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Forget the Mainstream Media - Go Web, Go Local

Paul Mitchell's picture

A Canadian band had a line in a song, "all touch, and all touch and no contact" which echoes the way that organizations try to reach people with information about development and governance. Very adept at knowledge production, material such as studies, books, reports, power points, research documents, they are often very good at sharing these among  ‘cocktail party’ colleagues. But what is being done about reaching the people who need to be convinced to take action with this knowledge?

The predominant paradigm seems to be - publish in the major global media in developed countries and there will be a trickledown effect. This no longer works.

There are many studies, mainly by polling companies, and at least in the developing world, done for advertising companies. They are very useful in terms perhaps of how general populations receive broad and general information. They will tell you for example that in Accra, Ghana three private FM radio stations have about 90% of the urban market. In Sierra Leone the private television station ABC News takes the bulk of the audience in its reception area. In Kenya Capitol FM captures about 45% of the market in Nairobi whereas Kenya Broadcasting Corporation takes about 60% of the audiences in rural areas (Where capitol radio does not each).

In the developed world the bulk of people under 25 years of age mostly get their information from the Web while those over 60 mainly get it through television.

But here are few efforts to understand how people obtain information about economic development and more specifically subject specific information from development agencies. Less, even than general populations, is information about how elites, the people whose opinions and attitudes we want to change, obtain information on these topics. Looking at the interaction between touching the information and turning contact into action is even less studied.

The most specific and comprehensive information is on the World Bank. Its global public opinion polling of elites provides insight into how people access development information. The polls completed in 2003 and 2008 were conducted among opinion leaders in developing and developed countries. More than 40 countries were surveyed in each poll. As a result of the first poll the Bank started to ask more detailed questions about communication in the series of country surveys conducted every year. These are done in a rotating series of about 15 to 20 developing countries every year. Data on communication and outreach has been collected since 2004.

The survey work shows that elites in developing countries get most of their information about economic and social development issues from local news papers (around 47% on average) and the internet (around 43% on average) followed far behind by local television and radio. Few get development information from international media sources (around 5-7%). This pattern has remained consistent throughout the survey years. There are some regional differences that generally track internet access - greater access relates to greater use. Internet access among elites was 87% in 2008 indicating that the internet will increasingly be the place elites go for development information.

Other information from the polls while directly related to information about the World Bank may also be indicative of how people look at information. The 2008 global poll asked about the need to increase awareness of the Bank’s work and provide more information in the country. Positive responses ranged from 64% very positive in industrialized countries to 81% in sub-Saharan Africa. Developing countries were all above 70% and negative responses ranged from 0% in SSA to 13% in industrialized countries. The desire to get more information is overwhelming.

The 2008 global poll also indicates where people are receiving their information about the Bank. This clearly shows that the internet is the primary gateway to Bank information. This tracks the 2003 poll which showed that between 28% and 40% of people in developing countries received most of their information about the Bank from mass media while between 44% and 60% received it from Bank sources.


The country surveys also provide more detail on how people access Bank information as opposed to general development information. While the local newspapers and internet prevails. The figures indicate that accessing the Bank has far more diverse entry points. These include (following local media and internet) conferences (20%); Bank websites (20%); Bank publications (19%) and direct contact with Bank staff (15%) (respondents could indicate up to two sources). (EXT, 2009)

The survey also shows strong use of the Bank website - 63% in 2008 and in general averaging more than 60% in each of the previous four years. But more interesting is the steady change in how people access the website. In 2007 51% went through the local Bank sites and this rose to (56%) in 2008.

What is apparent is that people are now overwhelming going to direct sources for Bank information and not through the mediated filters of the media. There seems to be a high demand for more material but in a searchable form that people can access directly. This may have large implications for the way that information about development issues has traditionally been provided.

This information, the most extensive available, clearly shows that the push to get corporate information into mass media in developed countries may be having increasingly little effect. Few elites in those countries are looking to these sources for information about development.. Today the primary purpose of getting information into the NY Times, La Monde, the Financial Times or on CNN etc. is not to inform people, change minds or gather political support. Today the only importance to material published in mainstream media is to enable the global search engines to have more hits when people use the internet to search for information or to redisseminate the material electronically. Publishing the material on media websites or even directly on institutional websites bypassing the established media would likely have much more impact in today’s environment.

The latest client survey review also indicated that for the first time that a majority of people in developing countries were entering the Bank websites through the local country websites to gather information. Combine this with the long standing pattern of opinion makers to gather information from local newspapers and we find that the primary way to reach people is now local and not international.

Yet most development agencies are still aiming almost all their attention at providing information to media in developed countries and to major mainstream media. If organizations want to be effective in delivering information about governance and development then following old patterns of  publishing it in mainstream media are doomed to failure. There needs to be a paradigm shift to the web and to local distribution in developing countries.

Photo Credit: Arne Hoel


External Affairs World Bank.(2003). The Global Poll 2002.

External Affairs World Bank. (2008). The Global Poll 2008.

External Affairs World Bank. (2009). Country Client Survey 2008 Review.  


Submitted by Oswaldo on
Paul, your poits are more than valid, hope we all learn from them. I just wanted to stress on the need to use media that in developing countries has demostrated to be useful, such as, mobile or text-only internet, etc. I was surprised when I read about the big changes that, for instance, text-only, internet had brought to farmers in some parts of India. Os

Submitted by Anonymous on
Oswaldo i agree with completely but this was not the subject i was addressing. I think actually that these media may be more powerful that mainstream and it is a topic i will come to in time. i was mainly looking at "mainstream media"

Submitted by Vanessa on
AudienceScapes is a web tool that provides media usage data for many international markets that compliments teh Bank's info, including a number of in-depth developing country profiles focused on how some particular types of developmet information are consumed. A great deal of summary data, analysis and information is publicly available, and back-end survey data are available to subscribers. A project of InterMedia.

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