragraphs)” that the idea of the public sphere may not be clearly understood. Addressing this problem she claims, “Two-way communications between citizens and public officials constitute the public sphere, therefore we need free and independent media systems that facilitate this two-way flow of communication.”

I am an academic so it is particularly easy for me to agree that definition is important, but let me support the case for Anne’s definition in a practical way using as an example the concept of “media development.”  Interest in the challenge of evaluating media development seems to be growing. And it seems apparent that insofar as it is a democratic enterprise media development refers to the nurturing of public spheres wherein two-way communications take place. But as is often the case our concepts can be tested when applied to the challenge of evaluation.  How can donors know when media effectively embody a political public sphere capable of promoting transparency and good governance?  Or, better yet, how can we know the “extent” to which a public sphere is embodied?  How can donors know when investments are needed, and how badly? In short, do we really know what we mean by the phrase media development?

The indicators to evaluate media development at the national level are well known. These include the Freedom of the Press Index by Freedom House, the Worldwide Press Freedom Index by Reporters without Borders (RSF), and the Media Sustainability Index (MSI) by the International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), and others.  If one decomposes these indexes into their constituent measures it seems clear that they are most successful at indicating the existence of professional training institutions, media infrastructure, and legal conditions facilitating free speech.  But is this enough?

If media development is intended to nurture a public sphere and if, as Anne-Katrin says, the public sphere includes the two-way flow of communication between citizens and public officials, then we must answer, “probably not.” Where do existing measures of media development address the two-way flow of communication?  How can we know whether citizens are being represented in the public sphere, i.e. whether communication flows from citizens upwards? 

I would like to suggest there is no number of journalists or experts who can speak for the people by indicating on a media development scale whether the public sphere is operating as a vital channel of communication between citizen and state. The people must themselves be asked whether they feel their voice is adequately represented in the public sphere.  And to learn this we need instruments beyond the standard “trust in media” questions that sometimes appear in public opinion surveys.  Theories of dialog suggest the need for indicators capable of measuring citizen perceptions of the extent to which the press, or perhaps the media more generally, are knowledgeable, perform their job of informing the citizens in a culturally appropriate manner, and are sincere in trying to inform the public. Data would also be gathered on citizen perceptions whether they, or citizens “like them,” are given adequate access to the media, whether all subjects of interest are covered, and whether subjects covered are covered fully.   Each of these questions reflects a different element of media coverage on matters of concern to citizens, and reasonably complex instruments would be necessary to have a chance at determining whether citizens feel heard.

This definitional exercise is not intended as criticism of existing indices.  If we had only indices of citizen voice then the existing sorts of indexes would need to be developed.  Both are no doubt required. The exercise is intended instead to illustrate how labels and concepts guide research, and can help point towards needed research.  Media development points to “media” development, and not to public sphere development. 

A recent DFID Briefing on “Media and Good Governance,” notes that democratic legitimacy depends in considerable part on “… how the state and citizens communicate with each other" (original emphasis).  The paper also notes threats to this communication process from “capture of the media by narrow commercial, religious, ethnic or political interests.” I cannot help but feel that the citizens, in all their fallibility, should be consulted in any attempt to evaluate the extent to which a society’s media are developed in the sense of serving to help citizen communicate, through the media to government.

Thus, if media development is indeed dedicated to nurturing public spheres then there is a range of possible corrections.  At one end is simply adding citizen voice measures to media development evaluation research.  At the other end might be adding citizen voice measures to existing indicators and then calling this work “public sphere development.”

Photo Credit: DfID (U.K. Department for International Development)