How does media literacy contribute to governance reform? This discussion paper from the World Bank’s Communication for Governance and Accountability Program argues that media literacy helps citizens to become informed, to engage in the public sphere to effect change, and to demand good governance and accountability. In an increasingly complex media landscape, citizens need to be able to access, analyse, evaluate and develop media content. Donors should therefore promote media literacy as an integral part of the development process.
A free, plural and independent media is widely viewed as being essential to good governance; in particular, by helping to promote state effectiveness, responsiveness and accountability. The present day media is characterised by the convergence of traditional media (such as the press, television, radio) and new technologies (including social networking, blogging, citizen journalism, online discussions). The complex and ever-changing media landscape offers potential benefits for citizens through greater inclusiveness, diversity and participation; however, it also raises challenges such as uneven access, misinformation, copyright issues, and exposure to harmful content.
Media literacy refers to the ability to access, analyse, evaluate and develop media content. Core media literacy skills (such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and social and communication abilities) are vital in building an informed and active citizenry. Findings include:
- New media provides opportunities for citizens by enabling them to act as watchdogs through citizen journalism and blogging. Examples from Vietnam and Iran reveal that citizens are increasingly using new media to discuss current affairs in a free and open manner, to raise issues of concern, and to question government action.
- Citizen bloggers also play a role in breaking news stories, for example, following the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. This trend may have a positive impact on the transparency and accuracy of news stories (although it may also have adverse effects).
- Uneven access to new technology is a key challenge due to limited physical access in some developing countries. However, the most serious limitations relate not only to physical access, but to the ability of citizens to access quality content, as well as to analyse, assess and apply it.
- UNESCO and the EU are at the forefront of advocacy for media literacy. Progress has been made, for example, through the increased engagement of a range of actors including civil society organisations, regulatory authorities, news ombudsman, media watch-dogs and monitoring groups. International collaboration has also increased through seminars, the sharing of research and good practice, and clearing-houses.
- Despite this progress, efforts to promote media literacy remain sporadic and have not received sufficient global attention.
Media literacy needs to gain traction within the development community and innovative approaches are needed to promote media literacy skills among all citizens. Key recommendations for donors highlight the need to:
- Support media watchdog and media monitoring groups as a tool for promoting media literacy and transforming civil society and the public into active participants in the media.
- Raise awareness of the role and function of the news ombudsman, which acts as a key link between citizens and news agencies, and helps to hold news agencies accountable and accessible to citizens.
- Develop media literacy skills through mobilisation, public forums and debate on relevant topics such as current affairs, media practices, and citizens’ rights and obligations.
- Incorporate media literacy as a core element of media development programmes.
- Promote research on the impact of media literacy on citizen action, participation and good governance. Empirical evidence is also needed to build support for related policy development and advocacy efforts.