Former Program Director, International Media Training
March 20, 2018
Former Program Director, International Media Training
Where do developing country policymakers get the information on which they base their public policy decisions? PRB posed this question to policymakers themselves in 2016 to find out whether and to what extent traditional and social media play a role in informing their decisions.
Over the more than two decades that PRB has been working with journalists, the communications landscape has changed dramatically. While newspapers, radio, and television continue to publish and broadcast in multiple languages to developing-country audiences, digital media have gained a stronger and broader foothold. Additionally, social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn enable users to share content, including news and opinions, quickly and widely.
Over this same period, more data have been gathered and made available in low-income countries to give decisionmakers a better picture of how citizens in rural and urban areas live, including children and adults, and men and women. These data can help policy actors make decisions that improve lives.
With its landscape review, PRB sought to determine how these changes in the media landscape and the data revolution affect the ability of the news media to meet the information needs of decisionmakers in developing countries. We also wanted to use this information from policymakers to reassess our journalist training activities.
Our media team interviewed 16 policymakers and policy influencers from seven developing countries. Many of the interviews took place during intersessions at the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen in May 2016, which covered the health, rights, and well-being of girls and women. Those we interviewed were from Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Haiti, Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda. To ensure they spoke candidly, those interviewed were promised that they would not be quoted by name in our review unless they also expressed their views in a public forum. The interviewees included a former president, ministers of health, members of parliament, an ambassador, and an official of an influential nongovernmental organization. Most held positions related to health policy. They shared with us their reliance on traditional media while referring to social media for public reaction, how they assess the information they receive, and why they want to see more data.
Policymakers and those who influence policy on population and health issues continue to follow the traditional mainstream news media—newspapers in print and online, radio, and television—to stay informed on matters relevant to their work.
They also use social media like Facebook and Twitter, but many indicated that these platforms were more social than serious. “The social media is serving as public feedback/reaction—getting the flavor of public opinion on policies or programs that they have put forth for implementation,” said one who interacts regularly with ministers and members of Parliament in Tanzania. She added that most policymakers still see mainstream media as “more authentic.”
Many of those interviewed suggested concrete ways in which the news media’s articles and broadcast segments could be more useful to policymakers—and the most common was that they use more data and evidence in their reporting.
One question we asked was what specifically lends credibility to a news story. Many interviewees said they look for two things: accurate data that come from well-respected sources, and quotes or paraphrases that show they spoke to highly-placed officials or noted experts.
“Did the reporter talk to a relevant, high-level person? And did they get the facts right,” a pediatrician with Malawi’s Ministry of Health said. “Reporters need to know where to get information and who to talk to.”
A Ugandan government official, who said he reads his country’s three major English-language newspapers daily, said that “reporters need to understand data and know where to get it.” Describing what he looks for in a news article, the official said, “Does it bring out the issues, and is it accurate, are the data correct?”
“You need to have numbers, hard evidence”
– Juliana Lunguzi
At the Women Deliver 2016 conference in Copenhagen, policymakers on one of the panels offered some insights into what they look for from advocates—advice that could also apply to journalists. Juliana Lunguzi, a member of Parliament in Malawi who also trained as a nurse, told the audience that she persuaded her country’s finance minister to increase the budget for contraceptives by showing him the relevant data.
Hon. Lunguzi said the information she wants from advocates and journalists is “at the ground level. What are the needs at the household level?” That, she said, is information she can translate into policy action.
Another policy actor from Malawi said that data draw his attention to a news story “because the data ably put the issues covered in the story into proper context.” He also looks for credible, reliable sources for the information in a story to convince him the reporter understands the issues.
“The media … must understand fully the policy matters they intend to tackle, provide trends and evidence of how the policies have been implemented over the years,” he said. Journalists also need to report on the views of policy experts, as well as cite studies that have been conducted on the specific policy issue on which they are reporting, he added.
Many of the policymakers said journalists should spend more time looking critically at how a policy is being carried out and not rush to put out stories that only scratch the surface of the larger issue. A former government minister in Haiti complained that the news media there “isn’t analyzing. It’s just pack journalism,” which refers to news being covered the same way by most media houses.
Several policy actors said journalists could be more strategic in their coverage by following up on stories to keep issues alive on the policy agenda. “You don’t see that very often,” said a Ugandan policymaker. “To see change they have to follow through.”
As to social media, most of the policy actors said they use platforms like Twitter and Facebook to follow news as well as rumors, but many held the view expressed succinctly by Hon. Lunguzi from Malawi, who said: “Social media is social.”
But a policymaker in Homabay in western Kenya said Twitter and Facebook can be useful tools because they are free of charge, which makes them accessible, “and citizens share their sentiments and feelings freely without fear of intimidation.”
The policy actors we interviewed said reporters and editors would benefit from more specialization in health journalism and a better ability to access and understand databases. Indeed, many journalists worldwide have been reluctant to embrace data-driven journalism because they lack confidence in their basic math skills.
Data pervade news everywhere nowadays, however, and as the interviewed policymakers noted, the stronger, more compelling stories are those that reinforce their messages with evidence. With more data publicly available than ever before, it is imperative that journalists understand how to access and use it to explain how the world and its inhabitants are changing.
Based on our interviews, the overarching recommendation to improve journalism in developing countries is for more training that strengthens journalists’ math skills and helps them find and interpret data related to reproductive health issues. In combination with that, more journalists should be trained on the technical aspects of reproductive health issues and the impact these issues have on socioeconomic development and the welfare of citizens at local, national, and global levels.