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Media Indicators and the Public: It’s Not You, It’s Me!

Antonio Lambino's picture

UNESCO's International Programme for the Development of Communication recently developed a framework for assessing the state of media around the world. This framework is comprised of a set of indicators that are meant to help diagnose the media's overall health, primarily at the national level. The document grounds this effort by citing the sector’s global mandate enshrined in Article XIX of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that every person has rights to freedom of opinion, expression, and information. With input from a global group of experts, UNESCO has proposed that the following factors be assessed: regulatory systems; pluralism and diversity; transparency of ownership; the enabling and promoting of democratic discourse; availability of professional capacity building and supporting institutions for journalists; and the necessary infrastructure to support freedom of expression, pluralism, and diversity of the media.


I think the document does a great job at taking a comprehensive view of media organizations and the environments in which they operate. An enormous effort was made to put together, under the categories above, substantial lists of subcategories and available data sources from all over the world. For all these reasons, UNESCO deserves the gratitude of those who work in and study this area as well as the intended beneficiaries of free, plural, and diverse media. 

That said, I believe complementary work remains to be done. Two of the stated goals of creating this framework are to help stakeholders assess the media and assist media development professionals in their work. However, a closer look at the framework’s components reveals that they only focus on the media themselves. That is, they center on regulatory, institutional, managerial, and practical aspects of media organizations, as well as diversity of content (which is great for the content analysis experts out there). They shy away from attempting to take stock of the public goods and democratic outcomes that free, plural, and diverse media are supposed to bring about. Use of public opinion data is suggested, but the survey questions selected ask about people’s attitudes and opinions toward the media.

From a political communication and policy perspective, it’s reasonable to argue that the media’s essential role in society is ultimately to provide public goods and engender democratic outcomes (at least for news and current affairs organizations). After all, UNESCO’s self-stated overarching objective for this effort is promoting freedom of expression, which “is widely seen as underpinning democratic freedoms such as the right to form political parties, share political ideas, query the actions of public officials, and so on.” Following this logic, we can then ask the following questions: Are people who use free, plural, and diverse media more knowledgeable about the societies in which they live? Are they more tolerant of diverse perspectives and beliefs? Compared to people who don’t have access to or don’t use these kinds of media, do they tend to volunteer more in their communities, share more political information with colleagues, friends, and loved ones, and hold public officials more to account? Findings from communication research suggest that answers to these questions will tend to vary, influenced by multiple factors such as message, source, audience, social, contextual, and cultural characteristics (for an overview, see Fundamentals of Media Effects, by Bryant and Thompson, 2001).

While there may not exist a canon of desired outcomes linked to media development (and I don’t mean to imply that there should be one), I believe these issues should be put on the table for serious consideration and deliberation. In short, UNESCO has provided the opportunity, at the global level, to take on the challenge of thinking about ways in which we can assess the intended effects of free, plural, and diverse media, which are, at bottom, public goods and democratic outcomes. I suggest we take advantage of it.

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