Knocking Heads

(This piece was first published in my Facebook Notes on December 19, 2011. Worryingly it still remains relevant)

I don’t know how many of you are as worried about what I am about to write here as I am. I worry because I still feel I am a journalist and I feel of the several important powers that we have in our hands, we just may be abusing some key ones. Again, I am a Ghanaian who has nowhere else to go. Besides, I do love this country in spite of all the myriad of nonsense it comes with.

There is a very important theory in Communications called Agenda-Setting Theory. If you have gone through communications or journalism school before then you will know it. I will try and break it down to those of you who have not. It is largely attributed to an American author and political commentator called Walter Lipmann. It basically suggests that the mass media influences what becomes news and how prominent that news becomes. So in other words, our media sets the agenda for all of us and we just run around discussing what the media discusses. If you want to have a feel of this, join any trotro in the morning with the bus radio tuned to some station talking politics. Firstly, that is all the passengers will discuss, and secondly, you will then see the political coloration of the passengers. So you see, the media is very powerful indeed, and they can use their powers in ways that can make or break this country. I don’t need to tell you how radio influenced the Second World War and the carnage in Rwanda.

I will in the course of this piece be quoting extensively from Maxwell McCombs, a communications expert from the University of Texas from his work on “The Agenda-Setting role of the mass media in the shaping of public opinion”. According to McCombs, “the power of the news media to set a nation’s agenda, to focus public attention on a few key public issues, is an immense and well-documented influence. Not only do people acquire factual information about public affairs from the news media, readers and viewers also learn how much importance to attach to a topic on the basis of the emphasis placed on it in the news”. Even though we are currently seeing a lot of what Samuel Attah Mensah, General Manager of CITI FM and a veteran in the Ghanaian broadcasting scene describes as Azonto Journalism, we cannot deny the fact that a lot of people still consider the media as an authority on what is factual; ‘ye ka no wo FM no so no, wanti’, to wit, ‘did you not hear them say it on the radio?’.

McCombs goes on to say that “newspapers provide a host of cues about the salience of the topics in the daily news – lead story on page one, other front page display, large headlines, etc. Television news also offers numerous cues about salience – the opening story on the newscast, length of time devoted to the story, etc. These cues repeated day after day effectively communicate the importance of each topic. In other words, the news media can set the agenda for the public’s attention to that small group of issues around which public opinion forms”. In fact, there are several radio stations whose morning show is absolutely based on newspaper headlines. So what happens is that the newspaper sets an agenda which is further fanned and expanded by the radio stations.

What some people do not realize is that there are so many occasions when news media are at their wits end as to what to publish or broadcast, and this is not because there is so much news to choose from, but rather because they don’t seem to find what is ‘the news’ to publish. This leads some news media into making phone calls and seeking to get some news makers to say a thing or two they can use. Again, they will pounce on the least information which has the semblance of news and then ‘blow it up’ in our faces. I will share some notable examples with you.

The Dagbon crisis has been played out in the media for years now and it remains one of the ‘juiciest’ news for our media. What worries me is the constant “Mr. Andani, please hold on a minute we have Mr. Abudu also on the line to respond to this latest development”. Yes it is okay to get the view of the factions but when the media squares factions like that it does nothing but to deepen the animosity and just fan the flames. I am not sure ever hearing Mr. Andani and Mr. Abudu agreeing on any ‘latest development’. I may be wrong but the on-air 6 minute interview does not sound to me like the solution to the Dagbon crisis. What I expect some people to know is that there are so many occasions where the media’s interest in ‘them’ is when they get their sound bites for their stories. Period. But again, some of these newsmakers also see it as an opportunity to excite their followers for whatever end I do not want to think of.

Another example: The Asantehene did not shake the hands of a blind graduate at the KNUST graduation a few weeks ago, some media outlets took it upon themselves to help the association the graduate belonged to, to change things. That in itself was a good attempt even though everyone else should have realized that it is a tradition the Asantehene cannot on his own just get up one fine morning and change. But in telling this story some media painted the picture as though the blind graduate was emotionally crushed because he could not shake hands with the Asantehene. Meanwhile in a voice clip he is clearly heard saying he has studied history and so knew he would not be allowed to greet the Asantehene. He was thus not surprised yet the impression that news outlet sought to portray was that he was devastated. Now how is that?

McCombs quotes Walter Lippmann in his 1922 classic, Public Opinion, which began with a chapter titled “The World Outside and the Pictures in Our Heads.” As he noted, the news media are a primary source of those pictures in our heads about the larger world of public affairs, a world that for most citizens is “out of reach, out of sight, out of mind.” What we know about the world is largely based on what the media decide to tell us. More specifically, the result of this mediated view of the world is that the priorities of the media strongly influence the priorities of the public. Elements prominent on the media agenda become prominent in the public mind.

Folks, what I am worried about is that in the media’s attempt to obtain news at all cost end up knocking heads and thus creating a potentially fertile ground for conflict. As McCombs notes, “the agenda of a news organization is found in its pattern of coverage on public issues over some period of time, a week, a month, an entire year. Over this period of time, whatever it might be, a few issues are emphasized, some receive light coverage, and many are seldom or never mentioned”. It is almost an undeniable fact that in Ghana political news sells more than anything else. You doubt it? Tune in to radio in the morning and you will have more than 90% of stories being discussed being political. So pervasive is the love for political issues on the airwaves that talk show panelists will always find a way of linking even the most distant topic to something political, for example, we were all in this country when someone said the rumours about a certain earthquake expected in Ghana more than a year ago was planted by apolitical party to take the shine out of another party’s successful congress.

Admittedly the media sometimes attempts to get expert views on issues under discussion, but I do not need scientific research to prove that more often than not there is a pull towards factions and the direction of questions seems more at inflaming whatever tensions there may be rather than quelling them.

The media’s role especially that of the transient radio, is no doubt crucial. The questions we all should ask ourselves include;

1. Is the media being responsible enough?

2. Are we as the populace falling prey too easily to the agenda that are set for us?

3. Do we allow the quest of filling pages and making up of air-time expose our behinds to the tensions and conflicts that the media can and in fact do bring?

4. Should our newsmakers not be a bit more circumspect in what they say?

You will be amazed at how our people respect and worship people they hear on radio. As far as they are concerned as far as Kofi Mensah has said it on the radio then it is the gospel truth. Full stop. End of discussion. So imagine if Kofi Mensah is not correct! Perhaps without stretching the argument too far, may be the broadcasting law may just come in handy at this point.

My piece of mind and I sure hope I made some sense.

I love Ghana.

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