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Media monitoring a tool for civil society and advocacy groups

Media monitoring a tool for civil society and advocacy groups

I have just completed a draft media monitoring protocol to be used by Media Literacy Project (MLP) where I am currently based on a fellowship. It took me some time to research the Internet and find relevant materials, examples and success stories. As I began developing the protocol and understanding how it can be used, it occurred to me that it will be a very useful tool for civil society and advocacy groups in the communities in which we work.  (Photo: Ambrose James, author)

Media outlets are the main source of information and a vital link between the government and citizens; they are an indispensable precondition for both government accountability and social accountability.  Without relevant and reliable information, it would not be possible for citizens to use their power effectively during elections, nor would they be aware of the problems and issues that need active consideration beyond voting.

However, most media outlets claim they for the most part, seek to support community interests, provide a platform for their voices, champion community agendas and promote peace and development. I have seen newspapers ,radio and TV stations in Sierra Leone use tag lines such as, “voice of the voiceless”, “knowledge to the people”, “your voice my voice”,  “the people’s voice” etc.  It would be an interesting exercise to check these messages and see how these institutions with these tag lines are collecting the information for their editorials and what tools if any, they use to validate these statements. This is where I think the role of civil society is critical, especially drawing the attention of public and community news outlets to their roles and what they say they stand for and promote. Not only that, but civil society can also help develop tools that will effectively assess and validate its relevance and importance to the communities it serves. This is where media monitoring can be an effective tool that can be used to pursue this goal.

As I worked on developing the media monitoring protocol for MLP I have reflected on the media in Sierra Leone and asked myself these questions

  • Do media outlets really work in the interest of the people they say they serve?
  • Who sets the agendas they work on?
  • How do they define their audience?
  • How do they strike the balance between accountability to the public and freedom of the press?
  • How do they balance their sources of information between government and public/civil society?
  • How often do they review all of the above including their editorial policies?

In Sierra LeoneI know that media monitoring is done by the Independent Media Commission (IMC) and that monitoring is done specifically to keep the legal framework in check and to provide information for its own analysis. However, after deep reflection I have come to the realization that civil society and advocacy groups can use media monitoring as a tool to engage media outlets, help support communities in which they work and mobilize community interest and support for their own media especially when they see that their issues are regularly being brought to the wider public for discussion. The tool can help groups track coverage of critical and relevant community issues, gender analysis and focus, look for most frequent people in the news, analyze photographs, check rural and urban balance, analyze writing styles of particular journalists and gauge position and interests of various media outlets. The Media Literacy Project is considering using this tool for education in schools, sharing it with their networks and coalitions and getting more community actors to begin active media engagement using this tool as an entry point.

However, I will caution civil society groups to be clear about what they want to achieve from monitoring from the outset and link this to positive outcomes for communities and their development. That is why before starting media monitoring, groups should first survey and document community interests and issues and use those issues as the basis for the monitoring. This will help to validate the media monitoring reports produced and use the findings to begin meaningful engagement with media outlets and make communities central to setting the agenda. The reports can also be used as a peer review mechanism and educational tool.

Radio station managers, newspaper editors and TV broadcast Directors can be easily carried away with the sensational issues and a check mechanism is critical to help them refocus and revisit their tag lines and editorial content. Imagine how powerful it could be if a civil society used media monitoring as a tool to provide feedback to a community radio station, a public broadcaster or a town or city newspaper! This feedback would be a positive way to contribute to the relevance of the media outlet and get engaged, provide direction, and provide a necessary support function. This is particularly critical in areas with high illiteracy rates and sometimes increased tension between the outlet and the communities due to coverage of sensitive issues. The tool could also serve as a conflict prevention mechanism and could mobilize citizen’s interest as their issues are being dealt with constructively.

As I produce this protocol for a US based organization I feel obliged to share my experience with civil society colleagues and media partners back home with a tool I have found very important and useful and one that will foster engagement, collaboration, and community support whilst making public information meaningful to the people we provide it for.

By Ambrose James

Author – Ambrose James is currently a Communications Fellow working the Media Literacy Project based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is on a 4 month placement through the Community Solution Programme a professional development program for the best and brightest global community leaders working in Transparency & Accountability, Tolerance/Conflict Resolution, Environmental Issues, and Women’s Issues. The CSP is a Programme of the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs of the US Department of State and implemented by IREX. Ambrose is Sierra Leone Country Director for Search for Common Ground.

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