Development economists used to argue that elections were THE best instruments of accountability. But events have overtaken that idea and now there are many, including Oxford economist Paul Collier, author of The Bottom Billion, who are focusing on the limitations of elections: “If you have an uninformed citizenry,” Collier says, “elections just won’t work.”
Once articulated, it makes sense that the sine qua non of good government and economic development is an informed society. And on the face of it, getting critical news and information out to citizens should be an easier and easier task in today’s digitalized, networked and hand-held world. But Collier and others note that most media—across regions and on any platform: print, radio, TV or online—aren’t interested in serving the public good, because “there is no finance to that public-good role. Indeed far from there being finance for it,” says Collier, “there is actually a hostile environment to it….”
In short, in environments rife with censorship, intimidation and monopoly ownership, elections are not the panacea they were hoped to be because
- Citizens are starved of information
- Citizens don’t know how much trust to place in the information sources available to them.
This then presents an opportunity for the development community. To get information out to the public, funders need to proffer media development assistance to news outlets. To educate the public about who to trust and how to evaluate information sources, funders need to support Media Literacy teaching and training.
What is Media Literacy? It’s understanding the language, meaning and context of what’s in the news. It’s understanding that the media are not monolithic: not all media cover the same news in the same way. It’s understanding that not just traditional media but everyone is part of the chain of information and news creation and dissemination.
Media literacy education makes the public mindful of what information is available and who is served by that news. Media literacy teaches what many citizens instinctively know when they use their own cell phones and send their own text messages: Information is power. There is no global arena in which media are not leading figures in the statement of problems and the discussion of possible solutions.
Media Literacy educates the general public, policy makers and even journalists themselves to understand:
- How essential access to independent news and information is to the exercise of citizenship
- How essential the media are in bringing transparency and accountability to government and the development sector.
Free and independent media give citizens the power to make informed decisions and give them the power of oversight. When key constituencies have information, media can have a positive effect on corruption, political turnover and media capture.
But, as LSE economist Tim Besley has observed, media do not invariably prompt action. While in democracies, elections provide an incentive for politicians to perform, governments are not likely to respond as enthusiastically to those who are unlikely or marginalized voters, no matter whether their plight has been well covered or not.
So how do you turn unlikely or marginalized voters into active citizens? Media Literacy can encourage all citizens to become engaged. Media Literacy encourages citizens to be aware of the value of news and information and teaches them to claim access to that news and information.
The fundamental reason why media literacy matters? Without public education, via such a channel as Media Literacy teaching, there will be no pressure and there will be only a minimal audience for quality news on any platform. And without public education, there will be only a limited understanding that threats to journalists and media institutions are, in effect, threats to the body politic and open societies. As Collier and others have learned, independent media bring transparency and accountability to both government and the corporate sector.
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