Originally posted on the BBC Media Action Insight blog by Chris Snow on November 10 2016 - Reviewing the results of a survey of 23,000 people across seven countries, Chris Snow looks at the potential of media to engage even hard-to-reach groups in politics.

Around the world, people are disillusioned with their rulers. From South Africa to Brazil to South Korea, corruption scandals have helped fuel discontent with politicians. Young East Africans feel excluded from decision-making processes and blocked from having a say in how society is run. 61% of people in the Middle East are dissatisfied with how the political system works in their country.

Yet despite the global frustration with government, ordinary people persist in feeling they can make a difference and are still motivated to participate in politics. Seeking to understand how media affects participation, BBC Media Action surveyed over 23,000 people across seven African and Asian countries about their political activities, ranging from voting to protesting. We found that media, when rooted in a commitment to open and balanced discussion, can be an effective tool for engaging even hard-to-reach groups in politics.

Connecting media and the motivation to participate

BBC Media Action’s governance programmes use media and communication to foster political participation. They do this by providing access to information, stimulating discussion and enabling people to interact directly with decision-makers. For example, Open Jirga, our debate show in Afghanistan, has a live audience drawn from all parts of the country asking their leaders questions. The programme reached 3.2 million people in 2015.

In this new study, we looked specifically at the links between political discussion programmes – where a diverse audience is engaged in fair and balanced debate – and political participation. We also looked at the factors that drive this participation: political knowledge, discussion, and efficacy, the last of which can be defined as the feeling that – as an individual – a person can influence the political process. Our research revealed that people who watch and/or listen to our governance-focused programmes participate more than those who don’t, even when taking other influencing factors – such as age, income and interest in politics – into account.

Considering the variety of media formats, programme objectives and political contexts at play in this study, we imagined that our findings would differ significantly from country to country. They didn’t. Across all seven countries (Bangladesh, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, Myanmar, Sierra Leone and Tanzania), the results were strikingly similar. This suggests that our commitment to inclusion, impartiality and debate – through steps such as well-selected panels, live recruited audiences and highly skilled moderators – proves consistently compelling across very different political and media landscapes.

This is an important and significant result. But looking closer at political participation for particular sections of our audience provided more food for thought.

Media – a force for social inclusion?

Despite not reaching high numbers of younger and less educated people, we found that our discussion programmes resonate particularly well with these traditionally marginalised groups. The higher level of participation for these groups is, on average, greater than the levels seen for those more typically involved in politics, helping bridge the difference in political participation between them.

The results show that our programmes are associated with higher levels of participation for younger and less educated groups. Discussion and debate programmes could, therefore, potentially be a powerful tool for improving social inclusion by motivating those who normally stay out of politics to get involved.

Looking at gender, we saw something different. Women who watch/listen to our programmes are more likely to participate in politics than women who haven’t tuned in. However, this difference in participation is greater between men in our audiences and men who aren’t. Considering that men are already more likely to participate in politics, it appears that the media could be reinforcing gender imbalances.

Next steps

This research raises a number of interesting questions. How does media affect the responsiveness of governments to the demands of increasingly politically active citizens? How does media influence the social norms associated with political participation – such as the entrenched barriers faced by women and young people? How do these trends play out across different regions? Which types of programme are best at motivating which types of political participation? And what can we do to close that gender gap?

Our future research will address these questions, aiming to inform broader efforts to increase citizens’ participation in politics, a central goal of many development interventions. To achieve this goal, it will be crucial to understand how media can motivate everyone – men and women, rural and urban, rich and poor – to become more involved in political life.

Chris Snow is a Governance Research Manager at BBC Media Action.

This blog is based on our Media and political participation: fostering inclusive governance research report, which is the first in a series of outputs relating to political participation, more of which will be released in 2017.

Click here to access this BBC Media Action blog and related links on governance.

Image credit: BBC Media Action

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