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AGENDA SETTING AND MEDIA

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Let me start by making two quick
points about journalists covering
the ongoing National Conference in
Abuja and their work. One, I think
journalists covering the conference should
consider themselves privileged to be chosen
by their media organizations to cover
the confab. I use the word ‘privileged’ with
great emphasis. Jerold Kessell of CNN once
said, “It’s a privilege to witness history in
making”. The journalism profession places
us in many vantage positions. I think those
covering the conference are in a vantage
position. They are chroniclers of history.
Though they are not historians per se, but
very important to the historian is the person
who provides him with the raw materials,
the building blocks of history from the ring
side. But journalists who are worthy of that
name would not be content with just being
chroniclers of history; they should be much
more than that. I will soon return to this.
The other point I like to make is about the
high technology of communication that we
have today. Unlike those days in 1994/95
when some of us covered the National Constitutional
Conference of the Abacha regime
when all we relied on here to file our reports
to our various media houses were the land
telephones and the radio, journalists now
have various means of sending their reports
through the use of new media like cell
phones, ipads, and other gadgets right from
the spot that the story is breaking. I recall that
as a Correspondent of the Daily Times covering
the Abacha confab at the International
Conference Centre here in Abuja, I always
raced to the Daily Times Office in Wuse Zone
7 at all times to file my reports. But as we all
know the new media has brought with it online
media blogs and platforms and the concomitant
problems, which I will also touch on later.
I had pointed out earlier that journalists are
chroniclers for history but we should go beyond
chronicling history. Our role is not that of a passive
record keeper or that of a secretary that
keeps minutes of a meeting. It is much more
than that. We are called upon by the constitution,
our profession and the unique demands
of nation-building to set agenda for our nation.
What is agenda-setting and what does it entail?
Agenda-setting is the creation of public awareness
on certain issues through the news media’s
concern for and concentration on such issues.
According to Wikipedia, agenda setting
is the “ability of the news media, to influence
the salience of topics on the public
agenda. That is, if a news item is covered
frequently and prominently the audience
will regard the issue as more important”.
Bernard Cohen in 1963 observed that the
press “may not be successful much of the time
in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly
successful in telling its readers what to
think about”. “The world will look different to
different people,” Cohen argues, “depending
on the map that is drawn for them by writers,
editors, and publishers of the paper they read”.
Dr. Max McCombs and Dr. Donald Shaw
pushed Cohen’s thoughts further by developing
the agenda-setting theory in a study on
the 1968 presidential election in the US. In
the 1968 “Chapel Hill Study,” McCombs and
Shaw demonstrated a strong correlation between
what 100 residents of Chapel Hill, North
Carolina thought was the most important
election issue and what the local and national
news media reported was the most important
issue. By comparing the salience of issues in
news content with the public’s perceptions of
the most important election issue, McCombs
and Shaw were able to determine the degree
to which the media determines public opinion.
Let me not bore you with theories of
agenda-seting, suffice to say that from
the foregoing, it is clear the mass media
can force attention to certain issues.
They are constantly presenting objects suggesting
what individuals in the society should think
about, know about and have feelings about. This
is activist role in my view and it is very crucial.
One way our journalists at the confab can
force attention to certain issues in a systematic
way is first to aggregate the views
of the confab members on core issues.
For instance, what are the delegates’ aggregate
positions on core issues like federalism,
regional structure, resource control, devolution
of powers, role for traditional rulers, etc.
The delegates are still debating the inaugural
address of President Goodluck Jonathan to
them. What are a majority of them asking for
or drawing attention to in their contributions?
I see the focus of some media organisations
on those sleeping at the confab as very
appropriate. We should expose those have
come ill-prepared for the conference. According
to one of the delegates, Labour
Party Chairman Dan Nwanyanwu, the delegates
were not sent to the confab to come and
sleep. They are there for a serious business.
Setting agenda for the nation is also a serious
business I must say. Journalists must have intellectual
discipline, they must be well equipped
for the job and be courageous as well. There is
a need, for instance, for journalists covering the
confab to arm themselves with the constitution
and the rules governing procedures in the confab
(I’m not sure those rules are fully developed yet.
I think it was only last week or so that the conference
was able to agree on the modalities
for voting on contentious issues that could
not be resolved by consensus). Journalists
must be able to maintain a sense of balance
between conflicting views and interests.

To be continued
Rahman, Managing Editor of Western
Post, presented this paper on
Friday, April 11, 2014 at a conference
for journalists covering the National
Conference in Abuja.

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