Key message 3 – Official information disseminated via media may be especially effective in supporting accountability processes

It is possible that some information campaigns are too small in scale to make much difference during busy electoral campaigns. A better policy might be to focus on the media environment itself. There is evidence that robust media markets can support electoral accountability and facilitate voter sanctioning, especially with respect to malfeasant politicians.

Media revelations of mayoral malfeasance (Ferraz and Finan 2008) and of corruption by Members of Parliament (MPs) (Chang, Golden, and Hill 2010) appear to have reduced the likelihood of incumbent re-election in Brazil and Italy, respectively.

Ferraz and Finan (2008) use the fact that some mayors have audits released before elections, while others have them released after elections. This information was disseminated through media (in this case radio) and had the largest effects where media presence was largest. While striking, it is worth noting that in this case the researchers did not have control over media presence. Therefore, it is possible that the media just happens to be stronger in areas where voters are more sensitive to information.

Other work suggests that as the responsibilities of decentralised governments increase over time, so does the importance of local media for holding local leaders to account (Larreguy, Marshall, and Snyder 2018). Reinikka and Svensson (2005) report, for example, that in Uganda, the share of central government transfers embezzled by local government officials dropped dramatically once local newspapers began publicising the timing and amount of central government transfers to public schools.

Local media coverage has been shown to increase political knowledge and voter turnout in the USA (Snyder and Strömberg 2010, Gentzkow, Shapiro, and Sinkinson 2011) and in Sierra Leone (Casey 2015), where it further facilitates voting across ethnic lines – important ingredients for voters’ ability to hold leaders to account.

However, media can itself be manipulated by politicians in ways that can undo these effects. Boas and Hidalgo (2011), for instance, show that in Brazil, when municipal incumbents exert control over radio stations through licensing, their vote share and winning probability increase significantly. At the cross-country level, there exists a positive and significant correlation between state ownership and incumbent survival rates (Besley and Prat 2006) and a negative correlation between press freedom and corruption (Brunetti and Weder 2003).

The evidence for gains from strong media environments is promising. However, so far, very little of this work benefits from experimental control of media conditions. Even so, research is moving in this direction – Aker et al.(2017) find that randomly distributed newspapers in Mozambique increased turnout and demands made of politicians (although it also increased the incumbents’ vote share). Enríquez et al.(2019) show that social media (Facebook) dissemination at high levels of saturation may also be effective. A next step would be to assess whether there are changes in the types of politicians elected, and the reasons for why media is more effective than other delivery methods, even when disseminating the exact same information.