It is a cliché to acknowledge the rapidly changing world of the mass media, from a static form of transmission from wireless and television sets in the living room, to communications arriving via a plethora of multimedia platforms, where my cable TV comes to me over WiFi to watch on my smart phone, radio is delivered on my IPod, and headlines from the news media are updated 24/7 online. All these developments complicate but also enrich the media environment. What is less often acknowledged is how far behind we are in monitoring use of news and information from these channels through internationally-standardized communication statistics.
UNESCO is the primary agency worldwide with the responsibility to standardize, gather and disseminate communication statistics. For decades national statistical offices counted newspaper circulation figures, and the distribution of television and radio sets, and related data, and UNESCO disseminated the information through their annual yearbook. But the limitations of this traditional approach have rapidly become apparent. At the same time, the international community has rediscovered the important economic and cultural role of 'creative industries', covering everything from music, dance and crafts through fashion, architecture and ceramics to movies, television, and the online world. Moreover the role of the media for development has also attracted new attention, with international agreement in March 2008 to adopt the UNESCO Media Development Indicators .
To catch up with developments, the UNESCO Institute of Statistics in Montreal is in the process of developing and piloting new surveys monitoring newspapers, broadcasting (television and radio), and movies. This week, UNESCO organized an Experts Workgroup meeting from 17th-19th November 2009 in San Jose, Costa Rica. The aim was to review the draft questionnaire, along with the accompanying technical notes for the survey completion and the eventual analysis of the data. After pilot tests, the survey is planned for roll out in 2010, with data available the following year.
Once finalized, the survey instrument will be distributed to national statistical offices for the annual collection of statistics. This may sound dry as dust. But in fact this ambitious initiative opens exciting new opportunities for the policy and research communities to understand the diffusion of the new media environment worldwide and the persistence of some old problems facing the role of the media for development. The UNESCO Media Development Indicators emphasize that media development needs to meet certain normative standards:
- A system of legal regulations conducive to freedom of expression, pluralism and diversity;
- Plurality and diversity of media ownership;
- Media should serve as a platform for democratic discourse, reflecting the diversity of views and interests in society;
- Professional capacity building and civic society institutions underpinning freedom of expression, pluralism and diversity;
- Infrastructure capacity sufficient to support an independent and pluralistic media.
The planned new UNESCO surveys on newspapers and broadcasting will not provide indicators capable of monitoring and comparing all these standards, but they will go a lot further than is possible at present, especially in terms of assessing the balance of private v. public sectors in broadcasting and newspapers. For the first time, the surveys will also facilitate a global comparison of number of hours devoted to certain types of broadcasting programs (such as news, education, sports, and drama) shown in different countries, as well as the gender diversity of the media workforce, the proportion of domestic and foreign ownership, and the availability of linguistic broadcasting, amongst other aspects.
The workgroup considered the proposed survey instruments and focused attention upon the technical notes which accompany it, grappling with many complex and detailed issues about how best to relate the new data to broader notions of media pluralism and diversity, reflected in the Media Development Indicators. The new media environment is so complicated today that any 'top down' approach to assess its structure can often only grasp at aspects which are inevitably partial. Hence we can measure the number of terrestrial TV channels broadcasting in a country, for example, but does that actually tell us anything in a world where national TV is supplemented by Hulu, You Tube and similar broadband streamlining sources, along with cable and satellite channels. We can measure the number of national daily newspapers with mainly (51%+) public, private or foreign ownership – but does this provide important insights about the primary sources of information available in any country where surfing the New York Times or listening to my local NPR station every morning is as easy in Boston as it is in San Jose or Shanghai? Only a 'bottom-up' approach --where representative sample surveys assess what information people use as their regular sources of information --can start to evaluate the diversity and pluralism of media access in any country with any accuracy. Individual-level data on media uses is increasingly collected for many nations worldwide in surveys such as the Gallup World Poll (covering 140 nations) and The World Values Survey (covering 90+). Expanding upon these sources, by matching them with the structural national data, would be very worthwhile for future research.
UNESCO will work with national statistical offices to develop the capacity to generate the new data. If this initiative succeeds, so that a comprehensive and accurate picture of the media environment can be assembled, the international data will be widely welcomed. What remains to be done, however, for a richer understanding of pluralism and diversity, is to match the new national-level data on the media ownership and structure more closely with additional datasets. This would allow analysts to compare systematically the typical contents of the newspapers and broadcast media, as well as individual-level patterns of usage. If this approach remains outside of UNESCO's role and capacities, it is hoped that other non-profit agencies and independent researchers concerned with media for development will utilize the new data. We urgently need to develop robust and comparable international indicators which combine the analysis of the media environment with an understanding of the media contents and audience.