Could the effects of mass media be more powerful on audiences of the developing world than that of the developed one? Could media message reception processes be different among audiences in the developing world compared to that of the developed ones? I remember a much livelier but speculative discussion I had with a colleague of mine on these issues some two years ago. In this short article, I wish to bring these issues to a wider audience by attempting to forward a couple of points suggesting the likelihood of media effects to be stronger on audiences of the developing world involving somewhat different patterns of message reception processes. Building on that, I also wish to draw attention to the need to harness the power of mass media for prosocial purposes and the need to be cognisant of the nature of message reception processes in the contexts of the developing world.

Let me first address the issue of media effects in the contexts of developing and developed worlds. Obviously, the media situation of developing countries is not the same as the one in the developed world. When seen in the light of ‘singularity vs. plurality’ (though such terms are often used for media situations referring to politics/democracy, and are rarely used relating to media effects) of the media situation, most countries feature very few (one, two or three) dominant, often government controlled, media (radio, TV or newspaper). So, the question is exposed to such ‘single’ media, as opposed to ‘plural’ media, what will happen to the beliefs, attitudes, behaviours, etc. of the audience? Is effect likely to be stronger or weaker? Research, though not referring to the Third World situation per se, indicates that effect is likely to be higher where there is lack of alternatives (a monopoly situation). That is, in situations where audiences do not have alternatives, it is likely that they will stick, willingly or unwillingly, to the media available to them, and unable to cross-check the information provided on that media with that of others, they are likely to accept and/or be influenced by the contents. Second, perhaps related to type of ownership and other issues, the degree of authoritativeness the media enjoy on audiences of developing countries appears to be eminent. Whatever comes out of the media (be it radio or TV) has always the potential to be taken for granted. It is often common to hear people in such situations trying to justify what they talk mentioning the media as their source.

Media message reception processes are also likely to be a bit different in the contexts of developing countries. For instance, it has often been shown that developing countries have diverse cultures and rituals which may call for a different pattern of processing and consuming media messages. More specifically, the collective culture that prevails in most of such countries is likely to involve an indirect, multi-level flow of media messages, as people often gather for certain social rituals (coffee ceremony in Ethiopia for instance) and discuss what they have heard or watched recently on the radio or television. Similarly, the kind of social structure that most developing countries possess lends its hand for what media scholars call personal influence. The social structure, and partly the culture, of most developing nations requires youngsters and women not only to respect but also to accept and obey whatever comes from elderly people (mostly men). This power imbalance can potentially affect the impacts of media messages when it comes to interpreting and putting what has been learnt into practice. Thus, these factors along with others are likely to regulate how mass media messages are received and the effects they might have on the targeted audience, calling for a different way of understanding mass media messages and their professed effects in the contexts of developing countries.

Two important implications emerge from the above discussion: the need to harness the power of mass media for prosocial purposes and the need to integrate mass media with interpersonal communication activities in the developing world. Let me briefly explain the first implication. Several theoretical and empirical studies have accentuated the role mass media can play in informing and educating the ‘mass’ audience. My purpose here is not merely to reiterate this assertion. It is true that mass media are powerful, but the point I would like to make here is that they could be even more powerful in the contexts of the developing world. Their power does not, however, seem to be fully harnessed in most of such contexts for prosocial purposes (in dealing with such problems as HIV, early marriage, population, gender, etc). Governments in such contexts control and use the mass media for political goals. A content analysis of a given medium’s daily coverage can show us the extent to which mass media are being used for prosocial purposes in a given developing country. I also really doubt whether NGOs working on development-related projects in developing countries have fully realised the relatively stronger effects of the mass media in such contexts, even though my personal observation and experience witness that NGOs do much better prosocial jobs with the media than do governments. Much more needs to be done with regard to the second implication. The “individual” audience in his/her personal room with his/her personal media (which often allow interactivity with the source, as in the case with Twitter or Facebook intermingled with the mainstream media) should not be assumed in producing and disseminating messages to audiences in the developing world. I would say this consideration is a missing element in most media program production and dissemination processes in the developing world. The principles we follow and the techniques we use are Western in their very nature and do not take into account the unique nature of message reception processes employed on the part of the audiences. Even though there are encouraging beginnings to combine mass media with interpersonal communication activities here and there, the full potential of such a practice does not seem to be well taken advantage of.

To conclude, let me first admit that my points in this short article are too general and grossly address the media situations and message reception processes in the developing world without any attempt to account for any potential differences among the so-called developing countries. While the points have the potential to refer to the media situations in most countries, a more specific and refined argument can be forwarded based on specific data and/or experience in specific countries. However, I believe that the points would still help to draw attention to the relatively stronger effects of the mass media and the somewhat different patterns of media message reception processes in the contexts of the developing world, and might also be worthy of consideration by policy makers and media practitioners alike.