The Nigerian Media And Agenda Setting
By John Momoh, OON
Agenda setting describes a very powerful influence of the media the ability to tell us what issues are important by creating public awareness and concern on salient issues through the news media. Here, John Momoh attempts an application of this theory to the pre-election media influence on the Nigerian audience. The deduction from this theoretical application mirrors a need to press from setting agenda through regular news to using investigative journalism to set agenda for development in the nation.
Theoretically, the Agenda Setting Theory (AST) of the media as put forward by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw (1972) during their very influential research on the role of the media in the 1968 U.S. Presidential elections observes that:
In choosing and displaying news, editors, newsroom staff, and broadcasters play an important part in shaping political reality. Readers learn not only about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position […] the mass media may well determine the important issues that is, the media may set the “agenda” of the campaign.
Overtime, the Agenda Setting Theory research has demonstrated that the more stories the news media publish on a particular subject, the more importance audiences attach to that subject. In relation to AST, Stanley Baran holds that the “media may not tell us what to think, but media certainly tell us what to think about” (2002). He further argues that the agenda setting power of the media resides in more than the amount of space or time devoted to a story and its placement in the broadcast or on the page. Since about 43 years since the publication of the original agenda-setting article by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw, the domain or focus of agenda-setting research has moved beyond politics and public affairs to the world of business, sports, the economy, education, health and entertainment; and the methods used in such studies have gone far beyond the simple rank-order correlations, between media and public agenda.
The theory's central claim as stated earlier is that the media focus the public's attention and influence the public's perceptions of what are the important issues of the day. Whether you agree or disagree with this claim depends on what school of thought you belong to. After all, the original McCombs and Shaw agenda setting study focused on four local sources The New York Times, Time Magazine Newsreel, NBC and CBS. So you can understand why critics of the theory are quick to emphasize that in a digital world such as we now find ourselves, the fundamentals have changed and the theory may not remain viable. Such critics argue that people now get their news from a finite number of news outlets, run by professional gatekeepers, with shared news values. As the numbers of news outlets increase the advance for them shrink. Therefore, the assumption of a unified media agenda has become problematic. In other words, as audiences gain more control over what news services they will use, such audiences will likely seek services that support their points of view.
How does the media set agenda?
But let's put aside the academics and focus on the Nigerian Media and how they set or do not set the agenda for the public. Nigeria's media landscape is perhaps, the most vibrant in Africa. The nation has about 320 broadcast stations made up of 170 television stations and 150 Radio stations, each of them with about 80% population coverage. There are also cable and direct-to-home satellite offerings, the print media which has 150 national and local press titles, and the internet, a growing list. So far, the internet and the World Wide Web cannot set an agenda, primarily because the audience remains small, and many online publications depend on major brand names as the primary sources of information.
Therefore, the broadcast outlets and newspapers that operate the Web sites still maintain control of the setting of the journalistic agendas and the public debate. Even at that, online journalism stands to dramatically alter the traditional role of the reporter and editor.
Be that as it may, “unlike the twentieth-century media environment, in which media largely was limited to traditional media entities, 21st Century Media options are endless, captured by the economic metaphor of the long tail. The Long Tail is a phrase coined by Chris Anderson, in 2004 in which he argued that products that are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current bestsellers and blockbusters, but only if the store or distribution channel is large enough. Citizens can now opt to be creators and or distributors. They now curate the web in large numbers for interesting content sharing links and other newsworthy information out in the confines of newsroom home pages and within the digital world such as blogs, twitter and social networking sites (Meraz, 2012). Consequently, traditional media is no longer capable of leveraging complete media agenda setting influence which in effect means that Agenda setting power is also influenced by external forces who constantly seek to put their own agenda in the front burner, now shared between citizen media and traditional media.
The Elections and Agenda Setting
For Nigerians who painstakingly watched the setting and the general atmosphere at INEC'S press conference in Abuja, on February the 7th, the methods, intricacies and critical tools of news reporting could not have gone unnoticed. Individuals with certain skills and an array of equipment crowded up the whole space all day-long for a singular purpose: to receive or extract the final word from the leadership of the electoral body and to disseminate the information to the wider public.
When the press conference finally got underway, observers must have had further insights into processes leading to the final product, that is, the news (whether in print or broadcast, social media or Internet). In the question and answer session when the INEC Chairman had to explain some knotty issues, it was evident that journalists carry out pre-event investigations and research and are able to elicit information or commitments that could bring some issues to closure.