Out of several national organisations and institutions (both public and private) the media stand out as finding it difficult to clearly define what their corporate social responsibility is; beyond playing the often-trumpeted watchdog role as the Fourth Estate of the Realm.
The need for media organisations to clearly define their corporate social responsivity stems from the recent cases of some journalists indulging in acts that brought them into conflict with state authorities. The clear examples are the Modern Ghana journalists who were arrested by state security for what was initially described as defamatory publication against the Minister of National Security, Mr. Albert Kan Dapaah, and later charged for cybercrime.
The other is the Manasseh Azure and Joy News’ broadcast on the nurturing of a vigilante group at the Osu Castle. The Minister of Information, Mr. Kojo Oppong Nkrumah, acting on behalf of government reported Manasseh and Joy News to the National Media Commission (NMC). After weeks of deliberation, the NMC ruled that the Manasseh documentary breached journalistic ethics, as it led to public deception.
These incidents, and some cases of the police beating up journalists recently, culminated in the Multi Media Group launching a ‘campaign for a free media’ – which is still running. I have heard the justifications and commentary on the notion that the media are under siege in Ghana, leading to the shrinking of free speech and freedom of expression.
Dr. Wereko Brobbey has been cited as categorically stating that media freedom is undergoing its worst restraints under the Presidency of Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo. I think his stance is not true. In fact, it smacks of hypocrisy for anyone to describe press freedom under the current government as the worst-ever. I had my active journalism under the era of Jerry Rawlings’ P(NDC), and the Kufour administrations. Comparatively, press freedom was at its lowest under the Rawlings’ eras.
The government at that time was so anti-private media that, at a point, the BNI had profiled many of us and even knew journalists’ homes. Those were the days when government had resorted to using the judiciary to silence critical journalists and to stifle growth of the media. The series of trials and sentencing of Haruna Atta, Kwaku Baako, Baby Ansaba, aside from the unending number of trials of other journalists almost completely muzzled the private media.
In 1997, some journalists and press freedom advocates organised a demonstration at the Supreme Court, where we presented a petition to Chief Justice to express our dissatisfaction with what we conceived was a plot between the executive and the judiciary to impose another era in the culture of silence.
That said, let’s give credit where credit is due. The Kufour and Akufo-Addo administrations have done more to promote press freedom, freedom of expression and media development than any government under the Fourth Republic. Repealing aspects of the Criminal Code that criminalised free speech and the recent enactment of the Right to Information Act are landmark cases in promoting an open society unsurpassed by any previous administration.
Campaign for free media
Much as I support the ongoing campaign to promote media freedom, I am more on the side of media responsibility than just media freedom. Many people tend to confuse media freedom with media power. The brazenness with which the current crop of journalists and their media organisations operate is more of media power than media freedom. The impression I am getting from some journalists and media corporations is that the media should be given power without responsibility. The demand for unfettered press freedom is unattainable even in the most advanced democracies.
Everywhere in the world there are checks and balances, and these checks and balances are enshrined in our Constitution, the Criminal Code and the Ghana Journalist Association’s Code of Ethics. At best, a complementarity of freedom and responsibility will better serve the interests of Ghana and the journalism trade. It is a misconception for anyone to think that the demand for media responsibility is tantamount to a government coercing the media to toe its line. In this era of media plurality, that is not possible.
Media responsibility is a constitutional and ethical journalistic mandate as the Fourth Estate of the Realm. More than anything, the media (both public and private) have been assigned the role of change and development agents; and journalists should discharge their duties in tandem with this expectation. All over the world, media are increasingly identifying worthy causes and promoting them for social good. As a journalist and communicator, I am always proud when people commend the media for promoting human rights and social justice. That is a social responsibility to keep.
Single purpose media
Between 2004-2009 when I was writing a column titled ‘media studies’ in the Public Agenda, I coined the term ‘single purpose media; to raise the stakes on the threat of individuals or companies setting up newspapers – and now radio and TV – for the sole purpose of promoting a political agenda, or to pull down their political or business competitors. Between 1992 and 2005, private newspapers dominated the category of single purpose media; now radio, TV and digital media have taken over this role.
These single purpose media, now as in the past, defy all the norms and ethics of journalism, for the attainment of defined personal or corporate goals or a sectional agenda. Owners of newspapers (now radio, TV and digital media) since time immemorial have aspired to wield ‘power without responsibility’, using their media networks not in the ‘ordinary acceptance of the term’ but as ‘engines of propaganda for their constantly changing policies, desires, personal wishes, personal likes and dislikes’; enjoying ‘secret knowledge without general view’ and distorting the fortunes of national leaders ‘without being willing to bear their burdens’. This is a trend that we must guard against.
Media and CSR
As stated earlier, media corporations are an example of a sector that cannot define its responsibility without particular attention to its unique character (Media CSR Forum 2008). As media are facing a time of radical change due to a variety of challenges linked to digitalisation, the Internet and globalisation, the question of the media’s role and responsibility in society has become a worldwide topic of increasing attention). However, only a small number of media corporations, on the global level, have been able to tackle the problem of CR for the media industry in a credible manner.
Although the development of a media CR agenda is in many respects at an early stage, some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have started considering what the corporate responsibility of media corporations consists of. Perhaps the most far-reaching attempt has been made by the British Media CSR Forum, which is “a group of media organisations developing CSR and sustainability practices and understanding for the UK media sector” (Media CSR Forum 2008).
As a result, all major British media corporations are involved in the Media CSR Forum, which has published an annual stakeholder analysis-based paper on the sector’s key CR issues. Stakeholders of the British media sector were asked to choose – from a list of CR issues – the issues that they found most important for the media sector, including:
- Freedom of expression
- Issues with special implications for the media sector
- Information integrity
- Promotion of sustainable development
- Good citizenship
- General social issues
- Corporate governance
- Climate change
Also, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has contributed to the media and social responsibility debate through its report ‘Media, Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainable Development (SD)’, which focuses on “the role of the media in building CSR and SD agendas for business” (UNEP 2002, II). The focus is on analysing how journalism may affect sustainability practices, and how the media of different geographical areas have taken on the sustainability challenge in their content.
Apart from the responsibility to promote sustainable development in their content, the media’s corporate responsibility (CR) is defined in terms of accountability. Although the UNEP report does not comment on how a media CR agenda could or should be formed, it identifies some key actors which hold the media accountable as opposed to the media holding other actors in society accountable for CR-related issues.
Peer-pressure (other media companies), legislation, NGOs, shareholders and advertisers, all contribute to CR gaining more attention on the part of media companies. In addition to UNEP and Media CSR forum, the question of media CR is gaining more attention among other international CR-related organisations. Global Reporting Initiative (GRI), a network-based organisation that has developed the world’s most widely-used CR and sustainability reporting framework, has formed a media stakeholder forum that will define specific media sector guidelines for CR reporting.
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’? To do that, journalists should minimise or downplay the agendas set by politicians and corporations. This is critical for journalism to regain its respect in Ghana
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 arenas 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 Ghanaian journalists concerns their stewardship of the freedom given them to operate through repeal of the criminal libel laws and the enacting to the Freedom of Information Act. No doubt, setting the agenda is an awesome responsibility which cannot just be left to journalists alone. That is why other studies have focused on the public agenda as equally important.
Arguably, the concepts of objectivity, fairness, truthfulness, credibility and the depth of analysis that underlies journalism are no longer huge responsibilities which society demands from journalists.
McCombs, M. (2005) Setting the Agenda. The Mass Media and Public Opinion (Second ed.), Cambridge: Polity Press.
Poukka, R. (2010) Study on the Corporate Responsibility Perceptions of Alma Media’s Stakeholders
(***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: firstname.lastname@example.org