Tara Susman-Peña
Publication Date


"People need to generate, access, engage with, and disseminate high-quality news and information in order to make informed decisions, hold those in power accountable, and take actions that will improve their lives. This paper describes IREX's new approach to building vibrant information systems."

IREX is a nonprofit organisation that works to empower youth, cultivate leaders, strengthen institutions, and extend access to quality education and information. IREX's approach to building vibrant information systems, which is laid out in this paper, is informed by the organisation's past and present information and media work, with a focus on current and future challenges, trends, and needs. Rooted in IREX's broad experience in people-centred development, the approach pays special attention to the opportunities and abilities of traditional media, digital media, non-media institutions, and individuals to create, protect, or maintain vibrant information - from generation to dissemination to engagement to action.

IREX's vision is that all people have the opportunities and abilities to build the vibrant information systems that are vital to a more just, prosperous, and inclusive world. Three challenges stand in the way of this vision, according to IREX:

  1. Political and economic issues - e.g., shrinking civic spaces (governments are clamping down on political activism, freedom of expression and access to information), persisting poverty and inequality, which are compounded by a dearth of useful, timely, independent information, and the "increasingly fragmented, overloaded, and unreliable state of journalism and media literacy in the United States".
  2. Digital transformation - e.g., rapid technological changes that have upended traditional business models for news media, fundamental changes in the traditional media sector (lines are blurring between media and audiences, digital and broadcast media, and media and other sectors), and demand for new skills and resources as journalism evolves.
  3. Insufficient data, research, and analysis about how best to support vibrant information - e.g., "There is a lack of evidence as to why and how information and media have impact, and insufficient knowledge of what works in media development. Often we fail to put what we do know into practice."

For reasons such as these, the world of information and media today is radically different from two decades ago, when IREX first developed its holistic approach to media sector development in partnership with the US Agency for International Development (USAID). The historical approach builds on four pillars of media development: professional journalism, sound business management of media outlets, a supportive legal enabling environment, and strong supporting institutions. These pillars, in addition to the category of media plurality, formed the basis of IREX's annual Media Sustainability Index (MSI). The holistic media sector approach continued to inform IREX’s work even as the internet and digital technologies offered new platforms and increasingly wider access for people to create and share media, in addition to consuming it. However, as noted here, this approach needs to be refreshed in light of the challenges described above.

IREX holds that a vibrant information system in the digital age includes four components:

  • Content that matters - Individuals and institutions - people, journalists, media outlets, civil society organisations (CSOs), businesses, and universities - have the political freedom and necessary skills to create relevant, reliable, fact-based content. People need to possess the skill to uncover and tell critical stories with data. Information actors, and journalistic media in particular, should be accountable for the information they disseminate.
  • Multiple channels - Information flows are unrestricted and unhindered, and content is widely distributed through a diverse array of independent platforms that all individuals can access and know how to use. People should have access to the information they need and want.
  • Dynamic engagement - Those who read, listen to, and watch news and information have the critical thinking skills to discern facts from lies, propaganda, and fake news. People must be safe - digitally, physically, and psychologically - as they process the content, interact with it, discuss it, debate it, and share it with others.
  • Transformative action - Individuals and communities have the right and ability to act freely upon the information they consume. They must be able to demand better services and challenge anti-democratic power structures that impede information generation, production, dissemination, access, consumption, or engagement.

The approach to vibrant information is grounded in a process of four core practices: (i) listening to and trying to understand citizens and communities, in particular women and marginalised groups; (ii) adaptive learning, which involves a mindset of constant reflection, questioning, seeking, and analysis; (iii) knowledge gathering and sharing; and (iv) employing gender analysis, including IREX's Gender Assessment Tool, which ensures that the organisation applies and improves upon best practices for equal inclusion of women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people as information and media producers and consumers, and their Media Content Analysis Tool, which helps track, assess, and improve upon gender representation within media content. These practices strengthen IREX's approach to building vibrant information through increasing opportunities and improving abilities. Increasing opportunities involves:

  • Assessing and leveraging power dynamics among different groups and individuals - gaining an understanding of the prevailing political and economic institutions and powers that affect information, the social and cultural norms, the resource constraints, and incentives. This is designed to allow IREX to surface hidden opportunities to support new champions, diffuse spoilers, and engage stakeholders with the greatest potential to advance open and vibrant information.
  • Prioritising strong human relationships among information actors and stakeholders, whether journalists, bloggers, civil society, or businesspeople. Strong relationships need trusted spaces in which people can connect and nurture relationships and shared bodies of knowledge. For example, IREX is committed to providing media and CSOs with risk analysis, management, and mitigation so they can create safe spaces for their employees, even in difficult circumstances. They also forge and leverage networks that form the backbone of civil society and social movements.
  • Analysing how information shapes people: "IREX will always try to understand the whole information system in addition to the connections among its different parts....Access to information is the critical first step in any aspect of building vibrant information. Access is a multi-faceted concept, which includes infrastructure (e.g. What platforms are available? Is there electricity?), economics (e.g. How much does information cost? What is done from the profits of its sale?), legal structures (e.g. What is allowed? What is the consequence of breaking the law?), social aspects (e.g. Is it in a language people understand? Are there cultural norms that prevent some groups from seeking or obtaining information?), just to name a few examples. Access to information is foundational to a central principle of media development: that people need information to help them make decisions that will improve their lives and their communities. Access does not equal development, however, and the relationship between information, decisions, and results is quite complex. Access is critical, but access to information alone won't lead to positive social change."

Improving abilities involves:

  • Strengthening individual, organisational, and institutional performance - training, mentoring, and supporting journalists, bloggers, and other information actors to become effective storytellers and to safely engage in information and data exchange. IREX is supporting community-based organisations and newsrooms - including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), public service organisations, and private outlets - to develop: journalistic, business, and organisational skills; digital tools; and offline mechanisms to use data for more effective participation and better decision-making about issues such as elections, health care, economic growth, and gender equality.
  • Growing interpretation skills - training and mentoring community-based teachers, carrying out community activities, and producing community messages that educate people to critically absorb news and information so they can discern the difference between facts and propaganda. This entails building community demand for credible, useful information.
  • Teaching service leadership - empowering empathetic leaders who steward media organisations through economic and political disruption, who challenge and change power dynamics that impede the flow of quality information, and who teach the next generation values and skills to ensure that vibrant information systems endure.
  • Catalysing youth for positive action - working with youth inside and outside school to increase their ability to generate, disseminate, engage with, and act on information. IREX takes a positive youth development (PYD) approach to working with youth and information - co-creating with youth to increase opportunities for learning, development, leadership, positive relationships, and community engagement.

Sidebars throughout the text provide examples of how this work has looked in practice. For instance, after Liberia's civil war, new media outlets and CSOs "mushroomed into a new space for entrepreneurial and activist efforts. While many successful organizations grew out of this period, the majority were not professional, cooperative, or interconnected, and a gulf of mistrust grew up between media and civil society. Through numerous planning meetings, events, and conferences, IREX brought community radio (CR) - which lives at the intersection of media and civil society - together with CSOs. CSOs helped build CR capacity. CRs began to cover the CSOs' issues. CRs and CSOs began to see each other as critical to their own survival. Through sustained effort, we helped to build mutual understanding and the sense of a shared mission: serving their communities."

"To help reorient our design approach, IREX will pursue new research into future trends, ideas, and forecasts about the future of journalism, information, and media, as well as the skills and tools needed to meet this ever-changing future."


IREX website, May 16 2017. Image credit: IREX