Media and the Development Challenge: New Frontiers in Media Development Research

Reflections on the CIMA/ CAMRI 25 July 2016 IAMCR Pre-Conference

By: Susan Abbott, Independent Consultant,

Is Media Development at a Crossroads?

What is the future of media development and what role will it play in supporting poverty alleviation, good governance and accountability, not to mention numerous other development goals that are part of the newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals? Moreover, what role will researchers play in the endeavors of media development work around the world? These questions were at the heart of a one-day workshop on New Frontiers of Media Development Research held in London organized by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA) and The Communication and Media Research Institute (CAMRI) at the University of Westminster. The workshop was an official pre-conference event in advance of the 2016 International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) conference.

Examining the motivations for media development research

In his opening remarks, Christian Fuchs, director of CAMRI, put the challenges facing media development in the broader context of a globalized, hyper-connected world wherein there are great inequalities on many levels, a high level of corporate control of media, internet, and telecoms, and relatedly, serious questions about how media development, let alone journalism, can advance a public interest agenda.

Mark Nelson, CIMA’s senior director, made note of the tendency, historically, of media development practitioners to focus on skill building, training programs, and technical assistance. Nelson pointed out that if the media development community intends to have higher level outcomes, more focus is needed on activities and programs that will have a more direct influence on political will and the enabling environment. Nelson said that one of the motivations for CIMA coming together with CAMRI to organize a media development researcher conference is that “We want to find out how we might be able to improve the engagement with the academic world… to help make the case for why media matters.”

(Re) Formulating why media matters to development

Demonstrating the impact of international media development programs has long eluded academics and practitioners alike in terms of producing evidenced-based understandings of how media contributes to poverty alleviation, peace and conflict resolution, and governance reform.

Even with a rich literature about the importance of press freedom to democracy and the role of media in helping to bring about social change, the media development community has historically found it very challenging to put forward coherent theories of change and appropriate metrics and indicators that help to understand and measure impact of media development work. Martin Scott of the University of East Anglia, pointed out that there is “a mountain of research on how journalism works, particularly in the West, and in particular contexts,” but that there is a “lack of research and literature addressing the media development field. (There is) no long, detailed scrutiny of how capture happens.” Furthermore, Martin pointed out, “There’s plenty of development research, but much of it doesn’t help to answer how to get (a media system) from point A to point B, or how to scrutinize political economy of media development.”

However, in critiquing the idea that the media development sector as a whole lacks a coherent theory of change, James Deane, of BBC Media Action, said “There never has been a unified theory of change for media development. That’s not such a bad thing for such a varied, context-specific and fragmented field.”  Deane further elaborated that different media development organizations, like BBC Media Action and Internews, for instance, have different starting points and that they are solving very different problems.

Where Research Will Make a Difference

One of the most valuable aspects of having a conference jointly attended by academics and practitioners was the opportunity to hear different perspectives and competing visions for understanding media development and how it can be evaluated.

According to Simon Haselock of Albany Associates, the media development community badly needs research that is context-driven and offers more insight on the incremental progress of media development. He went on to question the way media development as it is currently practiced: “are we in a business that no longer exists? Should we be developing media or developing people’s media literacy so that they can understand what’s coming at them from all angles?”

Fondation Hirondelle’s Sacha Meuter weighed in by drawing on Fondation Hirondelle’s experience of designing media development programs in the post-conflict environment in Rwanda after the genocide – creating programming amidst an environment where there was so much hate speech and irresponsible media use necessitated a strong research strategy to inform their work and to make sure it was having the desired impact. Alluding to the enormous amount of research that has been done in relation to the Rwandan experience, he said, “Why don’t practitioners and researchers meet, get around the same table? Why isn’t (research) collaboration funded?”

Conclusions and Key Takeaways

The London gathering yielded many interesting takeaways on the current state of research related to media development.  First, while there is a rich intellectual history related to media and development, there is a dearth of contemporary theorization and scholarship representative of today’s contexts, needs, and realities. Relatedly, the advent of digital communications coupled with globalization has presented both opportunities and challenges for media development, bringing to the fore the need to reboot strategic thinking about media development in line with 21st century realities.

In addition, there was quite a lot of discussion on the need to include media literacy as a core component of media development work – the prevalence of misinformation, hate speech, media bias, coupled with a world of citizen journalism and user generated content, requires media development programs to adapt to media and information landscape that is constantly in flux and one in which definitions of journalism and what it means to be a journalist are still up for grabs.

These insights underscored the need to develop mechanisms to improve collaborations and partnerships between academics and their practitioner counterparts.  Collaborative approaches to media development research would lend themselves nicely to improving our understanding of theories of change related to media development, amassing a more robust evidence base on understanding the link between media assistance and development outcomes, and relatedly, making better use of analysis and program evaluations from the media assistance sector to inform policy debates and helping the sector better achieve its long-term goals.