Dr. Pat Utomi
I drew from Maier’s charge and my summation of Newman to title that lecture “The Falling Walls of Nigeria and the Nehemiah syndrome” suggesting there that part of the purpose of the university is to equip its graduates to go out there, like the prophet Nehemiah and rebuild the fallen walls of society. I hold that perspective still as my urging of an understanding of media theory is to show how graduates can take advantage of such knowledge to build the walls of progress in a Nigeria whose walls are fallen in most places and falling in others.
The second draws from the indelible mark left on me as a graduate student in the late 1970s by the great sociologist C. Wright Mills. His point, in the Sociological Imagination that history essentially comes alive at the nexus of the grand flow of statistics and the personal trouble of individuals. As those who write the first draft of history – the journalist – take on their task, a robust Sociological Imagination is needed and only multidisciplinary preparation could make that possible. Also key to effectiveness would be understanding the path of Media Influence.
So what are those linkages between phenomena that denote whether, how and when the media has influence in society?
Incidentally my classmate and friend Isah Momoh has done a nice job of compiling and explaining the dominant theories of Communication which include the theories of media influence, in his books: A survey of Communication Theories, and An introduction to Media and Communication.
For my purpose here, the question is does the media have enough influence to affect the choices we make, as a country, through our institutions and through individual action to advance the course of nation building and Economic Development. The history of Media Influence research suggests that the media does have influence, which means that influence can be deployed into building Nehemiahs. But the nature of that influence is what has been in question. A better understanding of the nature of this influence should facilitate how it is deployed.
Early in the twentieth century it was taken for granted that powerful newspaper had direct and powerful influence on their readers. The general thesis that captured the phenomenon was likened to how a hypodermic needle delivered medicinal content in an injection situation. But the veracity of such views was challenged by occasions of powerful newspapers like the New York Times endorsing candidates for elections in New York and the voters, their readers, voting the other candidate.
This influenced research which resulted in new questions being posed. The outcome of the studies was to suggest that opinions formed and choices we make were the outcome of opinion leaders modulating the information received from the media. Communication, it seemed was in two steps from media through opinion leaders to the people. Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson and Hazel Gaudet offered the two-step flow thesis in the 1944 book: The People’s Choice. Later studies would established that the modulation of flow could be more than one point and that opinion leader impact could actually be a multistep flow.
These points remain germaine today. How did the US media not see the victory of Donald Trump in November 2016 and some had in their files cover stories about America’s first woman president, Hillary Rodham Clinton? It is the same phenomena at play but much more is even explained by later day theories we shall return to such as spiral of silence thesis which made Opinion Polls misleading because people whose values disposed them to voting for Trump were either too ashamed to admit their inclination or feared that as “minorities” they may look bad.
If the media did not exercise direct influence it seemed to have influence through its Gatekeeper role. The editors determine what goes out as news. So if they had a policy not to report 419 Kingpins they denied them social influence that comes from the halo effect that flows from the status conferral function of the media. Where the Gatekeepers celebrate crooks, who can splash money around, those socialites become role models. That can damage the incentive structure of society that is at the core of production of goods and services. So Gatekeeper were considered key to the social value frame. When I arrived the United State in 1978 to commence graduate studies the man frequently voted the most trusted man in America was CBSTV Evening News Anchor, Walter Cronkite. He ended his broadcasts by saying That’s the way it is Monday 20th ….. 1978. The Gatekeeper was influence. Policies Choice in the Economic arena had to have been impacted by decisions of the Gatekeeper. So as Cronkite said it was the way it was presumed to be.
The Gatekeeper value of the Media is today challenged by the phenomena of social media that gives to everybody with a cellular telephone or computer the possibility of being both the source and Gatekeeper of the flow of information. With such a variegated Gatekeeping access mode a new order reigns.
What this new order particularly challenges is the structure of the Public Sphere. No one better understands that, in my view, in the current era, than the German Philosopher Jurgen Habermas. The philosopher of Social Theory focused on how to transform the world and arrive at a more humane and Just order has rightly focused on the benefits of Democracy and Modernity based on Communication Reason and Communication Rationality because the market place of ideas and Thought Leadership are infinitely capable of orienting society towards the Common Good, and a productive use of the resources of the earth to advance the quality of life of citizens. I believe that incidence of fake news and abuse of channels of Communication will ultimately reduce the value of social media as source of credible information even though it will broaden the scope of Gatekeeping. In the face of this the Communication Village Square, traditional and new, will inevitably witness the ascendance of Thought Leaders that can point society in the direction of the kind of society Habermas advocates with the coming of Capitalism and Democracy creating a Public Sphere of citizens exchange of information and ideas distinct and separate from the state. Whereas people like John B. Thompson of Cambridge University criticizes Haberman’s idea of the Public Sphere as challenged by the nature of Mass Media, I take the view that invariably the “tower of Babel” media society will find social progress hampered enough that the creation of Thought Leaders will approximate the Habermas notion of the Public Sphere. This idea of the Public Sphere as domain of reasoned discussion and arrival at choice in the public interest is captured in debate in the US on the law of Eminent Domain, compared with the land use Act in Nigeria.
The Gatekeeping function as path to influence was only a part of the more definite thesis that media has influence because of the many things that happen every day only the ones the media choose to focus on become part of societies priorities. This is the Agenda-Setting function of the media.