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A well-developed media system is considered both a measure and an essential feature of a modern, cosmopolitan society (Melkote 2003) and it is not difficult to find examples that demonstrate the role of media in international development from the mobilizing power of social media in the Arab Spring to soap operas for social change, and news coverage of humanitarian crises (Scott, 2014).

This essay discusses the media's complex and contested role as modernizing agent, nation-builder and educational tool within the dominant paradigm of a top-down, modernizing approach to development. It outlines the case for media as a powerful agent for developmental change, and investigates the issues of ownership, power and agency that have been shown to limit its direct effectiveness. Drawing on the example of education-entertainment, in particular, the Latin American's soap opera format, telenovela, it explains how information-dissemination through media channels can contribute to social change, and goes on to discuss the media and its relationship to national identity and culture, and assesses some of the challenges and opportunities that globalization creates for media and development.   

The relationship between media and development is defined in a number of ways by theorists, but most align to a definition as the systematic and strategic use of mass media (that is, large-scale national or international broadcasting activities using television and radio, and publishing of print media) to inform and educate audiences to bring about positive individual and social change (Scott 2014; Manyozo 2012; McPhail 2009). All aspects of the research, creation and dissemination process are centralised and controlled by media and communication experts, working with subject matter specialists and funding agencies (Manyozo, 2012).

An investigation into the role of media in development can focus on technologies and systems, as Lerner and Schramm, or it can focus on how media was used to produce content that would aid and support development, as Rogers (1976) did in his ‘diffusion of innovation' work. (Manyozo, 2012). In fact, it is necessary to consider both elements, as well as issues of ownership and control, in order to fully appreciate the scope of the impact of mass media on development.

Media as modernizer

Since the early years of international development, the media has been considered important agents of change and modernization, as well as indices of success. (Melkote 2003; Thussu, 2006; more citations). Radio, cinema and later television, and to a lesser extent print media, were considered direct and powerful social tools, capable of the one-way, top-down, simultaneous transmission of information from a single source to large audiences. [Melkote, 2003; citation needed]. Meanwhile, media penetration, that is the number of televisions and radio sets, and a measure of newspaper consumption in a country, became a ‘proxy for development' (Waisbord 2001: 4) with the widespread application of information technologies and media platforms seen to be “hallmarks” of modernity (McPhail, 2009: 7).

Since the post-war period, modernization of the developing world has been the primary aim of international development activities (citation needed). Mass media was not simply central to this modernizing agenda – the two concepts were almost interchangeable. For decades, the media was considered the mechanism by which the West's economically-deterministic model of development, built on industrialisation, urbanisation and free market capitalism, would be embedded in the poor countries (citation needed). Information – believed to be the missing variable which caused underdevelopment and persistent poverty (citation needed) – about modern technologies, ideas and practices, exemplifying Western ways of living, could be disseminated through radio, cinema, magazines, newspapers and later television, to close the knowledge gap and inspire individuals to adopt the aspirational, mobile and ambitious mind-set of a modern citizen (Schramm 1964; Manyozo, 2012; Lerner 1958 cited in Thussu, 2006; Scott 2014; Stevenson 1993; Waisbord 2001; Stevenson, 1993 add others???). Therefore, the media would condense the time required for change and multiply the impact of development programmes enabling countries to “leapfrog into the twentieth century” (Stevenson 1993: 2).

The media was also seen to be an important role in the creation of national identify and development. Schramm (1964) believed that information - ‘facts, discussion, persuasion and arguments' – was the basis for consensus building and the creation of a common, national identity. It helped to “weld together isolated communities, disparate subcultures, self-centred individuals and groups, and separate developments into a truly national development.” (Schramm, 1964: pg. no) This was relevant for colonies who becoming independent nation states for the first time (citation needed).

With the failure, however, of many development programmes in the 1960s and 1970s, and negative consequences of rapid growth, such as inequality and pollution, becoming a feature of the developing world, (citation needed) critics, many of whom came from developing countries in Latin America, charged that dependency not modernization characterized the reality of development practices (citation needed). The prevailing approach to development failed to recognise the lack of personal agency in top-down communication, the close link between communication, knowledge and power, and the influence that transnational media companies and Western culture exerted on developing countries (Thussu, 2006).

It was argued that complexities of communication for development were not adequately captured in the information-transmission approach (Waisbord, 2001 - CHECK). War-time media theories such as the propaganda, hypodermic needle and the sender-receiver models, which underpinned the belief in the direct power of media to change behaviours, had been superseded discredited and replaced as early as the 1940s by ‘limited effects' research, but were still being applied to development communication (Manyozo, 2012; Waisbord, 2001; Mody and Lee, 200?? and others to be cited). This approach failed to understand that changing knowledge, behaviour and attitudes requires more than just information (Waisbord, 2001). Audiences were treated as homogenous, passive recipients of messages transmitted through a linear process with no acknowledgment of the “agency and distinctiveness of local populations” (Scott, 2014: 32).  For change to be sustainable, people in the developing world needed to be part of the decision-making process about their own development (citation needed). At the same time, by focusing only on individuals as the mechanism for social change, systemic social issues and barriers were ignored. (Scott, 2014; other citations). For example, it is not clear, according to Mody and Lee (2003) how media, with its limited effects power, could address deep-rooted social norms and beliefs such as the unequal distribution of land or the inferior status of women.

The media are not, it was argued, a neutral transmitter of information, but rather tools of power, control and hegemony, both economically and culturally. (Boyd-Barrett, XXXX; Waisbord, 2001, Reeves, 1993; McMillin, 2003). Instead of catalysts of change, the media were seen to be agents of urban elites maintaining dominant power structures (citation needed).

Dependency theorists highlighted the imbalance of information flows between the West and developing countries, as defined US domination of the global communication system – its technology, structures, professional norms and content – as a form of cultural and media imperialism that created dependency between the developed and developed world, and resulted in negative implications for the use of media to advance development objectives (Boyd-Barrett, 19CXX;' schiller quoted in matos).

Existing power structures, which can be seen in “concentrations of ownership and unequal access”, (Scott, 2014: 30) significantly influence how media is used, for what purpose and for whose benefit. For example, four Western-controlled news agencies produce the world's view of developing countries through their own lens, reinforcing stereotypes, avoiding context and focusing on newsworthy events such as violent coups or national disasters. (Scott, 2014). Privately-owned transnational media companies (TNCs) have no incentive to promote development content if it negatively impacts their profit-making activities. Instead of championing social goals, they entertain through escapism (Nordenstreng and Varis 1973, cited in Reeves; 1993; Boyd-Barrett 1982 cited in Reeves, 1993; McPhail, 2009). Media companies, rather than populations, benefited from modernisation through the growth of new markets and audiences. (Matos, 2012)

At the national level, media systems were seen to be extensions of power and control by colonizers (citation needed). “The decision to develop broadcasting was generally taken by the colonial administrators, who improved both the model of social organisation and the technology directly from their home countries. They financed the broadcasters, appointed the staff, supervised the output and generally shaped the institution to fit the needs of imperial rule.” (Sparks 2007: 87) After independence, national elites continued in the same vein, but this time using it to propagate a sense of national identity (McMillin, 2007). The media helped to define a new, modern and cosmopolitan identity for the nascent country helping to build a nation where, in many cases, none had existed before (McMillin, 2007).

Close relationships between governments and media in some developing countries may have been “couched in the language of national unity” but were, in fact, designed to secure economic and political control. (Reeves, 1993: 28). One example was the close alignment of Brazilian broadcaster TV Globo with a number of authoritarian dictatorships between the 1960s and 1980s. The relationship enabled the military dictatorship use television to legitimise its rule, and in turn its support and investment resulted in the commercialisation and growth of the Brazilian television industry and local programming, and supported the creation of a Brazilian identity (Mattelart and Mattelart 1990, cited in Thussu 2006)

This investment in local infrastructure, technology and programming, however, enabled TV Globo to become a media giant and to become one of the world's largest exporters of telenovelas, a television soap opera that uses the mass media to support social and economic development objectives and build national identity through local programming that educates and entertains. (McMillin, 2007). This popular television format, which has been made in 50 languages in 100 countries, and represents a $2 billion global industry, also provides an example of the increasing interrelationship between media, culture, identity and development in an increasingly globalised communication environment. (Thussu, 2006; McMillin, 2007; Matos, 2012)

Telenovela are one of the education-entertainment (or edutainment) tools available within the broader theoretical category of social communication (Manyozo, 2012), which works on the premise that mass media has guarded powerful effects and if used effectively, can be a tool for development (McMillin 2007). They raise awareness and attention of key social issues among individuals, activating social networks and peer communication in the spread of information, and can influence policy debate and public conversations at a societal level (Melkote, 2003; Gumucio-Dagron and Tufte, 2006).

Predominantly used in health and family planning communication, edutainment programming for both radio and television has been adapted for use in 75 countries, and draws on Roger's (19??) influential diffusion of innovation theory,  as well as mass communication and social learning theories, and Western-style social marketing techniques (citation needed). The aim is programming that increases knowledge, creates positive attitudes and ultimately, changes behaviour. (Mody 2003; Melkote, 2003; McPhail, 2009; Wilkins 2003; Manyozo, 2012; McMillin, 2007; Waisbord 2001).

While edutainment strategies are sometimes criticised for perpetuating a technology-based, information-dissemination approach to development, with stakeholder participation limited to “placation consultation” to legitimise messages (Manyozo, 2012: 85), there are several examples where they achieve positive results. For example, UNICEF has acknowledged the specific role of telenovelas in reducing the infant mortality rate in Brazil (Thussu, 2006) while research into the effectiveness of a Twende na Wakati (Let's go with the times), a popular Tanzanian radio soap opera about HIV and Aids, broadcast during the 1990s, found a reduction in the number of sexual partners by both male and female listeners, and increased condom use. (Vaughan, Regis and St Catherine 2000: 81 in McPhail 2009: 38). Audiences also felt a greater sense of self-efficacy in relation to their collective belief in preventing infection and living positively with the disease (Manyozo, 2012).

Further critiques note that programmes tend to focus on short-term goals, such as HIV prevention, rather than long-term development goals, such as improving human-rights or women's status (Wilkins, 2003) and while women are depicted in a variety of roles, and ‘avenues for empowerment and action' are included, edutainment also “recreates the patriarchal structure that identify women as objects not change agents.” (McMillin 2007: 92). Working within the commercial framework has limitations and edutainment programmes must avoid pressure from advertisers to dilute messages and sponsorship that contradicts programme content (McPhail 2009). This becomes more challenging in the increasingly commercialised, privatised and global media sphere that is unfolding at both national and international levels (Gumucio-Dragon and Tufte, 2006).  

Today, the global mass media is seen to enable cultural exchange and more ‘multi-directional' information flows beyond national borders, and between developed and developing countries. This, along with the deregulation of media industries and the growth of technology such as satellite and cable networks, has accelerated globalisation. (Matos, 2012). Appadurai notes that globalization, as a continuation of the modernization agenda, has, to some degree, taken the project of modernity out of the control of the nation-state and made it easier and more ‘every day' for people to live. (Appadurai,xxx).

Telenovelas, which are translated and adapted for local cultures, or used as a format for the creation of home-grown soap operas, represent one example of the ‘contra-flow' of information and programming back to the West from developing countries (citation needed) enabled by globalization.

Arguments that criticised the overwhelming cultural dominance of Western film, television programming and music from have also been somewhat diluted by research that recognises the active agency of audiences in the way they view and absorb media content. “They can negotiate dominant ideological messages and make readings that are empowering for their everyday lives.” (Matos, 2012: page no). In reality, most people don't get international satellite television, access to media is determined by a number of different things including caste, class, ethnic and economic factors and most populations prefer domestic and vernacular language programming (McMillin, 2007). Rather than globalisation leading to ‘cultural homogenisation' in dependent countries, theorists such as Neverdeen Pieterse argue that it results in ‘cultural hybridity' where local, national and global cultures are mixed together (citation needed). The increasing transnational movement of people and the rise of electronic mass communication have also created “”diasporic public spheres” where people engage based on national or other identities, such as religion. (Appadurai, xxx). Theorists have, however, noted that this continues to take place within the global capitalist model through a commodified approach to culture and doesn't address the persistence of inequalities of media access, the unevenness of information flows and the concentration of ownership and power in the hands of transnational media companies (Matos, 2012).


Media institutions affect people's daily lives and it is important to acknowledge their potential to contribute to development goals (Waisbord 2005).

In the past, the media was seen as the mechanism by which developing counties would modernize, but criticism of this approach focused on an over-acknowledgement of the power of media to transform lives and an under-acknowledgement of the negative impact of issues such as ownership, control and a lack of agency on developing countries. Today, there is greater recognition for the media's role in providing information that supports other development activities, such as participatory approaches, by raising awareness in conjunction with interpersonal communication. “Mass media are a means to spark community-level dialogue and understanding, yet they are never considered ‘silver bullets'. (Gumucio-Dagron and Tufte, 2006).

In the face of globalization, discussions about the role of culture and identity have become more central to development communication. Global information flows facilitated by electronic media are shaping concepts of national identity and modernity, while debates about issues of media ownership, power and agency continued to relevant. The role of media in national and international development will continue to evolve, and be contested, for some time to come.

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