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Opinions of Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Columnist: Agyemang, Frank

Is Ghana’s media losing the Agenda-Setting Role?

“The mass media confers status on public issues, persons, organisations and social movement. Paul F. Lazarsfeld & Robert K. Merton

The media as the above statement indicates, gives prominence to issues as well as people based on its agenda. This becomes the basis or platform for the media to set the pace for public discourse which most often compels policy makers to take action to rectify or respond to situations.

The media is a powerful tool which when well used could bring about significant improvement in our lives, positive changes in our communities and contribute to peaceful co-existence. On the other hand, if not well handled, the media could become the most destructive weapon tearing communities apart and eventually destroy the nation as a whole. The Rwanda genocide readily comes to mind anytime I think about how nasty and malicious the media could become.

Media were used in Rwanda to spread hatred, to dehumanise people, and even to guide the genocidaires toward their victims. Hate media houses in Rwanda – through their media executives or directors, journalists and broadcasters played an instrumental role in laying the groundwork for genocide, then actively participated in the extermination campaign. There are some media houses in Ghana which are gradually gaining notoriety for spreading hatred especially in the political terrain.

A cursory look of Ghana’s media landscape reveals that most of the media houses are being used to set agendas by politicians and their followers instead of the media setting the agenda. They seem to be losing their agenda-setting roles and rather becoming agenda followers of a few unscrupulous politicians. This is a sad development for us as country.

In studying the influential role the media plays, two scholars, Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw introduced the Agenda-Setting Theory which is the creation of public awareness and concern of salient issues by the news media. Salience is the degree to which an issue on the agenda is perceived as relatively important. The two scholars studied the role of the media in the 1968 presidential campaign in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and found that the media influenced the public on what issues to think about. The theory was derived from their study that took place in Chapel Hill, NC where the researchers surveyed 100 undecided voters during the 1968 presidential campaign on what they thought was key issues and measured that against the actual media content. The ranking of issues was almost identical. The conclusions matched their hypothesis: the mass media positioned the agenda for public opinion by emphasising specific topics. Research on the agenda –setting process suggests that the relative salience of an issue on the media agenda determines how the public agenda is formed, which in turn influences which issue policy makers consider. The theory revealed that the mass media have large influence on audiences by their choice of what stories to consider newsworthy and how much prominence and space to give them.

Obviously, when the media sets an agenda, it influences the public discourse and opinion which might end up influencing policy decisions. A classic example in this case is the issue of Ex-Gratia in Ghana. Ghanaians felt the power of the agenda-setting role of the media when it unanimously decided to focus on the issue of Ex-Gratia for the ex-presidents and Members of Parliament. The heat that emanated from the media was so hot that even some MPs had to come public and deny knowledge of the whole ex-gratia package though they knew about it. From the print, radio, tv and on the internet, the ex-gratia news run for more than one week and it became obvious that the media was totally against such a ‘ridiculous’ package. That feeling was successfully transferred to the general public and it became an issue for all of us. President Atta Mills had no option but to review the whole package.

When tv3 took on the story of the blind beggar and her two blind sons, they did series of follow-ups and set a whole agenda on that. As i write this piece, I’m aware the two kids are now being taken care of and are billed for eye operation. It is so refreshing to learn that their blindness is curable. Anas Aremeyaw-Anas is well known for his agenda-setting role. His agenda goes beyond the paper he writes for, that is the New Crusading Guide. The Cocoa smuggling and Mental Hospital situations are the most recent Anas had uncovered.

Anybody who underrates the power of the agenda-setting role of the media does so at his/her own peril. That is why it becomes a bother to some of us when the media decides to focus so much attention on political issues highlighting on divisiveness.

Every media house has its own in-house style and priority. Having worked as a media person, I am aware that out of all events that happen and are covered daily by correspondents, reporters and the news agencies, the editor chooses certain items for publication which he regards as more important or more interesting than others. The rest of the stories or covered events are dumped. The editor is therefore the anchor person in this agenda –setting role of the media.

I believe that the agenda-setting role of the media would not be limited to politics when editors are able to detach themselves from personal interests and affiliations. Innovative and smart media houses would remain focus on their agenda-setting roles whiles the rest continue to follow agendas set by unscrupulous politicians.

Frank Agyemang (