How do we get to a better evidence base on media and conflict?

Director, Policy and Learning

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The authors of a just published review of the evidence around the role of media in conflict have done us all a real service. 70% of our work takes place in fragile or conflict-affected states, and increasingly we're working with media to reduce the risk of conflict. This kind of systematic review by two authors who have spent years studying and working in this field is really valuable.

BBC Media Action aspires to be an evidence-based organisation and we place a major priority on research which can both ensure our media support is as effective as it can be, and enable us to measure the impact of our work. The area of support to media in conflict is one of the toughest research and evidence challenges we face and we collectively pounced on this research review.

Even on the basis of looking at the three-page briefing note (rather than an entire systematic review), it has sparked real debate in our organisation. We agree with many of the findings but immediately started wondering about some of them. These are some of the reactions.

Limited research

The review finds that there is "little evidence to confirm or reject [the view] that media promotes or prevents conflict and that interventions using media and technology in fragile and conflict-affected situations should be viewed as innovative rather than tried and tested."  

We mostly agree with this.  The evidence is weak, not least, we think, because the amount of really good research taking place in this area and conflict affected countries has been quite limited. 

Conditions for conflict

Our work doesn't assume that media in and of itself does promote or prevent conflict. Our theories of change tend - depending on circumstance and political context - to assume that media can act as a contributor and driver of conflict and less rarely as an active promoter of it.  

There are famous examples – such as Rwanda and the Balkans – where media played a part in genocide, but these are unusual. More often, and we think increasingly often, media can be owned, controlled or co-opted by interests – ethnic, political or religious – who deliberately fuel suspicion of "the other", those with whom they disagree about who should wield power. Such media do not necessarily promote conflict, but they can help create the conditions for it.

Most of our efforts to counter this are designed to improve dialogue across very different communities so suspicion and distrust can be decreased. We think this can create an environment where conflict becomes less likely. 

Political economy analysis

The review concludes that the "evidence suggests the need for caution when planning interventions using media and technology for political change". Caution and a deep understanding of political complexity and context are absolutely vital. Undertaking more political economy analysis for example is something that organisations such as ourselves have increasingly recognised in recent years. 

We would not however describe our work as trying to achieve political change. Our approach is about the role of media and communications in supporting communities to convene, discuss and communicate across fracture points in society – through public debate programmes, dramas or through support to community and other media. We hope to create an environment where ordinary people can resolve arguments peacefully, rather than seek political change ourselves.

Rigorous evidence

It argues that "rigorous evaluation should be a key component of future findings and suggests among other measures larger, quantitative, comparative studies".We agree about the need for evaluation and almost all our interventions are subject to research to inform and evaluate.

But we confess we find evaluation in this area particularly difficult. Building research capacity in fragile or conflict-affected countries and delivering high quality research is also a fundamental challenge to rigorous evaluation. 

There is limited consensus on what constitutes rigorous evidence in this area and media and communication interventions are complex ones that are only in very specific contexts amenable to the kind of randomisation and or quasi-experimental methods that we could deploy elsewhere. It’s an area where qualitative research has a particularly important role to play, which the authors highlight, but reaching  consensus on what constitutes rigorous qualitative research, and getting it featured prominently in future systematic reviews, is also required. 

This is a key future area in research to which the authors have already made a really important contribution in carrying out this review.  We do not make assumptions about the role of media in a country or how best we can support it, unless we have properly researched it. This review has helped us significantly in doing just that.

Related links

The Media and Conflict: An assessment of the evidence (PDF)

BBC Media Action's research and policy  

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