Thursday, September 1, 2011

Media & the Public Agenda

The way in which two recent news stories, one about the prohibition of cell phones and junk foods in schools and the other about smoking ban in public places appeared suddenly in headlines and then disappeared in like manner leaves one wondering about the nature of our media’s engagement with public interest issues.

There wasn’t any deliberation on these topics in the media leading up to the bans. Also, following the prohibitions, there wasn’t much reflection on the genesis or process of these new regulations. Apparently, the school or the government authorities did not see the need to enlist a meaningful participation of the media or the general public in those important public decisions. Neither did the media or the public display the eagerness to relish such participation.

And yet, on their own ways, working apart, both the authorities and the media often claim to be passionately championing public interest. But when it comes to acknowledging the other side, too often, they resort to silence, laconism, or worse, brickbats.

Critics point out that the media, despite their historical role in political change, are overtly concerned about their own freedom, often at the cost of larger public interests. They lament that the press, in general, is sensationalist, shallow, and it has not been able to attend to the deeper needs of democracy in the country. Others see media as generally “anti-intellectual”, focusing much on the mundane, and rarely on substantial issues of the country.

On their part, journalists or media institutions do not hesitate to ridicule the public officials and cite their shortcomings. They usually characterize officialdom as lethargic, corrupt, and uncommunicative. Detractors observe that government officials try their best to control information; the best our public officials do in communicating on topics of public interest is to issue a cryptic statement after the damage is done, or to spurt out a few dithering words to ward off an invasive reporter.

It is this mutual distrust that invites us to consider the gap between the media agenda and the public agenda, and their implications for our society.

A genuine public agenda constitutes a set of shared public priorities that come to the attention of the government or the governed, informed by public choices, most often deliberated by the media, and built on or constituting public policies formulated by government. The emphasis is on putting politics in action.

Unfortunately, the media in Nepal are largely left out of this equation, out of a coordinated effort in addressing public issues, although, as they continue to grow and expand, they are the ones that are the first in line to influence public opinion formation.

Historically, policies in Nepal were created in the service of “national development” and the Nepali nationalism under authoritarian governments. Some sections of the media tagged along while others were coerced into adopting the official agenda as their own agenda. Since the establishment of the (National) Planning Commission in 1956, formal policy formulations began during the 1960s. Besides annual policies and programs of government, there are today polices that emerge from documents on UN goals and multilateral plans of action. However, these policies have always been derived from experts and leaders with little or no input from the various publics. These remain scattered, incoherent and largely inaccessible to non-experts, and incomprehensible to many journalists.

For many publics, public policies remain a domain of abstractions, remote from their daily lives. There is a gap between policy creation and its implementation, with the result that there is no sense of public ownership of policies.

Right now transitional issues like the peace process, state restructuring, army integration, constitution writing, etc. constitute the top public agenda and these are also often hammered by news headlines and clips and speeches by political leaders. But one may ask about many other substantive issues of everyday life which remain overshadowed by the transitional issues.

Thus, gauzing public opinion is the starting point in building a public agenda on a priority basis. However, lacking regular, reliable public opinion polls, surveys and other methods of aggregating public preferences, the real pubic agenda remains unknown.

Just like public agenda, media agenda remains chaotic. Yet, by way of emphases, or “agenda-setting”, the media raise the salience of a public issue. As communication scholar Max McCombs surmised in the 1970s, the press does not only tell us what to think, but they also tell us what to think about. For example, this happened in the past in the way the press pursued public topics like the aborted Arun III hydropower project or equal property rights to women (during the 1990s), and more recently, Melamchi drinking water project.

There is no doubt that many public issues we think about today including freedom, famine in the west, crime and impunity, poor state of social services, and not the least the importance of local entrepreneurship, came largely from the media. What we cannot readily know is how the actual public agenda and media agenda diverge or converge.

Lacking studies in this area, so far, we can only speculate based on our anecdotal experiences or observations. Increasingly, with the growth of media outlets, channels, including several hundred radio stations, it has become almost impossible to discern the nature and volume of policy issues covered by these media. For example, what real and shared public issues do the media cover, and in what order? Do priorities in public policy topics reflect in the selection of news topics?

McCombs noted that people are able to focus on only five to seven issues at a time, hence media access is key to highlighting public issues. Yet, it is widely agreed that crime, violence, entertainment, natural disasters and other public catastrophes are the top agenda of the media. Sometimes, they are merely trivia; the press telling us to think more about, for example, the Nepal-assembled Mustang jeep or PM Baburam Bhattarai in half-pants as a high school graduate.

On a broader scale, we can say that Nepali media have pursued one or more of the five agenda, deliberately or unwittingly. First, most news outlets or journalists have pursued a revolutionary agenda, focusing on political change inspired by one ideology or another. Second, commercial agenda forms the overriding factor for many private outlets with significant investments. Third, some investors and public figures that run media outlets for social or political influence have the status agenda as their guiding force. Fourth, identity agenda offers the motivation and purpose of journalism for some individuals and groups. This may also include partisan journalism. Finally, a section of the media, including some government outlets, reflects the public good agenda.

Yet, by and large, we can say that news beats, unlike policy issues, remain confined to politics and crime within all these agenda. Sure, there is now some movement toward specialization, toward connecting coverage with public issues topics, but the nature of engagement with the public policies needs more exploring.

Nepal’s revolutionary press has for long been preoccupied with negative freedom (freedom from control) characteristic of a libertarian media system. Negative freedom and media pluralism offer the conditions for media to reflect the range of diversity of public opinion and policies, without fear or prejudices. Increasingly, as official controls continue to diminish, and as our media mature, the focus will gradually shift to internal constraints such as partisan interests, narrow commercial interests and disregard for professional ethics.

Neither the principle of “marketplace of ideas” nor the laws of our land can fully correct such anomalies. Hence, political and commercial freedom, though necessary in open societies, are not enough. This is where the principle of positive freedom (freedom to act responsibly) comes in. And that is the step closer toward bridging the gap between media agenda and the public agenda.

The gulf between the media agenda and the public agenda invites both sides and other relevant constituencies to consider “working through” differences. The work can begin from the ground up, first, with the identification of major “public issues” via opinion polls representative of the entire population. The lines of convergence among poll results, existing policies and media agenda will help identify public issues agreeable to all constituencies.

Journalists can internalize policy topics in news decision making; however, they may do so with the freedom to pursue the stories of their choice. For example, “climate change”, described as the news beat of this century, could be integrated with the policy topic of the same name. In addition, journalists need more exposure to the methods of public policy analysis.

Besides, it is essential to translate policies in the common language of the public and the popular media. Another is to develop cases that help to foster a better understanding of the policy process, the types of public policies, the policy cycle, and problem solving models, etc. There is also the need to professionalize public communication system within the officialdom.

Nepal’s republican future promises a flood of public issues and the country will need as many policy analysts or lawyers as it will require journalists to defend, challenge, explain or interpret the many issues like federalism, secularism, social security, indigenous rights, dual citizenship, public health and so on. Their navigation will require more negotiation and compromise in public life, hence better strategies in news coverage.

Published in Republica, August 31, 2011