Right to information and media agenda-setting

Since President Akufo-Addo signed the Right to Information bill into law, I have taken time to shed light on implications of the Act to the practice of journalism in Ghana. In the first part, titled ‘Right to Information Law and citizen empowerment’, I argued that the Right to Information or Freedom of Information empowers people for the enjoyment of all recognised rights and to claim other rights.

Most importantly, it makes public agencies accountable and transparent to citizens. Thus, the Right to Information has a crucial role to play in establishing open and democratic governance. In many jurisdictions, it plays an important role to expose a wide range of government misconduct and waste – along with threats to the public’s health and safety.

In the second part, titled ‘Right to Information Act and the Public Sphere’, I explained the theory of public sphere as conceived by German sociologist Jürgen Habermas. Habermas had argued the need for a public sphere (social space) for the “rational-critical debate about public issues”.

Habermas’ initial postulation was that the world is now facing a decline in ‘public’ and a disenfranchisement of the citizens, caused by an intensified shift toward privatised consumer-oriented cultures – in which information and entertainment have become commodities, sold to the highest bidder. Habermas’ worry was that the public domain within which we communicate was coming increasingly under the control of private commercial interests, leading to the ‘trivialisation’ of media content and exclusion of the mass media from setting the agenda for crucial cultural discussion.

Rethinking the media

Habermas’ thinking was that the media (both private and public) was contributing to shrinking the public space – though this position is now being criticised, amid calls for rethinking the role of the media. Some critics have argued that Habermas tended to overlook the mass media’s potential to contribute to the public debate by initiating discussions about matters of general concern.

I linked this to a World Bank survey from 2000, which tried to find out what people living in poverty said they needed most. The commonest response was that people’s priority was not money. It was that they needed a voice – a say in the decisions that affected them (World Bank, 2000).

I established the premise that a basic requirement of a democratic media system should therefore be that it represents all significant interests in society. The media are to facilitate participation of citizens in the public domain, and enable them to contribute in public debate so as to have an impact in framing public policy.  Other theories suggest that the media’s ability to affect cognitive change among individuals is one of the most important aspects of their power.

This brings in the theory of agenda-setting, which is defined as ‘the successful transfer of salience from the media agenda to the public agenda’. In this last part I will situate the Right to Information Act into the agenda-setting role of the media, and challenge the media to rise above the ‘trivilisation’ of news as Habermas feared.

This trivialisation of news was demonstrated in the last two weeks, when during the launch of the Ghana Journalist Association’s 70th anniversary, ex-President Kufour cautioned journalists and media to always abide by the ethics of journalism. The ex-President advised journalists to be professional in order not to give anybody cause to want to regulate their practice.

The following morning this simple advice was turned upside-down to imply that the ex-President was actually calling for regulating the media. This misreporting or misrepresentation once more raised the issue of the training the current crop of journalists – especially broadcasters who comment on virtually everything without a firm understanding of the issues. Over the years, there have been complaints by several stakeholders about the manner in which journalism has been reduced to name-calling, blackmailing, extortion and over-partisanship.

See Also:  Lining It Up

Fairness and objectivity

Arguably, the concepts of objectivity, fairness, truthfulness, credibility and the depth of analysis that underlies journalism are no more. How could journalists conjecture, let alone believe, that ex-President Kufour – under whose presidency aspects of the criminal libel laws that criminalised freedom of expression were repealed – could suddenly advocate that press freedom should be curtailed? This misreporting compelled the office of the ex-President and GJA to issue separate statements to clarify what he said.

During my active journalism practice, one cardinal principle I employed was to ask a source for clarification of a statement…just to be sure. Misrepresentation can damage the reputation of the source, as well as being an embarrassment to the journalist and their media organisation. I think this principle is still relevant. Journalists must use the new whiff of freedom to set relevant agendas, as well as keeping proper gates to ensure that what goes into print or on air is relevant, developmental and in the public interest.

The relationship between gate-keeping (opening and closing the channels to communication) and media agenda-setting buttresses the Hutchinson Commission’s recommendation that modern journalism should place emphasis on ‘people’, while negating the power and importance of media owners and operators, or commercial interests. But to what extent are journalists willing to shift from press freedom, to ‘press responsibility?  Journalists should minimise or downplay the agendas set by politicians and corporations.

Agenda-setting

Agenda-setting is defined as “the successful transfer of salience from the media agenda to the public agenda” (McCombs 2005). Harold Lasswell (1948), one of the pioneers of mass communication research, outlined three basic functions of the mass media: surveillance of the environment; fostering consensus in society; and transmission of the cultural heritage.  Thus, the traditional agenda-setting role of the mass media involves both the surveillance and consensus functions of communication, calling attention to the new and major issues of the day and influencing agreement about what the priorities of these issues are.

And recently, new scholarly entities are examining various cultural arenas of the mass media and their influence on society. Turning specifically to the practice of journalism, both as professionals and researchers, stakeholders need to continuously monitor how well the news media are performing these social functions (McCombs, 2005). Arguably, the most fundamental, overarching ethical question for journalists concerns their stewardship of the freedom given them to operate through the repeal of criminal libel laws and enacting the Freedom of Information Act.  Without doubt, setting the agenda is an awesome responsibility that cannot just be left only in the hands of journalists. That is why other studies have focused on the public agenda as equally important.

Other scholars have introduced another stage of agenda-setting theory with the question: ‘‘If the press sets the public agenda, who sets the media agenda?’’   Who sets the media agenda is therefore a vital question in agenda-setting studies argues McCombs (2014): he points to three key elements – major and powerful sources, other news organisations, and journalistic norms.

The power of the news media in setting the agenda for the public discourse manifests itself at two levels: The first level of agenda-setting is awareness of the importance of an issue that is created by the media when they cover it; while the second level refers to attributes that are ascribed to an issue based on how the media comment on said issue.

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The pattern of news coverage that defines the media agenda results from the norms and traditions of journalism, the daily interactions among news organisations themselves, and the continuous interactions of news organisations with numerous sources and their agendas.  Agenda-setting focuses on what audiences learn from the mass media, and this learning process is mediated by individual differences: foremost among them is the relevance of particular mass media messages, as well as the degree of interest in specific details (McCombs, 2005).

Issue-salience

The central focus in the accumulated research on agenda-setting to date has been operationally defined in a variety of ways for both the media agenda and the public agenda (McCombs, 2005). However, until recently little theoretical attention has been paid to conceptual models of issue-salience for either agenda. Spiro Kiousis’ (2004, in McCombs) theoretical explication of media salience identified three dimensions of this concept: attention, prominence, and salience. Following the general lead of content analysis in mass communication research, most agenda-setting studies have emphasied attention on the number of news stories devoted to a particular topic, and, secondly, the prominence of the news about an issue.

By presenting certain issues and excluding others, the media lead viewers to believe that some issues are more important than others. Thus, policymakers are influenced because they perceive media coverage of issues as an outgrowth of public opinion.  According to Entman (2007), a decision-making bias concerns the motivations and mindsets of journalists who produce biased content. This decision-making bias presents certain issues as more salient than others.

This type of bias could also be termed a conscious bias, because it concerns the motivation of a producer that is making decisions on what issues will be presented to the public. The second type of bias is distortion bias, a type of bias that distorts or falsifies reality (ibid). The third type of bias is content bias, and this may be the most widespread.  Entman (2007) notes that content bias “favors one side, rather than providing equivalent treatment to both sides in a political conflict”.  We need to reigniting debate on the use of the media for social and economic mobilization while we de-emphasise commercial – or what others have termed ‘soft’ – journalism. This is the practice wherein journalists and media organisations bow to the pressure of politicians and businesses, allowing monetary considerations to influence the agenda and keep the gate.

My vision, call it a dream, is how Ghana’s mass media system, especially TV and radio, can mobilise the population to build a national identity – promoting Ghanaian culture over foreign culture, enforcing state and corporate accountability, and giving a voice and protection to the vulnerable.

References

Entman, Robert (1993) ‘‘Framing: toward clarification of a fractured paradigm’’, Journal of Communication 43(4),

Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action: Reason and the rationalization of society. Boston, Beacon Press.

Habermas, J. (1987). The theory of communicative action: A critique of functionalist reason. Boston, Beacon Press.

 

Kiousis, Spiro (2004) ‘‘Explicating Media Salience: a factor analysis of New York Times issue coverage during the 2000 U.S. presidential election’’, Journal of Communication

McCombs, M. (1997). New frontiers in agenda setting: Agendas of attributes and frames. Mass Communication Review, 24(1&2), 32–52. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.

McCombs, M. (2005) Setting the Agenda. The Mass Media and Public Opinion (Second ed.), Cambridge: Polity Press.

World Bank (2000) Policy Research Paper 2196. Washington DC: World Bank.

(***The writer is a Development and Communications Management Specialist and a Social Justice Advocate.  All views expressed in this article are my personal views and do not represent those of any organisation(s). (Email: safoamos@gmail.com)

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