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Relevance and the audience

I love what I do.


The past two months have been intense – producing a significant training portfolio for IOM (the UN agency for migration). The portfolio includes an online (and offline) game, a journalist’s handbook, facilitator’s guide, 5 videos, an e-course and PowerPoint presentations – all in 2 languages (English and French). Yep, it's been crazy! This “toolkit” will be used across West and Central Africa to train journalists to report more effectively on migration.


While I’ve been going full throttle on the training side, today I found myself preparing for a number of conference presentations I have in the coming week.


On Tuesday I’ll be moderating a panel at #PeaceCon2020. As with just about everything the past nine months, the panel has a COVID-19 element and seeks to look at the important role of the media during the pandemic, particularly in conflict-affected settings.


As I’ve been preparing for this panel I’ve jotted down some notes. Things like:

  • Trust

  • Quality content

  • Audience (engagement and participation)

  • Local/hyperlocal

  • Culture of communities

  • Viability/sustainability

  • Relevance!


It’s been a bit of a stream of consciousness process which I’ll try to share here. Bear with me!


Let me start by borrowing from Cass Sunstein: Our shared conversations are disappearing and are replaced by content that is politically aligned, that is divisive, that creates suspicion and ultimately leads to democratic breakdown (sound familiar?). And if the public loses confidence and becomes apathetic then the media also lose relevance.


That relevance in journalism is about transparency, accountability, public service, a clearly identified audience, and impact should not be news to anyone in media development. What is challenging, however, is how these factors are connected to and influenced by today’s ever-changing media environment, and I would argue, especially by the audience. In a sense, perhaps the audience defines or decides relevance. Which would then also suggest the audience may play a significant role in defining or deciding viability of media, which makes sense, of course.


But, the media are no longer exclusive holders of power in the media eco-system. Today the audience wields substantial power thanks to technology and social media’s enormous influence. Knowing and understanding the audience as individuals and communities is a necessity for media business models so they can better produce content that is relevant, thereby helping to ensure the commercial survival and success of the media operations. I would argue that audience engagement and participation are critical here.


When we talk about communities, we need to consider that perhaps we should be thinking in terms of a “culture of communities”. The importance of looking at each individual, local context (or community) in terms of its political, social and cultural characteristics as well as its media context and how these all interface with one another.


Why is this important? Because the way in which communities access information is heavily conditioned by language, literacy, infrastructure and regulation, and is thus highly variable between contexts. This is further compounded by the changing nature of the media itself and how it is produced, used and accessed in each community.


This culture of communities – numerous, heterogenous, communities often spread across vast geographies like a spider web – needs information that is relevant to them! But that’s not what has been happening.


Which brings me back to COVID. I think most of us would agree that we’re more interested with what the pandemic is doing to us at the community level and much less so at a state, regional or national level. What is happening in my community? Where are the outbreaks and clusters? We need relevant information. Information that is relevant to the audience and, during a pandemic, that is likely to mean at a community level first.


Yet, we could also say that in conflict-prone or transitional environments (or COVID-affected societies, which is pretty much all of us), linking up different hyperlocal efforts of one country or one region with others can illustrate or reinforce shared experiences and dilute the otherness they may perceive. Such activities could potentially be extremely powerful as relevance goes beyond the individual or even the hyperlocal or local, illustrating the potential, and perhaps the reality, of common ground.


I’d love to hear what you think.


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Michelle Betz

International Media Development

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