Media scholar Christoph Spurk shares his knowledge about the major challenges currently facing media development organizations working in developing countries.
1. Authoritarian rule
In many developing countries, democracy is formally established but political elites and authoritarian rulers control power beyond the influence of the majority of people. So, instead of more democracy there is less; instead of more participation, there is more exclusion; and instead of the rule of law, there is insecurity, impunity and lack of accountability.
Media development organizations are not welcomed in these countries because they will always question authoritarian rule. This is one reason why they are facing many challenges, especially in reaching the consent of governments who see clearly that independent media will not only inform the public but will also question their position.
At the same time, the work of media development organizations becomes more important, as under these authoritarian regimes hardly any other societal actors have the capacity to inform citizens and enhance public understanding and participation in politics.
2. Media rights under pressure
An immediate consequence of greater authoritarian rule is the obstruction of freedom of expression and the freedom to access information. Media regulations become tougher and journalists who are not in line with mainstream elites become more and more endangered and face possible censorship and intimidation – and even arbitrary arrest and torture.
In these situations, the protection of reporters, editors and journalists becomes an important task for media support organizations and the close monitoring of the development of media freedom becomes more relevant. A lot of work has been done, and new creative initiatives have started, but so far it has not been reflected upon systematically.
3. Good media need sound financing
The economic sustainability of media outlets continues to be a major challenge. This is especially valid for smaller, local media outlets, such as local or community radio stations, which are often supported by media development funds. Many media development organizations are managed by journalists, most of whom aren’t fond of media economics, profit and business. But financial sustainability is a precondition for media outlets’ independence from the undue influence of others, be they governments, big corporations or senior politicians.
Developing countries have growing media markets (although some are only growing slightly). As people escape poverty, they will both consume media and buy consumer products. So, establishing economically viable media that provides quality journalism in combination with a strong advertising business seems feasible.
4. Audience research needs to go beyond REACH and SCOPE
Audience research has the potential to meet advertisers’ interests when it provides sound data. But this should not be limited to reach, scope and basic media users’ characteristics such as age, gender and education. Rather, audience research should be more advanced and also include media users’ assessments of specific media programs and of the quality of reporting.
This broader understanding of audience research is not only a means for media managers to boost their advertising business; it can also be useful for editors and journalists to learn about their readers, listeners and viewers.
5. Stopping the decline in reporting quality
Currently, there is no comprehensive study on the quality of journalism in developing countries although bits and pieces of research here and there confirm there is still much room for improvement. Unfortunately, efforts in training and capacity building do not automatically lead to better quality. And given the current political situation and the disrespect for democratic inclusion often displayed by many governments, those who want to practice better journalism need to be supported.
What is the way forward?
(a) A closer and systematic look at the current status of reporting quality and what needs to be done practically.
(b) Media research, especially content analysis, can help discover shortcomings in reporting and to inform training courses to make them needs-oriented based on research findings.
6. Rigor in evaluation methodology
Monitoring and evaluation still lack internal support within media development organizations. The good news is that some organizations are conducting more serious evaluations of media work and the acceptance of evaluation has considerably improved. We are still facing methodological problems, however. Clearly, more scientific rigor is needed if we want to know more about project achievements.
It is largely agreed that sound analysis of the media and its environment in a country is needed BEFORE planning a project and long BEFORE the project starts. So then why is it not done more often? And even if sound analysis is done before project start, why is it often not reflected in the project design and its activities?
The same implementation gap can be seen in evaluation. Consultants are still being confronted with the usual tenders, asking them, for example, to evaluate a media program which took place in 10 different countries in 12 days. That again contradicts standards. It is important to identify the reasons for this implementation gap and to learn from other fields in development cooperation.
Christoph Spurk is a lecturer and media researcher at the Institute of Applied Media Studies at Zurich University of Applied Sciences. He mainly conducts research on the quality of journalism and communication in Africa and on mass media’s influence on the democratization process. He is working in advancing the methods of evaluation, measuring results in communication efforts and mass media programs, and supporting media development organizations in monitoring and evaluation. He has worked, among others, with DW Akademie, Swiss Development Cooperation, Fondation Hirondelle, UNESCO and many African universities. Recently, he started to combine content analysis with audience research in efforts to measure media effects, for example with regard to peace processes.