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News Media as Institutions of Accountability: A Paradigm Shift?

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Photo Credit: Flickr User desi.italy"Social accountability" and "good governance" are two rather popular buzzwords in the world of development agencies these days. There is much talk about participatory decision-making, transparency, and government responsiveness - but there is considerably less talk about one fundamental principle underlying all accountability mechanisms: information, and as intermediary of information, the media.

The Harvard Kennedy School and CommGAP have recently initiated an advocacy push toward a stronger focus on media, calling attention to academic evidence and field experience that underline the role of news media for governance. Last week, the World Bank Public Sector Governance unit followed up on this issue with a panel on "Strengthening the media as an institution of accountability." CommGAP's Sina Odugbemi, George Washington University Professor Silvio Waisbord and the World Bank's Lead Social Development Specialist Robert Chase discussed the roles of the news media as a means of holding governments accountable. They also discussed why development agencies tend to shy away from interventions that aim at the reform of national media systems, and why the role of information and media is often underestimated in a development context.

The media is a strange and elusive beast, one discussant said. Development agencies, often working from an economic perspective, don't quite know how to tackle this particular beast. Media? Let the PR folks deal with it. Or is it an issue for the education department? Legal reform? Constitutional rights? Civil liberties? Technology? Infrastructure? Or - behold! - is it even an issue of economy, of markets, of oligopolies, of demand and supply?

Communication in a development context is about more than pushing issues on the media agenda. Sina Odugbemi and Harvard Professor Pippa Norris identify three major roles of the news media in the democratic public sphere: they're watchdogs guarding the public interest and keeping an eye out on the actions of the government, they're agenda-setters raising awareness of issues of public interest, and they provide a public forum for a fair and balanced representation of a plurality of voices. As such they operate in an arena between state, markets, civil society, and audiences, and are furthermore constrained by professional ethics and standards as well as by technology and infrastructure. Successful media assistance needs to address - at least! - all of these aspects: Right to Information Acts have little effect on good governance if citizens don't know how to exercise their rights or if there is no documentation of political decision-making. An audience seeking information won't find much of it if the media market is dominated by a few economic or political interest groups. And, most fundamental, all the information in the world is useless if there is no radio station to convey it, no newspaper to print it, or no computer to access online resources with.

An elusive beast indeed. Accordingly, the participants of the World Bank panel stressed that initiatives that target media systems and information flows need to cooperate to bring all the different segments together. Development technocrats need to be convinced that national governance systems are communication systems, and that good governance rests on a free media. At the heart of this must be hard evidence: We need to develop measures that capture the effects of media systems on good governance, poverty reduction, health promotion and other development issues. We need to translate communication issues into the language of economists to motivate them to take the media seriously. Rob Chase mentioned an interesting example we might learn from. In the 1990s, the fuzzy concept of "social capital" was introduced into development work. Simplified, it denotes resources that people are able to use because they're part of a social network. Add the "capital" to what is essentially schmoozing, and you get economists to listen. In order to heave media structures and institutions on the development agenda we may have to invent "communicative capital" or "information capital." The terms make sense, because information is a valuable resource in the public sphere.

Taking communication beyond a PR perspective would be a major revolution in development work, Silvio Waisbord concluded. This paradigm shift, no matter how difficult to realize, is necessary: The elusive beast needs to be tackled from many sides in order to make it work toward the public good.

Photo Credits: Flickr User desi.italy and Flick User Smith