Bonn, 26 April 2021 – The German Institute for Development Evaluation (DEval) has investigated media reporting on development policy and looked at how information affects public opinion regarding this topic. The findings show that development policy receives little attention in the media. At the same time, the study makes clear that media coverage of the impact of development policy measures can influence public opinion. Opinion particularly favours cooperation with very poor countries; on the other hand, the public have reservations about assisting countries where corruption and weak state structures are prevalent.
Development policy receives little media attention
Development policy can make a key contribution to overcoming global challenges, such as the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, hunger and poverty. Although there is broad public support for development policy, many citizens have doubts about its effectiveness. Since only very few people encounter development cooperation in their everyday lives, the public can rarely verify the impact of development policy measures for themselves. They instead rely on information from the media or political communication and education to form their opinions.
Until now, however, there has been very little research on which information about development policy is communicated to the German public in the media or on how media arguments for and against development cooperation affect public attitudes towards the topic. There has also been hardly any investigation of the impact of such information on the effectiveness of development cooperation, of the effectiveness of moral appeals and moral concerns or of public expectations of development cooperation. The authors of the study “Opinion Monitor for Development Policy 2021” addressed precisely these questions.
The researchers evaluated TV news broadcasts and print media from 2012 to 2020 as well as posts on the social media platform Twitter from 2019 and 2020. Their first conclusion was that items on development policy made up a share of less than 1 percent of the total items in the media examined. When the media reports on this topic, it is frequently in connection with flight and migration or war and conflicts. On Twitter, development policy is also frequently addressed in connection with climate change and pandemics (such as currently in the context of Covid-19).
Media reporting: critical arguments have a greater impact than positive ones
As well as the frequency of reporting, the authors of the study also investigated how arguments for and against development cooperation used in the media and public debate impact public attitudes towards the topic. The work shows that positive arguments – for example about the relevance of development cooperation – had barely any impact. Critical arguments on the other hand – such as references to corruption or development cooperation’s lack of effectiveness – cause public support to decline. Whether and how the arguments have an effect depends on the respondents’ existing attitudes. For example, critical arguments have little effect on general approval levels if the people in question are already in favour of development cooperation; however, for people who are already negatively disposed towards development cooperation, this negative view is strengthened.
Moral concerns and information on the effectiveness of development cooperation as factors influencing public opinion
A survey experiment was used to determine how targeted information on development cooperation projects influences opinions towards development cooperation. Specifically, the experiment examined the effect of information oninputs (“How much money was spent on a project?”), outputs (“Which measures were implemented?”) and outcomes (“What results did a development cooperation measure achieve?”). The results show that information on all three aspects leads people to take a more positive view towards projects and the effectiveness of development cooperation. However, information on the measures carried out (outputs) and the results (outcomes) have a stronger impact on views about a project than information on the deployed funding (inputs).
Emotionally charged moral appeals, such as those used by some non-governmental organisations to attract donations, also influence support for development cooperation. However, in addition to positive impacts, they can also lead to rejection. Aside from this, the findings show that support for development cooperation is greatly dependent on moral concerns. Those who believe in the importance of values such as fairness and care are also more likely to support development cooperation.
Public expectations: support for poor countries, reservations in the case of corruption and fragile state structures in the partner countries
In addition to reporting and formation of opinions about development policy, the DEval Opinion Monitor examined what the public expect from development policy. The findings show that the public are more likely to support cooperation with a partner country if there is a high level of poverty or if the state is unable to meet its population’s basic needs. Corruption in the partner country, a lack of state monopoly on the use of force or a population that does not recognise the government as legitimate also lead to lower support for development cooperation with this partner country.
Development cooperation with countries in which the majority of the population are Muslim receives less support from the public than cooperation with predominantly Christian countries. Here, too, it is clear that the public’s expectations of development cooperation depend on general attitudes towards the topic. For example, people who are generally interested in development policy have a less pronounced Muslim bias.
“Food security and agriculture” along with “peace and security” are the sectors that receive the most public support for development policy cooperation. “Promoting the economy” and “climate change”, on the other hand, are perceived as less worthy of support.
In its “Opinion Monitor for Development Policy” series, DEval regularly carries out analyses on the attitude of the German population towards development policy. The current study is based on quantitative content analyses of TV news broadcasts, print media and the short message service Twitter as well as population-representative survey experiments. These sources were supplemented with survey data from the Development Engagement Lab (DEL).