The effective performance of this ‘function’ by the media can be instrumental in the sustenance of democracy.
The reason that we need to give both voice and focus to the imperative of the media performing the agenda-setting role is because of the unique place of the media as the only social institution, outside the conventional three arms of government, empowered by the Constitution, to hold the government accountable to fulfill its responsibilities of security of lives and properties, and to pursue the interests and welfare of the citizens.
Therefore, there is a supposition that a conscious, dedicated, diligent and sincere pursuit of the agenda-setting goal, will help to nurture and deepen the democratic culture.
Our notion of democracy is a system of government that emerges from the
periodic conduct of popular elections, to elect representatives through a participatory process. In other words, democracy must be popular, representative and participatory. This means that for the outcomes to be accepted by the electorate, elections must occur through an orderly, fair and credible process.
The beauty of democracy, and its desirability, is based on the hypothesis that a democratic society is either relatively devoid of “unfreedoms”, or has instituted processes to reduce the spectrum of authoritarianism and manage infractions on civil liberties.
To paraphrase Nelson Mandela, a democratic society promotes freedom by virtue of a conscious attempt to enthrone an order in which all persons can live together harmoniously, in the pursuit of equal opportunities, and by that fact, the quest for happiness.
Therefore, the fundamental, lingering question is: What are the expectations of the media, not just in the quest to enthrone, but also to strengthen democracy? Let us explore how the sustenance of democracy is a central duty of the media, especially in the context of a “structural functionalist” model.
The Mass Communication Media and Sustainable Democracy
Assumptions: We proceed from the thesis of the news media as fundamentally a project of democracy, in view of the impossibility to isolate a communication space in the dialogical evolution of societies. As Habermas posits, at the heart of a functioning deliberative democracy is the exercise of a thriving public sphere.
The modern representation of that public sphere, he says, is in a functioning,
independent news media. Now, let us look at how the news media ultimately perform their democratic goals in three representations;
As an accountability mechanism
As an agenda-setting mechanism
As a gate-keeping mechanism.
While these roles are related and interconnected, they are still distinct.
The accountability mechanism is discussed more often and easily understood because it has been popularized in statutes of many democracies, in their case laws and in their treaty obligations.
Section 22 of the Nigerian Constitution 1999 as amended, makes it clear that the role of the media in our democracy is to hold the government accountable. It is significant that whereas the section is in a part of our constitution, which is still largely aspirational, and therefore non-justiciable, it is the only institution that is given the power of that purpose. Evidence from our case law reinforces this assertion of roles from Tarka Vs Daily Sketch in the Second Republic, to Tony Momoh Vs the National Assembly. The ECOWAS treaty strengthens the same case.
This accountability role of the media, i.e. “the Watchdog” Role, refers to the role of the media as the Fourth Estate. As a watchdog of the power structures in a society, the media assume the structural-functionalist framework, a sociologically popularized term which I alluded to earlier. Sociology construes society as an organismic concept, made up of structures that function to keep society running. The societal journey to growth and development is certainly going to be stymied, (if not perilous to embark upon), without an independent, courageous media to keep the corrupting tendency of the powerful in check.
Yet, we know that the media also play roles other than accountability. We know, for instance, that they help highlight and bring important hidden issues to public and political awareness. In doing this, they perform enormous social roles of amplifying development issues – such as security challenges, humanitarian disasters, emergencies, outbreak of severe health crisis as seen with the Covid pandemic, economic strife, and/or even political development.
When the news media play roles like these, they proactively take responsibility to target policy makers to engage and introduce solutions, or catalyze the public to rise and take collective action. The understanding is that failing to act sends the society on a negative dip. This is a core part of the agenda-setting role of the media. Max McCombs and Donald Shaw are credited with originating the theory.
The conventional view is that this agenda can be set in three ways: via a news agenda, public agenda, or policy agenda. These speak to the intensity and quality of media prominence in announcing, driving, and determining outcomes.
Professor Amatya Sen, a 1988 Nobel Prize winner in Economics, famously said that the analysis of famine invariably brought the nature of democracy into question, arguing that famine would not occur in a society with a functioning news media framework. Drawing on his own intimate understanding of the Bengal famine of 1943, where more than three million people perished, Sen argues persuasively that famine was not the result of a simple lack of food, but rather it was a direct consequence of the specific nature of the inequalities that were built into the mechanisms for the distributing food.
Making a distinction between ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ freedoms, in his DEVELOPMENT AS FREEDOM, Sen argued that rural labourers starved because they did not have the ‘capability to escape morbidity.’ Extending his ‘capabilities approach’, Sen argued for a new paradigm of appreciating traditions of justice based on political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security.
Sen understood that the news media could be purposive drivers of these values. The outcomes of such a society, he insisted, would be one where the metrics of development will need to move away from GDP or income-per-capita, to one that measures the quantum of real freedoms that individuals enjoy. And it is in this sense, and through this lens that development is freedom.
Thus, it is sufficient to state that Sen rescued the agenda-setting theory from its predominant focus on public issues and political figures, by opening it effectively to the development horizon.
The gatekeeping role of the mass media – whether the print, broadcast, or to use Manuel Castells conception, mass self-communication, which has been
enabled by the Internet in several modes of communication – “is the process through which information is filtered for dissemination”. Essentially, this role is
expressed in the manner all communicators, particularly the professional journalist, “relay, limit, expand, and/or reinterpret information.”
In other words, it is the capacity of the media to restrict or block the circulation of news or other unwanted materials, (not because the powerful ruling elites may be embarrassed by their circulation), but because such materials may be useless or capable of
causing greater harm to public good. Against the backdrop of fake news, decentralization, democratization, need for immediacy, consumption and accessibility of information, the self-regulating capacity of the media becomes a crucial component of its efficacy in agenda-setting.
Significantly, while relaying or limiting what is circulated may be less arduous, expanding and/or interpreting narratives could be more tasking. Yet, it is a central, significant aspect of the fact checking and educating roles of the media. The expansion and interpretive task put the reporter or other communication professionals under obligation to let the reader, listener and the public see how breaking news and realities of occurrences affect them, and/or their overall implications for democracy, growth and development.
This then means that it is not sufficient for a journalist to merely report occurrences – that is, providing information – It is when the journalist lets the people know how they are affected by the occurrence of events/news, that the journalist has discharged the burden of interpretation. In doing so, the journalist has armed the citizen, not only with the information required to participate in the social process, but has equally empowered the citizen with education, and latently nudged the citizen to act upon the information provided.
This is precisely what is meant by the capacity of the media to illuminate the social fabric. It is also what columnists and guest writers do when they choose a topic or an issue in the news and treat it explanatorily. When journalists and other communication professionals do proper, contextual interpretation, they assist in building a knowledgeable citizenry that can defend democracy.
This was the argument of Walter Lippmann, the progressive journalist and leading public philosopher, in his classic, PUBLIC OPINION, published in 1922. As Lippmann persuasively argued, the press acts in fallacy whenever it assumes ‘Omni�competence’ of citizens, however publicly spirited the citizenry is.
To end this discourse, it can be argued that the Nigerian journalist, and by implication, the Nigerian press, have performed relatively well given the constraints of their environment and society. Historically, the press in Nigeria was at the vanguard of the struggles for Nigeria’s political independence. It is not a coincidence that many activists and political actors of the first republic era were also journalists, writers, publishers and media entrepreneurs.
The media in Nigeria were also instrumental in rallying Nigerians after a devastating civil war, and contributed in part to the reconstruction agenda of the post-civil war era. Furthermore, in the struggle against authoritarianism that
signposted the military era, and the quest to reclaim Nigeria as a democracy, the media constituted a leading light, either acting singly or in alliance with other pro�democracy groups in the civic space. This climaxed in the advocacy for the revalidation of the annulled June 12, 1993 Presidential Election.
As the civic space continues to shrink since 1999 and the country faces both identity and existential crises, the expectation is that the media has to do more, particularly in agenda-setting and deepening a democratic culture. It is therefore important that the stakeholders in the Nigerian media project are equipped with requisite tools and resources to function, collaborate and succeed in the task of strengthening democracy. First, journalists must be paid wages that are befitting and insulate them from being compromised ethically and professionally, because their duty is as important to society as the duty of the law enforcement officers.
Those who are committed to public good should also support good journalism by donating to media houses and media projects that support democratic aspirations of the Nigerian people. Exploring creative, innovative and independent funding models is particularly important because of the objective realities of the political economy of media production. One of the most challenging is the tendency of state actors and their collaborators to deny the independent (and perceived critical) media of patronage. In a society with a proliferation of new media platforms and increasing poverty, dwindling advertising revenue is a challenge.
Finally, Marx noted that the educator (in this instance the journalist) must be educated. Lippmann amplified the Marxian philosophy and applied it to his trade, journalism, insisting that the journalist and the public intellectual must be well educated, to perform their duties optimally and effectively. Otherwise, the information and education he seeks to give are tainted.
As far as Lippmann was concerned, the problem of democracy is the problem of knowledge. This follows that the journalist and the public intellectual must consciously seek knowledge to erase any gulf that exists in the journalistic social structure.
This action is crucial to nudge the citizens to bridge the gap in their knowledge structure. And since this is a civic education programme, I submit that the search for adequate knowledge of all issues of social relevance by stakeholders in the media is irreducible if the media will continue to be relevant and central to sustaining democracy.