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Agenda setting role of the media: the permeability of misleading agendas to the public sphere

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s (PhD) year in office is one of the dominant topics of discussion in the past month. The media (both mainstream and social) and citizens have been talking, evaluating, and analyzing the activities of the PM in the past one year. The opinions of the people and the media can be assorted into three categories. The first one is staunch support to almost all the actions of the PM. The second group is a negative outlook to the PM and his performance. Thirdly, there are relatively few groups, individuals and media organizations that try to put his administration in an equilibrium.

These kinds of divided and extreme views of public discussions, in my perspective, are partly influenced by the illusive agenda-setting role of the media. Through their reports, most of the mainstream media set the agenda about the performances of the PM in his first year in office. However, knowingly or unknowingly, the mainstream media often focus on the affective dimension of agenda setting approach.

According to agenda-setting theory, there are two dimensions – the substantive dimension and affective dimension. Substantive dimension refers to the media coverage about the attributes of an issue or a person in a way which help people to cognitively discern about the selected issue, thing, ideology, or person. The affective dimension, on the other hand, refers to the media coverage about an issue, object, or a public figure in a way it elicits emotional instead of rational reactions.

Accordingly, if we closely look at part of the media coverage of the PM’s activities in the past year, media reports emphasizes on the affective dimension. Except for a few regional media institutions, many of the mainstream media in our country talk about the personality of the PM in a way that attracts the attention of the general public for positive reactions. The news sources of most of the mainstream media particularly television stations such as Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC), Fana television, and Walta television are carefully selected to amplify the positive attributes of the PM. For instance, in its ‘Fana 90’ (ninety minutes news bulletin) program of April 2, 2019, Fana television emphasized on the PM’s activities in the past year. The program focused on the speeches the PM delivered soon after he took office, coverages of international media about him, and the rally held at Meskel Square in support of him. All of these contents appeal to our emotion than to our cognitive.

The aforementioned contents, for instance, seemingly focus on the affective dimension of news coverage or agenda-setting than the substantive one. People who follow such kind of media contents might have emotional – positive, negative, or neutral – reactions towards the PM. EBC too focusses on issues that make people believe that they have a PM to be cherished. In most of its reports, EBC emphasizes on endorsing the peculiarity of the PM with programs which are tormented with evidence of confirmation biases.

Accordingly, citizens’ evaluations of the practices of the PM appear to be misguided by misleading media messages. Almost all media discussions and news reports reflect that the PM is the front man to solve all kinds of this country’s problems. Accordingly, the criticisms and supports of citizens to the PM emanate from considering him as an omniscient. The PM’s critics, for instance, are relentless to belittle him for every problem of the country. These people try to disparage his achievements in any way possible.

On the flip side, individuals and media, who support the PM, often unreasonably applaud him. His fans do not need rational justifications to back him. For these groups, PM Abiy should be praised simply because he criticized public officials before him – or what we usually call old guards of the leading party. Some irrational enthusiasts of the PM are not comfortable even when he speaks about tolerance and reconciliation with all groups (including individuals who are allegedly accused of wrongdoings).

The fact of the matter is that so long as the media focus on the affective dimension of their agenda-setting role, one can expect that the public’s agenda will be pushed to extreme poles. Media reports that emphasize on the affective dimension of an issue, person, or idea trigger more of the positive and negative reactions from the public than augmenting neutral views of the audience.

It is true that all forms of media – print, broadcast and the online media do have agenda-setting role to the public. But one can argue that most of our country's media stories might not be analyzed by a specific form of agenda-setting practices. Their agenda-setting function is simply superficial and misleading. It is misleading, primarily, because it does not present the necessary information to the public sphere. Secondly, the media often focus on episode framing than thematic framing.

To take an instance, most of our media reports focus on events. They habitually focus on the ‘what’, ‘where’, and ‘when’ of events. In the theory of agenda-setting and framing, this can be called episode framing. This form of framing or media focus does not present an in-depth analysis of the theme of a particular event. For doing so, our media present shallowly framed facts which might not decidedly be important in the decisions of citizens' daily routines. With this kind of reporting it is difficult to guide the audience towards the right dimensions of issue discussions. This also would wrongly influence audiences’ perception of their social ‘reality’.

Therefore, in my perspective, in addition to the craving for media freedom in our infant democracy, journalists’ professional integrity and knowledge of media effects are decisive to enhance the roles of media establishments in our communities. It is only when the professionalism of the media organizations and their workers’ knowledge of media functions are improved that media become important bridges between the world outside and the pictures in the public mind.

Ed.’s Note: Kibrom Berhane is a lecturer of Journalism and Communication at Mekele University. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]

Contributed by Kibrom Berhane