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Media’s Role in Civic Education

Hannah Bowen's picture

In an article last week in the Ghanaian Chronicle, two parliamentarians called upon the media to educate the public on parliament’s role and procedures. This plea sounded very familiar after hearing similar statements from Ghanaian politicians interviewed last summer as part of the AudienceScapes project. Several of the policymakers complained that part of the challenge of communicating about development issues with the public is how little people understand the structure or responsibilities of the various government agencies working on key policy issues like health, education, agriculture, or trade. As one Ghanaian policymaker lamented, very few people know about key elements of the policy process including the decision-making process, budgeting, and actual government activities.

In both Ghana and Kenya, InterMedia’s in-depth interviews with senior members of the policy-making community turned up this common frustration among politicians, this sense that their constituents do not really understand what it is they do. “I don’t think the public really know what goes on in the Ministries…. It is partly the way we are constituted and [partly] the way the information is conveyed.” (Kenyan policymaker, AudienceScapes interview August 2009). Many policymakers believed that the media could play an important role in bridging this gap by providing some basic civic education and better coverage of public policy news. It is an important gap to fill, because limited public understanding makes it difficult not only for policymakers to serve effectively but also for citizens to hold them accountable for fulfilling (or not) their responsibilities.

If the public had a better understanding of the responsibilities and capacities of the legislature and ministries, policymakers argued, they would be able to form realistic expectations—and then hold policymakers to them. This is the rationale behind efforts to publicize public school budgets at a community level, so that parents know what to expect, and whom to call if the school does not deliver. One Kenyan interviewee proposed bypassing journalists, and using paid advertising on mass media to get the message out about government activities: “I wish the Ministry could have come up with a strategy whereby their strategies would be communicated, like for example through a newspaper supplement where target information is communicated to clear the doubts, or we can even buy some airtime and go to the TV and talk to the public. If the PS [Permanent Secretary] or the Minister is able to talk to the public on topical issues like what we expect, the amount of money they expect, when the grants will be released, …then people can react. You know it would be able to clear out any issues that may be unclear.”

The quantitative research we conducted at the same time as the in-depth interviews suggested that such outreach is much-needed. In national surveys (2,000 respondents in Kenya and 2,051 in Ghana), media appeared to be far more widely trusted than most government institutions, and not many respondents reported hearing information directly from government officials on a regular basis (14 percent of respondents in Kenya said they heard news or information from a government official in the past week, and 7 percent in Ghana said so). Among media platforms, radio and TV were clearly the most important links to information about government activities in both countries: in Ghana, three quarters of all respondents said radio was somewhat or very important to them as a source of information on government services, with 65 percent saying the same of TV (newspapers and internet were called somewhat or very important by 32 and 9 percent, respectively); in Kenya, the reliance on media was even more widespread (the share of respondents calling each source somewhat or very important for information on government services was 82 percent for radio, 64 percent for TV, 55 percent for newspapers, and 14 percent for the internet).

It was clear from both sets of research—at the grassroots level and among high-level policymakers—that more information about the policy process through mass media is needed. Whether through improved coverage by journalists (several policymakers suggested or described existing programs to train journalists in covering policy areas like health and agriculture) or through direct engagement with the public over the airwaves, civic education via mass media stands to benefit both policymakers and the citizens they serve.


Photo Credit:  © Curt Carnemark / World Bank


Submitted by Zeeshan on
I wonder what sort of interventions mass media would make to get the message across. If I were Minister for Education, i'd be offended that the private sector is doing the job of the public sector. Then again, the public sector might just not have the resources - or will? I wonder if you can delve deeper in future posts about this issue, since there are so many interesting perspectives out there. Thanks for sharing this!

We're looking to collect examples of successful interventions from a variety of countries, but one that springs to mind from radio-heavy environments is a radio call-in show, where a guest policymaker answers questions from listeners live on the air. That way, the radio station benefits by providing engaging content, and the policymaker benefits by having the opportunity to directly address citizen's questions about policy issues, performance, or whatever else is on their minds. Collaborations like these might help minimize the friction, though as you've pointed out, not all media interventions are popular with the public sector.

Submitted by Thu Nguyen on
Interesting article. I would love to know more about how the media responds to this need, what are their reasons for not delivering more policy-related content and how to effectively deliver this content. Simply delivering content doesn't immediately lead to the public's understanding of government policy.

Thu: Hi. I am project director for the AudienceScapes project ( mentioned in the blog item. You ask a very good question, and the answer is multifaceted. One reason the media do not deliver more policy-related content is that they may not see a demand for it among readers. In other words, people probably want to read more about scandals, celebrities, and sports. This is supply and demand at work. Another issue is that journalists may not be sufficiently trained in covering policy issues, which typically requires a certain level of understanding and sophistication about policy processes and the subject matter itself. Journalists may also encounter resistence from policymakers when trying to probe more deeply into what is happening "behind the scenes" at the policy level. You also correctly point out that "simply delivering content doesn't immediately lead to the public's understanding of government policy." This is a key point that Hannah Bowen is making in her blog entry - there is a strong need for civic education in many countries so that people can engage, dialogue and act on policy issues in a more effective manner. This came out loud and clear in the AudienceScapes research with senior policymakers - suggestions that development organizations have a role to play in supporting such civic education initiatives. Regarding improvement of the role media plays in the policy discussion, I would also commend the work undertaken by those involved in the Africa Media Initiative, which correctly identifies the two-way street between government and the media, and the responsibility of the media to be able to act professionally in order to earn the trust of government officials.

Submitted by Fofo on
Hi, I appreciate really what you wrote on this subject.but the problem is common in Africa.the media role in civic education still very low due to the political and economic interests. the media is some how not independent! it is currupted!! Hope to meet you one time...!

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