LAST year, April media stakeholders who are leaders in various media sectors met to discuss how to advance the frontiers of knowledge for journalists and how the investment in professional advancement could be used to promote democracy. The convener was UNDP which was interested in getting media input into a project it was designing. Isiaka Yahaya, a media expert and staff of UNDP coordinated media participation in the meeting which had the theme Strategies and Approaches for Effective Media Engagement in Deepening Democracy and Governance.
During the discussion, media stakeholders identified mid, short and long term issues, needs, opportunities and potential strategies for media engagement. Among the participants were academics, practitioners and representatives of media regulatory agencies and media gender activists. Some of the presentations were on “Improved Reporting on Democracy and Governance Issues by Professor Umaru Pate, University of Maiduguri, “Organizational Priorities in Institutional Capacity Building for Media Professional Organizations In Deepening Democracy’ by Mr Mohammed Garba National President, Nigeria Union of Journalists and ‘Media Engagement with the National Assembly’ by Mr Cosmas Ekpunobi, Chairperson, National Assembly Correspondents Chapel. Other presentations were ‘Media Engagement with INEC’ by Mr Jude Opara, Chair INEC Press Corps and ‘Civil Social Organisations Engagement’ by Mr Akin Akingulu, Executive Director, Institute for Media and Society
On the Gender front, the lead presentation was titled ‘Gender Issues in Democracy and Governance’ by Mrs Ene Ede of Abuja based Equity Advocates. Among the participants at the session were Mohammed Garba, National President, Nigeria Union of Journalists, Asabe Baba, National President, National Association of Women Journalists, Ahmed Shekarau, Vice President (North), Nigeria Guild of Editors and Mr Segun Olaleye, Executive Secretary, Broadcasting Organization of Nigeria.
The presentations served to gauge the media’s capacity for engagement with promoting democracy and a verdict was delivered. The Presentations underscored the fact that effective and confident reporting of issues of democracy and governance is dependent on professional, individual and institutional competence and capacity. On the qualification of journalists, research shows that the Majority of journalists hold first degrees with few of them having additional qualifications. In addition, some of them have received specialised skills in reporting aspects of democracy particularly elections. On the needs assessment journalists feel they need more technical competence to gather, process and disseminate information on all aspects of democracy.
They also need additional infrastructure to facilitate their work.. On Editorial independence, stakeholders observed that media freedom and editorial independence guarantee institutional, organizational and individual capacity to professionally investigate and report democratic issues. Exploration of the legal environment, revealed that the Nigerian legal and policy environment is generally tolerant except for some inhibitions.
Among the enabling factors cited include Constitutional guarantee on the role of the media; the existence of a Freedom of Information Act (FOI Act); media professional Code of Ethics and an active civil society sector. In a comparison of levels of editorial independence in public and private media, research conducted showed that the private press have higher level of editorial independence than the government media particularly the government dominated broadcast sector. The research also highlighted the fact that the most inhibitions are not institutional but are linked to actions of officials and media owners leading to self censorship and ethical violations. The following areas of concern were also cited; editorial independence that is hampered by self regulation, intolerant officials, corruption (secrecy) and institutional resistance. Others are technical and institutional weaknesses, cumbersome judiciary and commercialization of news and views, susceptibility of media practitioners to societal stereotypes, cleavages and mindsets.
Media and Democracy
THE news media play a critical role in the American democracy. The press has always been present, and it has a privilege no other industry enjoys: a specific protection in the Constitution. Many journalists see themselves as protectors of our system of government—”watchdogs of democracy”—and in many ways the framers of the Constitution would agree. Of course, when this role is pursued with passion, it is bound to annoy those in power from time to time, and there is often tension between the press and the politicians whom it covers. We, the vast viewing and reading public, are often caught in the middle, sometimes agreeing with the press and other times siding with our elected officials.
The political power of the press is a subject on many peoples’ minds. The press is simultaneously blamed and praised for many aspects of American political life. On the one hand, it is accused of a wide array of offenses: endangering national security, oversimplifying important issues of public policy, focusing too much on the negatives and not enough on the achievements of government, and demonstrating some sort of political bias. On the other hand, the same politicians and pundits who criticize the media attempt to influence and control it, trying to get their messages out to the public.
What does this say about the American media? First and foremost, it speaks to the powerful presence the media have in our political process. In many ways, our political system depends on the media, just as the media depend on politics. In this course, we will explore many aspects of the relationship between the press and the political system. We will examine the history of the media in American politics, the regulation of the media by the government, the ways in which the press covers politics, the influences the media have on both the public and elected officials, and the ways the media have shaped political campaigns. Among the questions we will ask are: How broadly does the press actually influence the electoral process? Do the news media set national policy by ignoring or highlighting certain issues? Do they pursue agendas of their own?
The media are more pervasive today than they were even a few decades ago. The expanded availability of and usage of mass media are facts of American life. Television, which spread rapidly across the nation in the 1950s, and the Internet, which is still spreading throughout the country, are primary examples. But print media still have a wide following, particularly with those Americans most likely to influence the political process. In addition, a new niche has been carved with the strong growth of political talk radio over the past two decades. Not only are there many more radio stations than there used to be but also Americans spend more time listening to them as their daily commutes grow longer.
Americans perceive television primarily as an entertainment medium, but many Americans also depend on it as a source of information about many issues, including politics. In 2004, the American National Election Study found that 86 percent of people said they followed the 2004 presidential campaign on television. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that just about the same percentage of people said TV was their most important source of election news in 2008. That same Pew Report (see the Web Sites section below to access the document in full) also finds an ever-growing number of people who say they rely on the Internet for political information. We will discuss this more in Lessons 11 and 14.
There are many local news programs available and several options for national news, including the traditional network news broadcasts, which have steadily lost viewers over the years, and a variety of newer cable stations such as CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. Those who prefer their information without the interpretations of reporters and anchors can turn to coverage of federal government and other public events on C-SPAN (the Cable and Satellite Public Affairs Network).
Even those who watch television primarily for entertainment are exposed to an explosion of prime-time magazine news shows. The networks rely heavily on these shows for their combination of relatively inexpensive production costs and good ratings. The most successful of these shows remains 60 Minutes, which averages 15 million viewers, compared to 9 million for 20/20 and Dateline NBC.
Viewers of these shows encounter many “human interest” stories but are occasionally exposed to hard news as well.
Television is perceived as more credible than print, according to studies by Journalism.org, the Pew Research Center, and others, and this is probably due to the visual nature of the medium. However, the same reports show that trust in both local television and national networks has steadily declined (as has trust in all media sources). At the same time, Americans perceive the media as quite powerful. According to a 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center 46 percent of Americans thought the news media had too much influence on the outcome of the presidential election, and in 2004, 43 percent expressed that opinion. Forty-four percent felt the press had been unfair to John McCain during the 2008 campaign, and 30 percent felt it had been unfair to Barack Obama. This does not change the fact that the public’s only source of information about politics is the news media and the majority turn to television as their primary media source.
Politicians’ Reliance on the Mass Media
While the public relies on the news media as a source of information about politics, politicians also depend on the press, both in elections and in governing. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were at least 69,000 working journalists in the United States in 2008 and many of them cover politics. The Washington press corps is not only larger than it used to be but also much more visible. The press demands more time from politicians, who have had to develop skills and strategies to respond to the increased power of the media. Those running for office must learn how to interact with and, if possible, control the press. Once elected, they continue to devote a good deal of time to handling the press. Few politicians in recent memory did a better job at interacting with and using the media than Ronald Reagan, who was a master of sound bites and, more importantly, photo opportunities. While Reagan and his advisors were not the first to devote time, thought, and resources to media relations, they did it better than any presidential administration before them, establishing a model for presidents to come. The most effective media president in the post-Reagan era was Bill Clinton, but the lessons of the Reagan years are reflected in the behavior of many politicians at the national, state, and even local levels.
Politicians believe that the time, money, and energy they devote to press relations will pay off in the form of reelection or support for their policy proposals. This belief was not born in a vacuum—there is plenty of evidence that such efforts pay off, as we will see in this course.
The efforts of elected officials to control the media’s message are not without consequences, of course. Since journalists see themselves as watchdogs of democracy, it follows that they would react with suspicion to such attempts. There is a natural tension between the media and politicians, and it seems to have escalated over recent decades. The fact of this tension is important because the news media serve the important function of linking the governors and the governed. Studies and surveys from the 1940s to the present show that while the average American doesn’t know much about politics, what he or she does know comes from the mass media. How the media operate and what they report, therefore, greatly influence what Americans know and think about politics.
The Relationship between the Press and Politicians
The news media and our elected officials have a relationship that is less than harmonious. They are, in a very real sense, in competition with each other, and this tension is not new. Theodore Roosevelt, our first truly media-savvy president, tried to use the reporters who covered the White House for his own benefit. He gave them access that they hadn’t previously enjoyed, but he also threatened to take away that access if their reporting displeased him. During this time, the press was evolving, moving toward a standard of objective journalism that placed a premium on presenting the news in an accurate, unbiased way. Publishers, editors, and reporters came into their own as watchdogs for democracy, and the tension between politicians and the press has only increased in recent decades.
The evolution of press-politician relations in the United States has been a two-step process. First, politicians became more dependent on the press as the political parties weakened, especially since the 1960s. Then, as politicians tried to use the press for their own benefit, journalists responded by more aggressively defending their status as watchdogs of democracy.