Opinion

Prof Pat Utomi: The Media And The Nigerian Condition

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The Media and what influence it may or may not wield have been subjects of intellectual fascination for generations. As Nigeria becomes the new Pakistan, with bombs going off anywhere anytime people have repeatedly asked the question what can the media do? Some accuse the media of not doing enough to prevent where we have arrived, from coming, others say it has been so partisan, a tool in the hands of those who have and want power or money, that it has failed in its duty to the Nigerian people; and others claim the media is actually the problem.

I expect similar debates to be going on a hundred years from now, if man still dwells here. Does media have influence? Yes. It may have some. Is it influenced? Surely it is by many factors; culture, structure of the industry, economics, power, and the professionalism of its practitioners and even the politics of the time as well as the nature of the channels of media of communication.

MEDIA INFLUENCE

Media influence research from the days of press agency in the United States, the era of the PT Barnums’ when media influence was captured in the hypodermic needle metaphor, as definitive, has journeyed a remarkable course. As powerful newspapers like the New York Times endorsed candidates for political office, and such lost elections, the question of influence has to be reflected on. The answer, opinion leaders bridge such influence in a two – step or multi – step flow of communication. One question mark after the other and we all began to settle for a variety of explanations of variegated media influence. Of the more enduring are explanations that the media influences by its agenda setting function and by its status conferral function. Early on Marshall Mcluhan had, in telling us the media is the massage, indeed the message showed how the nature of the medium, for example television influences demonstrators, and I would dare say, terrorists, whose goal is to generate attention panic. So just as demonstrators at the Chicago convention of 1968 were quickly brought to live by the arrival of a Television Camera, so are terrorists time their horrific acts for prime time news coverage.

Media also confers status. People emulate people they see in the media. They become celebrated and influence culture. The more the media show cases crooks, never-do-wells as leading politicians, the more it can be accused of degrading the quality of leadership and reducing Nigeria to mediocrity in the face of greater possibility.

Other explanations in media sociology like that offered by Siebert, Peterson and Schramm in the Four Theories of the Press look at broad media culture. The thesis of the Four theories essentially states that press systems are reflective and supportive of the governmental philosophies with which they operate: Can we say that the Nigeria Press System is Libertarian or Reflects a Social Responsibility paradigm?

Maybe it is more helpful to look at the media on a spectrum of developed/underdeveloped model like the Bazaar- Canteen development approach of the modernization of my former teacher Bill Siffin where underdeveloped media characterized by low social good’s values, limited education of the journalists, poor economic structure of the media which is not profitable enough to pay journalist well, as well as provide the right tools of work, is at the bazaar end, while at the canteen end, media is more sophisticated, more responsive to stakeholder aspiration and more focused on the common good.

My verdict is that the Nigerian press is somewhere on the spectrum, closer to the Bazaar than the canteen end. What is perhaps more troubling is that even though today’s practitioners are better certificated than the era of the Peter Enahoro’s and the Gbolabo Ogunsanwos, but those previous era practitioners seem infinitely more sophisticated, and of higher ethical standing. In many ways. Today’s journalism is struggling with collapse of culture in the broader society in which corruption is systemic and abuse of trust and authority, epidemic. These factors of reality pose existential challenges that affect professionalism in journalism and ultimately the role of media relative to the matters of now like the security challenges crippling parts of the country.

PROMISE KEEPERS

In the face of the broad culture challenge and the existential pressures on journalists there remain many who have been steadfast and who put a greater premium on the professional expectations from the media than the challenges of the moment suggest.

Indeed there are some newspapers, beyond individuals, that by their corporate culture, are more institutionally insulated from the media that embarrasses the thinking man. The discerning citizen seems to know the difference.

The promise keepers of Nigerian Journalism, as I think the more discerning will observe, approach the security challenges as a threat to the collective destiny. On the other hand the extremely partisan media, and some in social media have reduced all matters to enemies and friends of those in power. Insightful analysis that can aid action to mitigate terrorist conduct are therefore not interrogated.

Good journalism is inherently skeptical, and probing. Not enough of that is happening today and that has deepened cynicism about what is going on. The case of abduction of a generation of the daughters of the people of Chibok is a case in point. Far too much time was lost because the press was slow to hold a government that sees everything through the prism of the next elections and the games of its opponents, the trauma of parents and the value of human life, to account. Indeed one can argue that some curiosity about the peculiar adversity of churches being bombed prevented the media from realizing the consequence of what was coming in the early days of the Boko Haram, insurgency.

More sophisticated disposition should have meant that most journalists would have read Robert Kaplan’s Coming Anarchy and so would have been more discerning of where the brewing society crisis could be taking us. Journalism should be in serious self examination today as we honor one of the true pioneers, Chief Henry Odukomaya at 80.

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Professor Pat Utomi is a Nigerian Economist.

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