Should overseas aid be used to fund public interest media?


There is no denying that the traditional business model of the news industry is on the verge of collapse. According to a 2017 report from PwC, news media globally are expected to lose $23.8 billion in annual advertising revenue between 2017-2021, and more than 10% of those losses (around $3 billion) will be sustained by local news media that provide public interest information for communities worldwide. The economic fallout of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these issues, with resource-poor countries bearing the brunt of what has been described as an “extinction-level threat” for journalism. Thus, an important discussion to emerge from this year’s #WorldPressFreedomDay is how or whether new approaches to public subsidy might provide part of a solution to supporting global independent media.

Last April, the United States-based philanthropy Luminate Group proposed an Independent Fund for Public Interest Media (IFPIM) to the media and informational elements of the COVID-19 crisis. The Fund makes a case for increasing development assistance towards independent media financing from 0.3% of official development assistance, to an annual target of 1% of ODA or $1 billion. But the aid sector has a problematic history of engaging in social change through news reporting, and therefore any future financing should be scrutinised and critically evaluated. 

Which public and whose interest? 

The IFPIM defines public interest journalism as: “… media that is free and independent, that exists to inform people on the issues that shape their lives, in ways which serve the public’s rather than any political, commercial or factional interest, to enable public debate and dialogue across society, and to hold those in power to account on behalf of the public interest.” But one concern with this broad definition of public interest journalism is its singular origin and Western approach to practice. Researcher Lena von Naso points out that “one theory of journalism – a superstructure theory that captures, systemises, and explains the reality of journalism in all its facets – does not exist”. And as the Cameroonian critic Francis Nyamnjoh argues, imposing a singular model of journalism is “narrow and asphyxiating to alternative outlooks and practices of sharing news and information, and of entertaining and educating”. The Fund indicates that one possible strategy to support local and national media is by appointing a “lead agent”, such as an NGO, to govern and manage the local media market system in a beneficiary country. But donors and NGOs are inevitably embedded with their own interests and agendas, regardless of their supervisory or participatory role in the media system. And where public-interest journalism serves as a bridge that links aid agencies and NGOs with publics and potential donors, questions arise as to which public and whose interests are being served.

An “unholy alliance” of media and aid

Normativity theory determines the “best” conduct as one that achieves the most good, just or appropriate results. However, most normative theory is produced by Western academics and is informed by Enlightenment values of modernity and liberal democratic theory. This has and continues to play out in Western mainstream news coverage and has been perpetuated through claims of normativity in NGO-journalism produced in and about Africa. In her seminal book, Who’s Reporting Africa Now? scholar Molly Wright argues that “most evaluations of NGOs’ engagement in news-making tend to rest on the assumption that international news about Sub-Saharan Africa [involves] overly sporadic, negative and Othering representation of the continent and its people”. Similarly, Von Naso found that humanitarians and journalists have formed an “unholy alliance of deep codependency” and that much of what is presented to Western news audiences is closely aligned with the agendas of humanitarian organisations which are perceived as “doing good”. Therefore, a normative approach to media development could arguably impede the generation of ideas about “good” or “bad” journalistic practice and limit the debate about how news organizations should be structured, funded and regulated. 

Hybrid or alternative approaches  Many media producers and development actors have been hesitant to criticize the aid sector’s shift into news production and financing in part because they are beholden to the belief that they are in the pursuit of a noble cause. Indeed, the severity of the challenge confronting independent news media around the world cannot be overemphasized, and any additional funding directed towards these news outlets is both necessary and welcome. But it is only in the last few decades that development practitioners and theorists have begun to accept the faults of the system, and the convergent issues within the aid and media sectors are still relatively new phenomena in academic research. Evidently, there is no such thing as a single solution or a one best way to address the challenges facing the media industry. Further research and alternative viewpoints may find a multiplicity of solutions that depend on hybrid and/or alternative models for sustainable public-interest journalism. As the post-development theorist Arturo Escobar writes, “The process of unmaking development … is slow and painful, and there are no easy solutions or prescriptions … It is up to us, however, to make sure that the life span of the bureaucrats and experts as producers and enforcers of costly gestures is limited”.

Maxine Betteridge-Moes is a SOAS Digital Ambassador pursuing an MA Media in Development. Born and raised in Canada, she has worked in Asia and Africa as a journalist, podcast producer and occasional music blogger. Follow her on Twitter @maxine_moes

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