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Media development industry meets media research

Guy Berger's picture

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Imagine two groups of pilgrims on two different journeys, taking roads that intersect occasionally.

One group is doing research into media. The other is spending money to develop media.

Currently, their paths cross only sporadically. Most hurry along their route with their minds focused on their destination.

But what if someone threw a party at one of the junctions; got them all to pause and talk to each other?

That’s exactly what happened on January 25 at the Open Society Institute in New York, following up ideas at the Salzburg Global Seminar. Attending were a group of media academics, as well as agencies like USAID, Knight Foundation, IREX, World Bank Institute, CIMA.

The event – with some resources - is online.

In a parallel universe, there’s a close marriage between research and media development. It’s called market research for the media industry. In this space, the two entities fuse interests so that audiences can be measured and sold to advertisers.

Back in the “media development” industry, however, the same kind of close connection doesn’t exist. In fact, much media around Africa is crippled precisely for the lack of AMPS-style research into what media consumers make for a good target market for particular goods and services.

In other words, the parallel commercial media universe is directly relevant to the cause of people working in media development.

But there’s also a range of other kinds of media research that are of relevance. Subjects like gender imbalances in content; the ethics of journalists; the legal environment.

For the folk who work to advance media in developing countries, all this information is important:

* These people want to know where to support investigative journalism, and how to assess their investment.

* They need information on what kinds of radio programming raises AIDS awareness.

* Some seek case studies on reform of state-owned broadcasters; others want to plan for promoting citizen journalists or advocacy for freedom of information laws.

* A key current concern is what business models are working for convergent media.

Overall, “media development” covers a gamut of activities, which in turn are usually treated as a means to yet further ends. The logic is that intervention in media issues can contribute to political or developmental goals – like free elections or spreading safe sex practices.

So it’s immediately obvious that what Ellen Hume has dubbed the “media missionaries” have as much a stake in media research as does the commercial media industry.

It all seems very straightforward. But there are lots of complications, as revealed by the New York workshop:

* there is a lot of “grey” research – including that commissioned by “media development” agencies, which is scattered across the internet or not even online;

* much existing research is case and context specific – meaning that simplistic replication is bound to lead to trouble;

* the shelf life of lots of research is shrinking as the pace of media change intensifies, and there is too little longitudinal study;

* not all research is amenable to producing measurement or proof of a particular effect.

An example of the complexity given at the New York conference was about work done by the BBC World Service Trust. The organisation’s Gerry Power told the story of trying to study impact of particular programming in Bangladesh.

He found correlations between exposure and political awareness. But he also said that some of the tools for assessing this were inappropriately drawn from US public opinion research methods.

As a result, rural people were asked unsuitable questions like “Have you signed a petition since hearing the broadcast?”

Power contrasted this experience with research in Sierra Leone and Tanzania which elicited responses rather than imposed prior frameworks on people.

The outcome was 3000 photographs generated by citizens on what for them represented “bad governance”. The moral: if it’s to be useful, research needs to use methods and data that’s meaningful to people in their own terms.

Notwithstanding such challenges, the people in media development are hungry for studies that can help them compare experiences and finetune programmes.

An idea I raised in New York is for an annual prize for the most valuable research from a media development point of view.

This mechanism would surface a range of research, and send out a signal to media researchers that they have friends (and funders) in the media development industry.

Another idea would be to develop a charter with points like:

* Development groups should commission or fund more research so as to fill in the gaps;

* They should secure peer review of the research at design and output stages;

* They should commit at the outset to Creative Commons principles for sharing the results and putting them online.

*Attention is needed to elaborated metadata for helping make new research known;

* The findings should also be publicised in various ways – for example, through notifications in relevant networks like the www.comminit.com newsletter and the www.media-me.wiki

Today, research is not simply a “nice to have” for media development activities. But to incorporate it better, there needs to be a conscious and systemic approach to locating, generating and sharing the findings.

Right now, it’s a case of strangers passing through intersections without synergy. But after the New York meeting, some small settlements could begin to emerge…

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