Media development needs a makeover. As digital networks radically transform the world, we need a new term that better expresses the idea of supporting people to access, find and share information.
First of all, what do we mean when we talk about media development?
By definition, media are means of communication, like radio and television, websites and blogs, newspapers and magazines that reach and influence people widely. Development is the act or process of developing, also described as growth, progress or the product or result of developing.
The term 'media development' has two meanings: On the one hand, it has a dictionary meaning composed of the two terms discussed above. On the other hand, it has a practical, technical meaning referring to national and international aid efforts to support the media as institutions and improve media landscapes as a whole. This perceptional meaning often differs depending on the context and actors involved.
And this is where the problem starts. It's the fuzziness of its terminology that is one of the big challenges facing media development.
Media in democratic countries have traditionally played a key role in monitoring public institutions and ideally are guarantors of the political system. However, the concentration of media in private hands and the consequent creation of enterprise consortia with great power of influence have been questioning their independence. The continued concentration of the media has run in proportion to its discredit. It extends the perception that media outlets seek to defend their own interests rather than plurality and freedom of expression. As a result, in various world regions, the term media has become more and more adverse and is increasingly associated with negative aspects.
Finding common ground between donors and implementers
Against this background it is no wonder that donors are losing interest – or is it faith? – in developing media as individual institutions. In fact, media development has to be understood more broadly: Both donors and media development institutions need a common understanding that media development is much more than just supporting selected media outlets. And together they should follow wider approaches.
According to UNESCO's well-known and highly valued Media Development Indicators (MDIs), the five principal categories that media development should focus on are:
While the MDIs are designed as a tool for assessing the media landscape, their 50 key indicators and 190 sub-indicators take into account many diverse aspects of the media. Because of this, they also serve as a very useful basis for discussing the term media development and its meaning.
Thinking outside the traditional media box
Media development has moved from solely training journalists to a broader, long-term strategy following a human-rights based approach. Moreover, media development has long since started to focus on digital media and new communication channels rather than traditional media only.
But is this clear to donors?
The general lack of terminological clarity regarding media development is reinforced by the challenges facing the sector in the context of digital transformation and emerging new and innovative ways of communication.
Is there consensus, for example, that media development not only includes both the so-called traditional and alternative media but also new channels of distribution of information that run parallel to media, such as open data, direct democracy or citizen activism? Is it clear that media development also includes promoting organizations that demand transparency or access to information? Is it clear to donors that media development efforts do not stop at a journalistic level?
The flow of information has taken a big turnaround in recent years. The media are no longer the only vehicle of information between the public and politics, economics or culture. It is the citizens themselves who seek and create new channels of information and participation beyond the traditional media. This dynamic means that the traditional role played by the media is overridden by initiatives that control information flows directly, without interMEDIAries.
Information Ecosystem Development - improving and supporting the flow of information
Considering the terminological uncertainties, it seems necessary to reformulate the concept of media development in order to clarify the plurality of fields it stands for. The media is of course one actor, but as is argued above, it is not the only one.
Information flows in different systems that are interrelated but have independent dynamics. Under the assumptions of Social Darwinism, these dynamics would be comparable to ecological systems where information "struggles for existence". These new forms of communication fight or cooperate with each other; some manage to impose themselves and survive while others are volatile and disappear.
I therefore propose the term 'Information Ecosystem Development' to overcome the linguistically narrower concept of media development. Maybe then we can agree on a common understanding and get the donors to reconsider their reluctance to invest more in this important field of international cooperation.
As we have seen, what media development involves these days goes way beyond individual media outlets and even way beyond the media as a sector. This concept must evolve in the same way that the way we produce, transmit and demand information evolves. The focus that once was placed on media is now on users and on the different ways in which information finds its way to the public. They are all part of a national and maybe even a global Information Ecosystem.
This article is part of the #mediadev series "Building coalitions for media reform" where experts from the field of media, academia and development discuss the impact and interaction of media with other governance issues - and how media can fit into the broader development agenda.