Power, Media and Democracy
Recently there has been heightened public concern about road safety following several accidents on highways and byways in which, unfortunately, many lives have been lost. We all wish that something is quickly done to halt the road carnage, but that is a call we only make at every horrific episode, and as soon as the victims are buried, the issue is buried too, only to be resurrected when the next accident occurs, whereupon authorities retrieve their response template to either issue a ban on Mazhandu or forbid night travel by public transport. I am always inclined towards thinking that perhaps it would be a good idea if the Road Transport and Safety Agency (RTSA) could bring around an assemblage of experts to undertake a scientific study of the issue with a view to finding a long-term solution. A team consisting of engineers, psychologists, sociologists and many other tribes of natural and social scientists may actually be what is needed to get to the bottom of this matter.
So, the issue of road accidents is a very serious and tragic one, but have you ever wondered why each time an accident happens and the news of it breaks, usually through graphic images posted by an eyewitness on social media, we all anxiously wait for confirmation by police or RTSA? Even if it goes viral on social media or we know someone who was at the scene, we still want to hear from the police or RTSA where the accident happened, when it happened, why it happened and whether it even happened. While social media drives the virality of news, we still depend on established authorities for the veracity of the news. How the police or RTSA defines the accident (who or what caused it, where and when, etc.) is what the media is usually going to convey to the public.
Counter-definitions from eyewitnesses, survivors and others if not downplayed or totally ignored, are usually interpreted within the framework of official definitions from such authorities as the police or RTSA. It appears the media are more inclined towards reporting and privileging the claims of authorities ahead of those of ordinary citizens. In a sense, the truth of something is held in doubt until it is given a stamp of authority. In this way, the news comes to be dominated by those in positions of power or authority.
The elite’s dominance in media, how this comes about and its consequences for participatory democracy, have not escaped scholarly inquiry. In the 1960s, Howard Becker saw the privileging of the voices of the powerful as arising from the influence of social structure and cultural mores, and thus postulated the notion of ‘social hierarchy of credibility’, stating that:
“In any system of ranked groups, participants take it as given that members of the highest group have the right to define the way things really are. And since…matters of rank and status are contained in the mores, this belief has a moral quality. …Thus, credibility and the right to be heard are differently distributed through the ranks of the system.”
Perhaps this can be brought to the Zambian social context: Have you ever noticed how a good majority of people are inclined to agree with the opinion of the-rich-among-us when kith and kin gather at funerals and weddings? As one would say:
‘it is the view of the one who buys the food and drinks that matters’
The ‘big buyer’ status is such a source of credibility here. Also, the reverence given to elders of the clan almost always implies that what they say is ever so ‘true’ when pitted against views from ‘lesser’ persons. To apply Becker’s assertions to this context, this plays out in the way the media, as part of the wider sociocultural setup, select and give coverage to news sources. There is no guessing where the TV cameras will go between President Edgar Lungu arriving from attending an African Union (AU) summit on homelessness and, say, my neighbour hosting a fundraiser for homeless people.
Another scholar, Stuart Hall, however, sees less social structure and cultural mores than organisational and professional influences as coming to bear on how the media agenda ends up being dominated by the elite and the powerful. Arising from his 1978 seminal work, ‘Policing the Crisis’, Hall points out that media routines such as working to tight deadlines and news cycles result in the media relying on official sources who, by virtue of their position, authority, expertise or specialist knowledge come to be trusted to provide credible information, and who also have the resources at their disposal to allay newsroom deadline anxieties by providing information subsidies. The media also try to work in line with their professional ideology which places premium on such values as objectivity, hence their preference for authoritative sources, who are the institutional sources in government and other agencies of the state as well as other centres of authority and power. The result of this is what Hall calls ‘a systematically structured over-accessing to the media of those in powerful and privileged institutional positions’.
So, when an accident has happened, the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), Muvi TV, and other media would rather project the official statement about the accident as released by the police or RTSA and will organise the footages, pictures and views from eyewitnesses and survivors around the official version. The terms used in the official statement become the defining terms of the accident. Any counter-claim about the accident will have an uphill battle overturning the story defined by the authorities. If the official statement attributed the accident to ‘over-speeding’, that becomes part of the primary definition of the event. If an eyewitness comes up and claims that the bus involved in the accident had defective brakes or that the road was slippery, ‘defective brakes’ or ‘slippery road’ will most likely have tremendous difficulties being accommodated in the media discourse as they will run contrary to the primary definition, and if they are accommodated, they will be considered as secondary definitions and admitted within the terms of the initial (primary) definitions provided by the authorities. Getting the cue from the media, the public has over time come to think official sources are automatically credible sources of information. However, evidence of propaganda, conspiracy, cover-ups or blatant lies has in many cases dented the credibility of official sources world over.
Hall’s postulations attempt to show that the dominance of the media agenda by the powerful is more a result of the routines and organisation of news as well as dictated by the media’s obligations to provide objective, accurate and truthful information (however ‘truthful’ may be defined). This portrays the media as operating within circumstances they have no control of. However, other studies reveal that the media actively seek news on the basis of certain attributes called ‘news values’. If any event does not meet any of such values, then it will not be covered as news. For instance, the media want to report about dramatic events, like ‘Michael Sata Storms Zambia Daily Mail Newsroom, Disrupts Editorial Meeting’. They also want to report about tragedy: ‘17 People Die in Road Accident’; or comedy: ‘Alex Muliokela Dumped by You-Know-Who’. The media also want to report about the rich and the famous: ‘Beyoncé Is Expecting Twins’; and about the unexpected: for instance, ‘A Man Eating Chicken’ is not news, but ‘A Man-Eating Chicken’ is news.
Such news values have become an important area of strategic action by nimble-minded communications and public relations managers. Again, such talented individuals are usually employed by the powerful and use resources at their disposal to prey on the news values to create media events and attract the media spotlight to achieve their objectives. At the time when women were not expected to smoke, one of the godfathers of public relations, Edward Bernays, took advantage of a women’s rights march to create a new market for cigarettes: the women. During the march, Bernays persuaded the women marchers to light and hold up Lucky Strike cigarettes as symbolic ‘Torches of Freedom’ in front of the media to assert their equality with men. That is how Bernays converted thousands, perhaps millions, of women who saw the event in the media into smokers, and, most importantly, customers of the powerful American Tobacco Company. He had managed to predicate the corporation’s agenda on a dramatic event about a social cause. What is shown here again is the capacity of the powerful to mobilise news values to reinforce the dominance of their ideas in the media.
Other intellectuals have been more emphatic about what they see as conspiratorial actions by the powerful to dominate the media agenda and with it the flow of information and knowledge. In a number of works that include ‘Manufacturing Consent’, Noam Chomsky has theorised about institutions that he sees as ‘shaping the public mind in the service of power and profit’. The media can also be seen as one of the channels used in what Italian theorist, politician and Marxist intellectual Antonio Francesco Gramsci calls ‘cultural hegemony’, a process by which the ruling elite manipulate the masses into accepting their (the ruling class’s) worldview as the common and accepted cultural norm. In hegemony, the ruling elite rule with the consent of the masses, who are conditioned to agree to the conditions of their own subjugation and thus perpetuate the existing power relations. In fact, the media, along with other institutions in the private domain such as schools, churches and even families, appear to be part of the ‘ideological state apparatuses’ as conceptualised by French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, and through which hegemony is perpetuated.
In pointing out how and why the powerful dominate media, many Marxist apologists often quote the famous words of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, written somewhere between 1845 and 1846, that:
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. […] The individuals composing the ruling class… determine the extent and compass of an epoch… in its whole range, and hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age”.
Nonetheless, whether media dominance by those in power is a result of an inevitable need by the media to conform to routine, organisation, professional ideology or news values; or a product of strategic action by the powerholders to pervade and entrench their ideas throughout the bloodstream of society to perpetuate their dominance; a fact remains that such dominance impedes participatory democracy by marginalising the very masses on which participation ought to be anchored.
For this reason, corrective mechanisms in relation to media coverage are key to the survival of democracy and good governance. Marxists view class struggle as a means through which the ruled can overturn the dominance of the rulers. Others even go as far as pointing at the likes of the Arab Spring, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as portending a class struggle in which those outside the corridors of the establishment finally get to be heard.
Other less powerful organisations and individuals who may not necessarily see elite dominance through the prism of Marxism have been known to devise effective strategies to thrust their issues on the media agenda and shift the balance of power. Such organisations include environmental pressure groups, which have become adept at forcing their cause on to the global news agenda by engaging in strategic action and tactics that prey on news values such as the media’s quest for dramatic, unexpected and negative events, and by taking advantage of resource constraints in news organisations and providing what is termed as information subsidies. Indeed, organisations such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth do manage to get onto the news agenda with issues that may grab the attention of the public and policymakers.
However, by preying on the media’s news values such as their quest for dramatic events, campaigners usually relegate more fundamental issues of environmental concern to the rear in preference for one-off protests and other events that are merely ‘hot air’ with limited long-term impact on broader issues. A problematic of news has always been that it operates in short (24-hour) cycles that are more in tune with dramatic events with their short lifespan rather than long-term processes such as climate change or pollution whose effects take long to manifest and thus may only grab headlines when it is too late for preventive action.
Does this then suggest that media events staged by environmental pressure groups have been ineffective? Not exactly. Such groups have scored a number of successes by combining their media strategy with insider lobbying in the corridors of power, thereby putting environmental issues on the global agenda and moving major international players and powerful governments to action. However, as Anders Hansen concludes in his content analysis of Greenpeace’s vivacious campaign on the Brent Spar affair,
‘While ‘commanding attention’ and achieving media coverage are important to successful claims making…different newspapers frame and inflect the claims which they give coverage to in different ways’.
Hansen’s conclusion is that environmental pressure groups such as Greenpeace should do more than just secure coverage or grab media headlines. It is important that they secure legitimacy in the issues they campaign on. Many times, such pressure groups are beaten to the soundness of scientific or expert evidence by powerholders, and end up being confined to the role of advocates and, therefore, hardly get into the position of arbiters in which they can render primary definitions to issues in the media. Hansen adds:
“It is one thing to achieve massive coverage for a short period of time and in relation to specific issues. It is quite a different task to achieve and maintain a position as an ‘established’, ‘authoritative’ and ‘legitimate’ actor in the continuous process of claims making and policymaking on environmental matters”.
One phenomenon, however, which continues to alter the democratic space, serve for the ever-present threat of its colonisation, is social media. Notwithstanding persistent concerns about universal access particularly in impoverished regions, and stringent controls in some countries, social media platforms have already done fairly well in giving a voice to the masses and allowing their definitions of reality to be taken seriously. Protest movements such as in Egypt have emerged on the back of Facebook and Twitter to trigger revolutions and overthrow powerful regimes. Countries in which the mainstream media space is severely restricted have seen a rise in news outlets that almost exclusively publish on social media platforms like Facebook, chiefly to escape harassments, censorship and restrictions.
Perhaps most importantly, social media is transforming news in ways previously unimaginable by blurring the lines between news sources, producers and consumers. All three can now be rolled into one. Citizens, who were previously seen as consumers of news can easily be the news sources, who also gather and produce the news, posting it on their own Facebook pages, for instance, and participating in the debates about the news. Great affordances on social media include interactivity and capacity to share news and information to many people fairly quickly, facilitating democratic debates.
Nonetheless, the multiplicity of social media platforms, the diverse uses to which they are deployed, incredible diversity of information they carry simultaneously, and so on, can often mean fragmentation of the audience into niches, which has a negative bearing on the mass mobilisation of democratic debates around a single issue of utmost importance. Notwithstanding such concerns among others, social media has asked probably the biggest question yet to the existing relations pertaining to power, media and democracy.
By Chanda Mfula
About the author:
Fellow, One World Broadcasting; MA, Communication, Media and Public Relations (University of Leicester, UK)
Areas of expertise, experience and research interest include:
Media development; democratic and development communication; journalism, media and democracy; political communication; communication research and strategy; political economy of media; critical public relations; and critical research.