T. Besley & R. Burgess

Quarterly Journal of Economics (2002)

Principal Research Question and Key Result Does access to mass media, in particular to newspapers, increase the responsiveness of governments to the needs of the people? In other words does mass media mitigate political agency problems by providing information to voters? In the context of India, the authors find that newspaper circulation does indeed increase the amount of government responsiveness. A 1% increase in newspaper circulation is associated with a 2.4% increase in food distribution and a 5.5% increase in calamity spending.


Theory The general idea is that media enables vulnerable population to assess the actions of incumbents in order to inform their voting decisions.


Voters are of two types 1) vulnerable – meaning vulnerable to some shock (weather etc.), and 2) non-vulnerable. Of 1) there are a) needy – those for whom in the given time period a shock actually materializes, and b) non-needy – being the vulnerable who are not actually affected by a shock.


Incumbents are of three types 1)selfish – will never help the vulnerable 2)altruistic – will always help 3) opportunistic – will help if it increases chances of reelection. In order to help the incumbent has to exert an amount of effort  which is a cost to him.

The needy always observe how much effort has been applied, but the rest of the vulnerable population learns from the media. Effort is more likely to be learned about when the effort is greater, and the marginal impact of effort will be greater when there is more media.


Those who are needy in the first time period, and those who are vulnerable realize they may be affected by a shock in the next time period. Thus when they elect the official in the election that occurs between periods they want to maximize the chances of getting of getting a politician that will help them. (Formally, as there are only two periods in this set up, the opportunistic politician will not help in time 2, as he has no more reelection concerns, thus the voters want an altruistic politician. However they cannot observe the type directly). Thus they will always vote for the incumbent that helped them in time 1 as he is definitely not selfish and may turn out to be altruistic. By backward induction, this means that effort by an opportunistic incumbent is higher when:


  1. Voters have more media access
  2. There is higher turnout
  3. There is a larger vulnerable population
  4. The incumbent has a low advantage


Non-vulnerable citizens are thought to vote along ideological lines.


This can all be summarized thus: greater media activity raises the marginal value of effort because it is more likely that reports of the effort will find its way to voters. More turnout increases the effectiveness of effort by turning it into support at the ballot box, and the same is true when the vulnerable population is larger. Effort is greater when there is more competition

Motivation In the absence of well-functioning markets, the vulnerable sections of society are often reliant upon government action for protection. Of concern then is what institutions can be developed to ensure that the government does so protect its people. This question is particularly important given that poor people are less likely to be informed about politics, and also less likely to vote, so without good institutional design they could be totally excluded from benefitting from government, and also changing government.


Data Data are from Indian states that were responsible for administering public distribution of food and calamity relief. When the local governments were given this power there was also a huge increase in the number of newspapers that were being published, including a rise in local language publications. The press was relatively free and independent.

A panel from 1958-1992 is constructed that details public food distribution and calamity relief expenditure by state. The need for intervention is proxied by food grain productions and flood damage to crops variables. Newspaper circulation proxies for media penetration.


Strategy Fixed effects model.


git = αi + βt + γsit + δ(sit)(zit) + θ(zit) + εit


Where g is the outcome in state i  in time t. Alpha is state fixed, beta is time fixed effect. S captures the need for state intervention, and the effect of the need for intervention is captured by γ. This is effectively the “activist” component of government action i.e. how much the government is likely to respond to crisis. Z is a host of political variables that may affect government responsiveness including the media penetration variables.  Θ captures the effect these variables have on relief spending. The real coefficient of interest however is  δ as this captures the true “responsiveness” of government, in other words the differential response of governments to crisis in the presence of media (etc.). This will pick up whether responses are greater given more media, turnout, competition etc.


  • The effects of newspaper circulation are large and significant. A 1% increase in newspaper circulation is associated with a 2.4% increase in food distribution and a 5.5% increase in calamity spending.
  • Turnout in the last election, a measure of political competition, and dummies that indicate when elections are near at hand are included. Turnout does not seem to affect responsiveness. Competition is only significantly associated with food distribution not calamity relief, the same goes for being in an election year.
  • The coefficient on the interaction terms food production * newspaper circ is negative, indicating that for a given level of newspaper penetration, a fall in food production elicits are greater response in terms of food distribution. Similarly the interaction on flood damage * media penetration is positive, indicating that for a given level of newspaper circulation, more flood damage increases the amount of calamity relief offered.


  • They include a number of economic variables such as population density, income per capita etc. (as wealth etc. may increase media presence and relief spending), but none of the variables enter significantly. Thus it appears that economic factors have limited influence on government responsiveness.
  • The predict values of food grain production, by regressing the food grain production variable on state/year effects and the drought/flood variable, and used the predicted value (which essentially is the amount of grain that was affected by the weather shock) in the main specification. The results show that there is no relationship between the shock value of grain production and the outcomes, but there is a relationship between the shock value * media penetration interaction, which supports the interaction interpretation offered above.
  • The split out the papers by language and find that local language papers are much more important than English papers etc. (as they are more likely to report local news presumably – and vulnerable population is more likely to read in their local language).
  • There could be some OV problem that is not accounted for, so they instrument for media penetration using ownership on the basis that private ownership is more likely to be associated with bigger distribution as state owned media is more biased and thus there is less demand for their product.
  • They interact the other political variables with the proxies for need. And find that greater turnout is associated with greater responsiveness, as is political competition, although the effects for food distribution continue to be larger than for calamity relief.


  • The results may confirm the main hypothesis of the model (that increased media increases government responsiveness. However, other than this, results are quite mixed. In particular the other hypotheses of the model are not borne out for both food distribution and calamity relief. The authors claim that this is because food distribution is a more visible form of relief (and therefore easier to cash in on politically), but we might wonder whether this is sufficient.
  • It is not clear that newspapers should be the most important form of information dissemination. For example, if literacy is an issue in Indian states, then newspaper circulation may be informing a very specific subset of the population, and this may not be the vulnerable population. As the non-vulnerable population are said to vote on ideological grounds, then they cannot affect government responsiveness to crisis, and thus newspapers cannot be the driving force behind the observed responsiveness. Some measure of TV/radio penetration could have been included to see if/how the different forms of media substitute for each other. If TV/Radio are more likely to be in areas with high newspaper circulation (due to a high demand for information), then the newspaper variable could be picking up the effects of these other forms of media. The amount of these other media will be varying over time and by state so the fixed effects model cannot completely control for them.
  • The IV strategy is not great. The instruments are pretty weak (F = c. 5.5) and exogeneity is not well argued for i.e. greater private ownership of media sector could be associated with all sorts of political variables that might also affect relief spending. However, the estimates returned are much larger than the OLS estimates, which is a comfort, as the OLS estimates can then be thought of as lower bounds (perhaps due to attenuation bias from measurement error).


Implications Whilst democracy may be important for development, it is clear from this paper that simply amending the rules of the game will do little to change outcomes without a concurrent change in complimentary institutions. This paper shows that mass media and open political institutions can affect government activism and responsiveness. This confirms what Amartya Sen stated when he said that there have been no famines in India since the advent of democracy partly because newspapers make the fact known thus forcing issues to be faced by governments. The results indicate that civil society is thus a key component to a functioning democracy.



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