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Opinions of Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Columnist: Mohammed Abdul-Basit

The Ghanaian Media and agenda building

The problems that militate against Ghana’s development are numerous and varied but not many of them make it into the public policy agenda. The issues that shape the public policy are those that are given salience by the media, the government and the public. This occurs through a process called Agenda Building.

Agenda Building

American researchers Gladys Engel Lang and Kurt Lang in 1983 did a study on the relationship between the press and public opinion during the Watergate crisis and found that the initial notion of agenda setting needed to be expanded in order to comprehensively explain the complexities inherent in what is generally regarded as the biggest political scandal in history. They suggested an expansion of the concept of agenda setting (mass media attention to an issue causing that issue to be elevated in importance to the public) into the concept of agenda building, which is a collective process in which media, government and the public influence one another in determining what issues are considered salient or important.

This goes to suggest that the Langs’s concept of agenda building is more complex than the original agenda setting hypothesis. In agenda building the process of putting an issue on the public agenda goes through several stages. The concept suggests that the way the media frame an issue and the language they use can affect how audiences perceive that issue. It also suggests that the process is accelerated when credible and well-known individuals speak on the issue.

In the collective process of agenda building the media arguably play the most influential role in determining issue salience. A huge public outcry against an issue or decision needs the media in order to attract the needed attention. The government needs the media to communicate its plans, programmes, interventions and achievements to the citizens. For the media to effectively influence a country’s agenda building process there needs to be press freedom in that country. But does press freedom always translate into effective media agenda setting?

The Ghanaian Media

In response to this question, one needs to juxtapose the level of press freedom in Ghana with the quality of journalism as reflected in the ability of the press to effectively influence the agenda building process of the country. The Reporters Without Borders 2016 World Press Freedom Index ranks Ghana 26th in the world and 2nd in Africa (behind Namibia on 17th). Though the country is blessed with one of the freest media in the world, the quality of its journalism could do with some improvements. In spite of the giant strides the media have made in furthering the democratic growth of this country, there is still cause for concern. The Ghanaian media, it would seem, are losing their agenda setting role to powerful political figures and their communication high guns that are better known as serial callers.

Many media owners and managers open up valuable media spaces to these serial callers who specialize in invoking the choicest invective against political opponents, foreign diplomats, traditional rulers, religious leaders, the judiciary, parliament and other state institutions. The net result is the gradual loss of confidence in our public persons and institutions.

The need to redirect attention

Bernard Cohen in 1963 underlined the power of the press in his famous statement, “The news media may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling people what to think about. The world will look different to different people, depending on the map that is drawn for them by writers, editors, and publishers of the papers they read.” In lieu of ceding this awesome power to selfish politicians and their band of mostly ill-informed communicators, the Ghanaian media ought to redirect their attention to the real issues that can positively influence public discourse and opinion which could influence public policy.

The survey findings of Afrobarometer, NCCE, IMANI Ghana and other research oriented organizations whose focus is on measuring public attitudes on political, social and economic matters should provide a useful focal point for the media.

For instance the NCCE report on “MATTERS OF CONCERN TO THE GHANAIAN VOTER” prior to the 2016 general elections provided very important information on the relevant issues the public holds dear. One of such issues is women empowerment. In an article published in Graphic Online of 19th December, 2016, titled, “More Women Needed in Parliament for Stronger Protection against Domestic Violence”, Professor Audrey Gadzekpo, a lecturer of the Department of Communication Studies, University of Ghana and one of Ghana’s foremost gender activists, argued that gender institutionalization is required to drive the Domestic Violence agenda.

Interestingly, 5,024 (67.6%) of the 7,435 respondents in the NCCE survey said they were willing to vote for a woman as MP in the constituency. If the media had highlighted the reasons why 68% of Ghanaian voters said they were ready to vote for Women as their MPs and had framed this as a sign of society’s increasing sensitivity to gender issues they could have given it more salience.

The agenda building process could have been accelerated if the President, Chief Justice, male and female celebrities, MPs, Religious leaders and other prominent people had spoken out on the imperative need to elect more women to parliament. We probably would have ended up having more than the 35 female MPs we will have in the next parliament. Be that as it may, the need for more female MPs in parliament can be made salient through agenda building if the Ghanaian media are prepared to champion it.

In view of their crucial role in building the national agenda, the media ought to redirect their focus to the issues that are of real concern to Ghanaians.

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