CommGAP's second-born has arrived! Yesterday we launched the second book in our series on governance and reform, this one baptized Public Sentinel: News Media and Governance Reform (lovingly called "Sentinel" by all those who worked hard on getting this book published for the last year or so). Sentinel is edited by Harvard Kennedy School Professor Pippa Norris and is a collection of studies on whether and how the news media can support or even initiate significant reforms.
The book is organized around three ideal roles of the news media. First, we look at the media as agenda setters, when they raise awareness of pervasive social problems, humanitarian crises, and development priorities and make officials more responsive to social needs. We present evidence for this role, for instance a fascinating study by Douglas Van Belle, who shows that the more the media report on a disaster, the more aid the countries hit by the disaster can count on. He presents a regression that implies that for every New York Times story mentioning the recipient country, U.S. aid commitment increases by approximately US$200,000 - remarkable.
The second role of the news media is that of a watchdog. This is the classic idea of the media as Fourth Estate, as checks and balance on the powerful in the public and private spheres. In this role the media can highlight cases of malfeasance, misadministration, and corruption; the news media guards the public interest; maximizes transparency, accountability, and informed choice. Sheila Coronel provides an account of the work of investigative reporters in the Philippines, uncovering corruption in the government and inciting civil protests that eventually lead to the ousting of a President.
The third, and most tricky, role is that of a gatekeeper. When we talk of the media as civic forum we refer to the ideal of the public sphere that assumes that the media reflect a balanced diversity of viewpoints, interests, sectors, parties, and perspectives; and that they provide inclusive opportunities for voice and participation, especially of marginalized groups. There's little evidence for this role, although Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehardt try to analyze data that shows that it may be dangerous if the media does not fulfill this role: they show that regime support in countries that aren't free is all the higher that more restricted the media is. Restricted media seems to have a narcotizing effect on citizens, which implies that we need the media in autocracies to stir things up in order to achieve change.
The last part of the book provides a number of case studies from all over the world that impressivley describe the roles of the news media in practice. I found Lawrence Pintak's account of the media in the Middle East fascinating: Here the media may be in the process of slowly changing entire cultures by showing alternative models of government and society.
The launch of the book was moderated by Sanjay Pradhan, Vice President of the World Bank Institute, and Philip Keefer, Lead Economist of the Development Research Group, discussed the book. Both agreed strongly that the media need to be an area of development like every other that we're working on, be it public sector reform, infrastructure, environment etc. They tasked CommGAP to develop an action plan that provides steps on how to carry what we know about the role of the media into the field and work on it, work on strengthening media systems to support governance reform. We're working on it!