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What it Means to Take Media Seriously (versus What We Mostly Do)

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Photo Credit: Flick User estanI have been forced to think about the role of the news media in the governance reform agenda a lot in the last few weeks. First, CommGAP had the workshop at Harvard. And last week, we had a brown bag seminar here at the World Bank (organized by our public sector reform colleagues) on the media as an institution of accountability. I spoke at both events. These were very important moments and one could say a lot about each one, but the one thing that has stayed with me is the extent to which most colleagues working in international development think of support for the media as little more than training journalists.

It reminds me of the old debate around the distinction between 'media development' and 'media for development.' The latter is what colleagues mostly do. You have a health initiative in Country XG and you want the local media to pick up your issue and run with it, raise it up the public agenda. Or you want to use the media as part of a behavior change campaign. In these situations, you take the media system in Country XG as you find it. It does not matter to you if the media system is corrupt, dominated by an authoritarian regime or warlords or corrupt oligarchs. All you want to do is achieve your development objective and leave. So you train a few reporters or you pay for your campaign slots and that is that. You leave the media system unaltered. That is not your problem, you say to yourself, as you move on to your next assignment.

Media development is supposed to be about the structural or institutional view of the media. It is the fourth-estate-of-the-realm view. Particularly when you are interested in improving the quality of governance - or is that 'democratic governance'?- the case to be made is that when you are thinking about the set of institutions that are likely to promote responsive and accountable governance a fundamental part of the institutional mix ought to be a free, plural and independent media system. It ought to be seen in the same way as an independent judiciary, legislative bodies, free and fair elections, vibrant civil society and so on. As Silvio Waisbord said last week,  the work is really institutional reform or institutional strengthening . And the institution in focus is the media system.

That means a number of things. First, we have to be clear what we need our media system to do for us. For good or democratic governance, for instance - more later about this competing frames - we need to ask: to get us to where we want to be what kind of media system is fit for purpose? We could always argue that a free media is just a good thing, period. But in international development policy makers and technocrats want a lot more than the intrinsic justification. Second, we need to incorporate these ideal roles of the media system - for governance, this is particularly about news and current affairs outputs - into the diagnostic frameworks we use to decide what initiatives to push for in Country XG. The point is this: if an institutional view of the media is not part of good/democratic governance policy frameworks it is not likely to be incorporated in the diagnostic tools used when deciding which programs to initiate in XG. And if it is not part of that process, interventions will not happen. As a consequence, resources will not flow into the strengthening of media systems in countries with governance challenges. What we are going to keep having is that it is only when funded programs need some publicity or public awareness that program managers  will think of the media in Country XG. But they will keep using the media system as they find it no matter how bad that media system is.

Photo Credit: Flick user estan

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