Researching Media Development Impact: Puzzling Findings

Spending on media development has increased during the past decade, but there is little evidence, if any, that this support has led to systemic changes in the world’s media ecosystem, according to preliminary findings from a research project run by Marius Dragomir at the Center for Media, Data & Society (CMDS) shared this week at an informal online powwow with students from Spanish universities.

In recent years, financial support for the media sector, especially for investigative journalism projects, has produced an impressive impact. Global investigations that involved hundreds of journalists from all over the world, such as the Panama Papers or Paradise Papers, could not have been carried out without such support.

Yet, generally, the world’s media systems continued to deteriorate during the past decade or so, Dragomir says. That is not entirely the fault of the media development sector, but it is a trend that continues unabated, dramatically reducing the impact of this sector. Governments have consolidated their control in the state media whereas media and advertising markets have reached an unprecedented level of politicization and instrumentalization in most of the countries of the world. Hence, the media narrative is highly captured almost everywhere.

“So, what is the impact of media development in this whole ecosystem? This is something that we are trying to figure out,” said Dragomir who’s surrounded himself with young researchers collecting data about media development assistance. In the past four years, they have been looking for correlations between official development assistance (or ODA, official lingo for funds spent in media projects in developing countries) and forms of impact (say, fewer journalists killed or harassed, a higher number of independent media outlets, a growing number of people consuming independent journalism).

“Connect the macro with the micro and see what you get,” Dragomir said. The results so far are quite puzzling. “Increase in support correlates with more journalists killed or less access to independent media,” according to Dragomir. “That’s insane. How’s that possible and why does that happen? It reminds me of a meeting many years ago with a high-ranking executive at a philanthropic organization who, seeing the terribly worsening situation of media freedom I presented to him as a justification for more support, asked me bluntly: ‘So, why shall we give you more money if you tell me that things are worsening?’.”

The current media development system needs to be reframed, “rebuilt from scratch, if possible” in Dragomir’s opinion. Elitism, audience disconnect and a costly infrastructure are probably the main issues that need to be addressed, he added.

These issues, along with an impact analysis, are going to be discussed in a new report Dragomir and his fellows are planning to issue next September.

Photo by “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash