Friday, May 3, 2013

Between the Media Agenda and the Public Agenda

Dharma Adhikari
Too often we get to hear that the news media are not interested in genuine public issues. Critics point out that the media are overtly concerned about their own freedom or security, both physical and economic, often at the cost of larger public interests or professional responsibilities. 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 tend to agree that our relatively young media system does exhibit some flaws; despite resource constraints and limited reach, it has historically played an important role in political change.

Occasional public remarks by our highest placed public servants echo that feeling. They express dissatisfaction over inadequate coverage of public issues and their tendency of hitting below the belt. In an op-ed piece President Ram Baran Yadav commented that media people in Nepal seem “superficial”; they do not go deep into issues. He urged reporters to write about “national interest,” suggesting that now is the time to help people understand about the Constitution, the CPA and the Special Committee on PLA Integration—the guidelines for completing the peace process. He wished reporters focused on regional diversity and not on ethnic divides (Nagarik, January 1, 2010, p. 6).

Other critics tend to see media as generally “anti-intellectual”, focusing much on the mundane, and rarely on substantial issues of the country.

On their part, journalists and media establishments do not hesitate to ridicule the public officials and cite their shortcomings. They usually characterize officialdom as lethargic, corrupt, and uncommunicative, without the basic skills of public relations. In fact, they cite the lack of press capabilities in the government spokespersons, who mostly remain dysfunctional.

Critics point out that 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. While the private sector is slowly awakening to the methods and tools of “strategic communication” as a means to utilize or influence the media, the public sector, despite many gratifying stories to share as well as resources to recruit PR professionals to do the job, remains largely irresponsive to the existing state of affairs. In fact, reporters often complain that government officials try to control information, and only those journalists who maintain inside contacts get some information by way of “off-the record” and leaks, shared mostly for personal influence rather than for public good.

Some of these critiques may sound too harsh to be true, but others are not totally unfounded. Indeed, the gap between the media and policy makers or enforcers persists. Both sides appear vague, and the “public agenda” appears more chaotic and overwhelming than the other. The continuing divide has had serious implications for the state of freedom, accountability, and ultimately, the health of our democracy. In this paper, I first try to examine these implications. Then I propose some strategies aimed at cultivating responsiveness from both sides.

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 and built on or constituting public policies formulated by government. James Anderson (1976) defined public policy as “a purposive course of action followed by government in dealing with some topic or matter of public concern” such as unemployment, economic monopoly, housing, the use of national forests, crime, etc. (p. 2). Hug Heclo (1974) defined it as “a course of action or inaction pursued under the authority of government” (p. 4). Thomas Dye defined it as “whatever governments choose to do or not to do” (p.18).

The emphasis is on putting politics in action. Alternatively, it is deciding not to take a particular policy initiative. Clark and Ingram (2010) write that when public policy analysis formally began in the United States in the 1960s focus turned to “outputs” and “outcomes” instead of on formal institutions, processes, systems, and political and social behavior (p. 567).

Scholars note that public policy gains importance during times of political conflict or debate. The founder of public policy, Aaron Wildavsky, emphasized that the purpose of public policy is to solve problems by means of shared understanding or compromise: “The mark of doing better as a society, or improvement in public policy, is to ask whether today’s problems are less divisive and more soluble than those society previously faced” (Clark and Ingram, 2010, p. 573).

Historically, policies in Nepal were created in the service of “national development” and the Nepali nationalism under authoritarian governments. Since the establishment of the (National) Planning Commission in 1956, formal policy formulations began during the 1960s, with the first five-year plan starting the same year. Besides annual policies and programs of government, there are also polices that emerge from documents pertaining to the 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.[1]

Public interest, on which policies should rest, has often been determined by experts. For the 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. The “larger interest” paradigm so often invoked on behalf of the public also constitutes the notion of “national interest” built on the “nation first” principle, suggesting that without nation, there is no public. However, with the continued blurring of national boundaries and identities in a global world, the actual nation may reside within the people, whose participation in the policy process is crucial. Critics argue that, so far, policy making has not aggregated and articulated preferences of the general public, and there has not been a serious debate over “public” policy making in Nepal. One “sore thumb in policymaking in Nepal is policymakers have long ignored reconciliation’ of public policies,” Pokhrel (Thoughts on Policy Making in Nepal, p. 4-5) writes, “We must keep in mind that in a rapidly changing world, to which Nepal resides, sectors frequently intersect making the need for multidisciplinary policymaking and negotiation an imperative.”

In recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in public policymaking. A number of non-governmental organizations, academic programs, youth initiatives and a few journals devoted to public policy have given a new impetus to the debate on publicfocused policy making in Nepal.

Since we are hammered by news headlines and clips and speeches by political leaders so often, right now transitional issues like the peace process, state restructuring, constitution writing, etc. constitute the top agenda. But one may ask about other critical issues which remain scattered and largely overshadowed by the transitional issues. Suppose we ask the general public an open-ended question: What is the top-most issue before you? It may not be peace; it could be poverty or health or something else. Or perhaps unemployment since they may consider poverty merely a condition, and unemployment or means of income the real issue.

Thus, gauzing public opinion is the starting point in building a public agenda. However, lacking regular, reliable public opinion polls, surveys and other methods of aggregating public preferences, the real pubic agenda remains illusive. I would argue that only a checklist of topmost public priorities, derived from public surveys or deliberation, and preferably in the form of easily graspable themes, can help put the policy map in public or media perspective.

Closely related to public policy is the concept of “public interest”, the conventional normative compass for many media outlets. McQuail (2000) has proposed a list of conditions for media working in the public interest. These conditions include factors such as plurality of ownership, freedom of publication, wide circulation and access. He writes that media that serve public interest “… carry out a number of important, even essential, tasks in a contemporary society and it is in the general interest that these are performed and performed well.” (p.142)

Although the “public interest” value of journalism gives insight into the normative orientation of media toward public policy, it does not necessarily constitute the agenda of individual media outlet. Just like the public agenda, media agenda remains chaotic, incoherent and ambiguous. Yet, the agenda setting role of the press stresses that the media influences the pictures of public issues people carry in their heads. In other words, the press emphasizes a topic or issue by way of agenda-setting and thus influences an audience to regard that issue as important. McCombs and Shaw (1972) observed that the press does not only tell us what to think, but they also tell us what to think about (McCombs & Shaw, 1972). As an example, it was only after the press pursued the story of two Hollywood HIV/AIDS victims that the disease was widely covered and later thrust into public health policy map.

Lacking local studies on agenda-setting, it is impossible to identify the key topics that Nepali media may be telling our publics to think about. So far, we can only speculate or make generalizations based on our anecdotal experiences and observations. But there is no doubt that the media influences public opinion and in the process they also affect the public policy process.

The issue here, however, is not if the media cover public policy issues, but it is how, and how should they cover them? 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 news conventions (timeliness, prominence, novelty, drama, relevance, etc.) affect their choice of public policy topics, how do these values influence the news decision making in this process? What is the correspondence between the public policy topics and news topics? How do the public perceive or retain them?

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 and problems. Yet, it is widely agreed that crime, violence, entertainment, natural disasters and other public catastrophes are the top agenda of the media.

On a broader paradigmatic 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 (scarcely the government press) 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 who 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. 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. There is a real need for a dialogue between journalists and policy analysts/scholars or public officials. One recurrent complaint is that the media rarely frame the government or bureaucracy in a positive light. This has, in many cases, widened the gulf of mistrust and suspicion between media professionals and public officials.

A recent conversation I had with a senior government official helps highlight this chasm of faith. This public official said that the government had initiated a major e-village project in various parts of the country, including several villages near Nagarkot. He lamented that the media paid scanty attention to the ICT project aimed at empowering rural people, although, he said, many seemingly insignificant, low-scale “showcase” projects in ICT undertaken by non-governmental organizations often generate unusually large volume of coverage.

Also, let’s take the government’s management of a public health disaster. It never organized a formal press meet with experts and journalists to explain the scope and dimensions of bird flu or other epidemics like the mid-2009 Jajarkot diarrhea. This task was largely left to private individuals and groups.

Keeping a tab on topics like this and others and engaging the media and via them the public with the issues is a way of serving public interest. In this way, media’s own agenda can be integrated with public agenda.

Nepal’s revolutionary press has for long been preoccupied with negative freedom (freedom from control) characteristic of a libertarian media system. It has maintained a love-hate relationship with the government, sometimes being overtly adversarial (watchdog role) and at other times an ally (lap dog).

No doubt, 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. Policy makers also rely on free media to make informed choices and to disseminate policies. Most often, the role of the free press is limited to disseminating those policies. Sometimes the press has taken a more pro-active approach in public interest topics like the aborted Arun III hydropower project or equal property rights to women (during the 1990s), and more recently, Melamchi drinking water project. However, most policy topics go uncovered if they do not converge with the media agenda.

Increasingly today, as official controls continue to diminish or vanish, the focus has gradually shifted to internal professional constraints and their impact on freedom. Concerns like the partisan interests within the media, narrow commercial interests and disregard for professional ethics highlight the degrading status or credibility of media in public life. Such narrow and divisive interests reflect in the choice of partisan expert sources, disregard for public interest topics, or misplaced importance.

Neither the principle of “marketplace of ideas” nor the laws of the land—formal provisions imposed on the media—can fully correct such anomalies. Hence, political and commercial freedom, though necessary in open societies, are not enough. What is also needed is the internalization of self-regulatory principles of responsibility and accountability with the object to serve the public interest. This is where the principle of positive freedom (freedom to act) comes.

Accountability means much more than responsibility—the obligations and expectations directed at the media. For the public officials, it means an obligation to give an account of their works, or to be liable for some kind of sanction in case of violation of a norm. For the media, it means self-regulation. McQuail (2000) defines it as “all the voluntary of involuntary processes by which the media answers directly or indirectly to their society for the quality and or consequences of publication, with particular reference to the matters of the general public good” (p. 180).
Thus, accountability is the cornerstone of a democracy, a society of self-governing public.

Historically, media tended to be unaccommodating with the notion of accountability or media ethics. Today, as more and more media persons become educated they show a desire for introspection. The increased frequencies of media scandals and cases of ethical lapses on the part of the media have also forced the media professionals and their institutions to embrace selfassessment.

As the Nepali media matures, as it deepens its sense of introspection, and as our government becomes fully democratic and public-focused, the positive freedom may gradually be unleashed. That is the step closer toward bridging the gap between media agenda and the public agenda. Once the transitional preoccupation with news about political structures is settled, media persons and public officials can focus on more substantive issues of public interest.

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 media can administer the opinion polls independently, or in collaboration with public officials, policy or academic institutes. Most world newspapers and television stations conduct their own opinion polls to measure people’s priorities and preferences in public issues.

Results on “public issues” gathered from the systematic opinion polls can be compared with the existing policies or policy priorities to identify the gaps and lines of convergence between those two. This will help foster evidence-based, participatory policy making. They add to the lessons learned from the polls.

It is the government's responsibility to communicate its common policies to the people, to enlist the support of journalists, and encourage cooperation among all so the policies can be implemented and realized. One example of participatory policy making, and the first such case in the country, was the formulation of ICT policy. It was created collaboratively by the government, private sector and civil society.

Journalists can internalize policy topics in news decision making; however, they may do so with the freedom to pursue the stories of their choice. One way to follow public policies is to integrate them with news beats. Some beats like “climate change” (“beat of the century”) could converge with policy topic of the same name. In addition, journalists need more exposure to the methods of public policy analysis as well as training in public affairs reporting.

Conduct dialogue among policy makers, government officials, public policy scholars and news editors/reports to better understand the complexities of policy making, and to translate policies in the common language of the public and the popular media.

Develop case studies of policy coverage in media, both positive and negative ones, easy and difficult issues. These case studies can help to foster a better understanding of the policy process, the types of public policies, the policy cycle, and problem solving models, etc. Other tools, such as a checklist of national policies, will also be useful.

Professionalize public communication system, such as strategic communication or public relations, within the officialdom. Develop a media outreach mechanism focused on an initiative such as this.

The future will require negotiation and compromise in public life, hence better public policies. Experts and professionals may want to develop the skills and knowledge to meet those needs as well as to be conversant in emerging public policy topics like regional autonomy, secularism, indigenous rights, dual citizenship and so on.


[1] For example, some of these policies reflect in the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) for Nepal (by 2015, eradicate extreme poverty, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability, and develop a global partnership for development).

Similarly, the policy outlines appear in the government’s development strategies submitted to the donor community. For example, the March 2, 2009 draft outline of one such strategy outlines the goal to “Build a Peaceful, Prosperous and Just New Nepal”. The seven goals listed include: 1) peace building, 2) harness international cooperation and regional economic prosperity (trade integration, FDI), 3) employmentoriented and broad-based high economic growth- agriculture, infrastructure (hydro, roads, airports), ICT, tourism, cooperatives, investment climate including security, 4) improvement in governance and service delivery systems (empowerment of people, institutions, judiciary, free basic health care, compulsory education to secondary level, inclusion, social security), 5) investment in infrastructure (physical, social, economic), 6) social development, and 7) inclusive development and targeted programs.

Pokharel, Basanta K. (undated). "Thoughts on Policy Making in Nepal". URL: Policy%20Thoughts.pdf (Accessed on July 30, 2011).

McQuail, Dennis. (2000), McQuail´s Mass Communication Theory. London: Sage Publications.

Heclo, Hugh. (1974). Modern Social Politics in Britain and Sweden. From Relief to Income Maintenance. New Haven/London: Yale University Press.

Anderson, James. (1976). Cases in public policy-making. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston

Clarke, Jeanne Nienaber & Helen M. Ingram (2010). "A Founder: Aaron Wildavsky and the Study of Public Policy", Policy Studies Journal, Vol. 38, Issue 3, 565-579.

McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). "The agenda-setting function of mass media". Public Opinion Quarterly, 36, 176–185.

Yadav, Ram Baran. (Jan 1, 2010). "Patrakarlai achar samhita" ["Code of conduct for journalists"], Nagarik, p. 6.

Dye, T. R. (1972). Understanding Public Policy, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Adhikari, Dharma (2013). "Between the media agenda & the public agenda", Nepal's National interests-ii: Secularism, Free & Responsible Media and Foreign Employment. Ed Nishal N Pandey & Tomislav Delinic, Kathmandu: Center for South Asian Studies & Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 54-65.