Retelling the Story of Media and Development

I am deeply dissatisfied with the current state of public discourse about the role of media in international development...

I am deeply dissatisfied with the current state of public discourse about the role of media in international development. It appears to be dominated by 'techno-utopian' narratives which celebrate the apparent capacity of the media to directly deliver 'positive' benefits to communities. You don't have to look very hard for examples of stories about how mobile phones, for example, can be used to promote all manner of aspects of development - including promoting flood safety, preventing human trafficking and reuniting families after disasters.

Unfortunately, such idealistic and overly simplified narratives are often supported by those who should know better. The 'communication for development' (C4D) community's efforts to raise their profile, for example, often produces celebratory discourse highlighting the apparent direct benefits that media can have for development. As Nobuya Inagaki puts it, 'one of the ways to turn around the marginalized status of C4D efforts is to demonstrate the positive impacts of communication on development initiatives'. Equally, for those concerned with media representations of development, such narratives are often seen as providing a welcome 'balance' to 'negative' stories about corruption or wasted aid spending.

What should I do about my dissatisfaction? As an academic, the obvious answer is to continue to produce robust research that seeks to further our understanding of the precise causal role that different media have in different aspects of development, in specific contexts, and to disseminate this research.

In 2012 I had the opportunity to do just this. I had just completed my PhD, which examined the role of UK television in cultivating feelings of responsibility towards distant suffering. I had the chance to re-write my thesis for publication as a book. I chose not to.

Instead, I spent the time writing a simpler book - seeking to provide a much broader overview of what existing research tells us about the relationship between media and development in general. It tells us, very clearly, that 'techno-utopian' narratives are wrong. At best, such narratives are misleading - failing to highlight the varieties, complexities and contingencies of the media's role in social change. Positive thinking, it seems, is not a sound basis for project design or policy making. At worst, such narratives support the interests of those who benefit from an expansion in the use of new technologies. It is not by chance that Bill Gates, for example, is a techno-optimist.

Was this the right thing to do? What is the best way for academic work to have impact? How do books seeking to provide introductory overviews of existing literature compare to those reviewing new empirical research (like this one)? And can either of them compete with the wider interests that shape public discourse?

Well, just in case they can't - I've also made a short video which summarises my book.

The video - 'Does Media Matter for International Development?' - was also written with David Girling, who blogs regularly about social media and international development.

'Media and Development' (Zed books) is published on 8 May 2014. It is available now for pre-order here and here.

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