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Is the media an oxymoron for governance?

JournalistsThe recent brouhaha surrounding the media in public discourse in Ghana has led to numerous proposals on the functionality of the mass media in the coming elections and on governance in general. Yet democracy as the dominant ideology of modern political life (Fukuyama, 1989) is about citizens’ right to choose their governments, directly or indirectly, and about citizens’ right of participation in society’s governance processes.

The centrality of citizens’ role in the democratic process also comes with enormous responsibility to enrich their awareness of the political community through increased access to information. In brief, an informed public makes for a healthy democracy (Putnam, 1994: 182). From this perspective, the media becomes an important ingredient for the democratization process if not an indicator of the nature and level of maturity of a democracy (Ocitti, 1999).

To this end, J.S Milton asserted that a free press advances the cause of democracy by performing watchdog functions over governments, and thereby preventing the latter from appropriating to itself excessive power with which to abuse the citizenry and the political process.

The media through its educative functions raises the civic consciousness of the people, which then informs the strength of public encounters, through debates and active public engagement. Through this platform of information exchange, civil society is able to shape the character of the State and not just defend itself, Howell and Pearce (2001: 45) noted. The foregoing establishes a primary need for a vigilant and courageous media if democratic processes are to function in a meaningful and participative way, not least, in its consolidation.

Contrarily, a fundamental conflict in the discussion of the role of the media in governance through its impact on the public opinion formation in society is an examination of whether the media does replicate social reality in the political setting, or instead, the media is influenced by remitting a ‘defined reality’, the pseudo-environment in Lippmann’s observation. Such a consideration immediately brings to the fore two countervailing strands of the role of the media in the governance discourse.

In one breath Habermas outlines the development of newspapers in the early 17th century, commenting that the press “was for the first time established as a genuinely critical organ of a public engaged in critical political debate: as the fourth estate” (Habermas, 1989: 60).

The significance of information in the political society finds expression in its close connection to politics. In the nineteenth century, Schudson held, “newspapers served as the voice of political parties or relied for their economic survival on legal advertisement and Government printing contracts” in representative political systems (Shudson, 2002). In Britain, Curran (2002) observed the process of democratization as enormously strengthened by the development of modern mass media. The growth of the press and free media also contributed to the expansion of the political community. In support of this position, he witnessed that, having strived to disentangle itself of governmental influence, the media empowered people. The print media and television in particular, were seen as the most important means to induce the necessary socio-economic changes in “traditional” societies. Quite recently many studies demonstrate that the relationship between democracy and press pluralism is both positive and reciprocal (Gadzekpo, 2011; Woods, 2007; Shudson, 2002; Curren, 2002; McQuail, 2000).

Accordingly, while the laws and principles of democracy are thought to be indispensible for the emergence of free and pluralistic voices in the media, these same voices serve as a precaution and improve the conditions for democracy lending support to Suarez’s view that “democratisation and journalism influence each other’s advances and setbacks” (Suarez, 1996: 49). A vibrant pluralistic press is often said to play an important role in democratic societies as the embodiment of free expression, as a supplier of vital information to citizens, and as a watchdog that serves the public’s interests. In each of these roles, the content of the news media is treated as an expression of democracy itself (Woods, 2007). The media is here seen as the “mirror of society” by supporting the democratic system of “free elections, majority rule, political freedom, political equality, minority rights, representative government and an independent judiciary”.

Under liberal democracy where the individual is perceived and treated as an autonomous agent, and where primary solidarities and cultural identities are discouraged in favour of national citizenship or culture, the media is expected to be; devoiced of interests, objective, balanced and fair in gathering, processing and disseminating news and information. This becomes even more relevant given Downs’ (1957) position on the cost (time and energy) of information gathering for citizens in democracies which makes voting, a fundamental prerequisite in a democracy, seem irrational. In response, Popkin (1991) advanced that since investing time and energy on state policies doesn’t influence policy outcomes but to “a better-informed vote” instead of personal decisions that lead to self-satisfaction, people turn to acquire “free” information to inform their voting decisions. It is seen that where emphasis is placed on evaluation of social situations external to the “self”, people turn to rely on secondary evaluation (the opinions of others) to inform their choices. The foregoing makes the media a major stakeholder since it is the information relayed to the public by the various media outlets that inform public decisions as, in the minimalist sense, it provides the populace with what to think about in their deliberations.

The media here offers a platform, considered as a “market place” where the governors and the governed converge to recycle their opinions. Such an interaction is bifocal in its objectives. While governors appropriate the opinions of their constituents as a feedback to further their policy decisions, citizens are offered the opportunity to be educated on public policy in addition to the intrinsic feeling of being able to participate directly in the decision-making process.

Devoid of the often “mistaken” conception about communication as propaganda or, in the best scenario, as information dissemination, Gumucio Dagron (2001) conjectured that for more than fifty years radio has been the most appealing tool for participatory communication and development. It is undisputable, he continued that radio is, “without a doubt the communication tool most widely spread throughout the world and has always been the ideal medium for change”. The radio seen in this realm becomes a medium for dialogue among the participating agents.

By Kwaku Yeboah

Email: [email protected]

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