"What Makes the Coffee Sweet?"

Anne Nelson's picture
BY ANNE NELSON
Adjunct Associate Professor, Columbia University

Opening session tonight: Eric Newton from the Knight Foundation set the stage.  The Bad News?  Press freedom has suffered some reversals in recent years, and many institutions have been slow to catch on to the importance of digital media.  The Good News?  Fresh evidence that people esteem "fair, accurate and contextual" information -- and are acquiring the tools of the digital age to promote it.

Amadou Ba followed with the keynote speech.  It was great to see the founder of www.allafrica.com in person.  (He's now the acting director of the African Media Initiative.)  African media is surging ahead -- but there's still a tremendous amount to be done, especially in the areas of management and finance. Members of the audience lamented the media situation in Zimbabwe, and worried about Guinea.  They wondered about the direction of digital media in Africa, and reminded each other that community radio is still of enormous importance on the Continent.

Ba pointed to the new African Leaders Media Forum as a promising development. http://www.amlf2009.org/

 "What makes the coffee sweet?" he asked the audience, "the sugar -- or the act of stirring the sugar?  What makes democracy?  Holding elections, or having media that can stir the pot constructively?"

Knowing when and how to stir the pot

It sounds as though the opening address has already sparked some good discussions. My Hewlett Foundations colleagues and I regret that we are not there to join in the live discussions.

What makes the coffee sweet? Many would argue that the accountability relationships between a government and its citizens are essential hallmarks of democracy, especially an enduring democracy. Media plays a key role in generating and disseminating the information that citizens need in order to hold their governments to account for the use of public resources, the provision of public services, and the protection of human rights. To be effective watchdogs, for example, citizens need information that is relevant, reliable, and timely (and we could add many more adjectives here – independent, complete, understandable,…). We know that access to information – transparency – is a prerequisite for pursuing greater accountability and good governance, but we still need to understand better how, and under what conditions, greater transparency leads to greater accountability. We need to understand better the links between media/communication strategies and the social impacts that we expect they are advancing. Much of our evidence is based on conjecture and correlations that suggest plausible causality – we have many good stories. But we could benefit from more rigorous impact evaluations of these interventions. Of course many activities are not amenable to such evaluation methodologies. But when considering new opportunities for new media and communications strategies – and opportunities for new investments – we could also explore opportunities for learning more about the conditions under which media translates into social action such as citizens exercising greater accountability over their governments.