By Parkie Mbozi
Recently the IBA issued a warning to broadcasting stations against using social and online media as sources of news and agendas. This was ostensibly in reference to the Seer 1 story which has gripped the country. In its statement dated 1 February, 2020, the IBA Director General Josephine Mapoma is quoted as having warned that some social media stories could “compromise the unity and security of the nation.”
Ms. Mapoma further said that the Authority had observed “with concern the growing tendency and excitement by some broadcast stations to rely on unverified social media stories” and that the IBA expected broadcasting stations to be professional and avoid deliberate moves aimed at ignoring conditions for which their licenses were issued. Broadcasting stations “have a duty to abide by the IBA Act and other broadcasting regulations”, the statement further read.
The mandate of the IBA to scrutinize and censure erring media houses is not in contention. What is highly questionable in this instance is the Authority’s interpretation of the series of events and subsequent media frenzy around the matter. The IBA is blaming the media houses for picking the issue from social media and, in its interpretation, escalating it by either continuously making reference to it or providing platforms for debating it in some cases in what it describes as laisse faire attitude.
Notwithstanding the professional obligation for the media houses to analyse and sieve the raw material they receive and subsequently publish or broadcast, in this case blaming them for picking the Seer 1 story from social media and escalating it as a diary idea is not wholly justified. For starters, one of the long-held media theory is that they reflect or are a mirror of society. In this particular case the media were simply seamlessly reflecting the discourse and frenzy that had gripped the nation over the Seer 1 story, the evidence of which was the reactions of the top government officials on the subject.
Instead of killing the story Sumaili somewhat escalated it with her revelation that government was taking the matter seriously and doing something about it.
The second principle we can use to discern the media reactions is what is called agenda setting, with its various forms. One form, media agenda-setting, presumes that the media have an agenda that they ‘sell’ or impose on the audiences or society at large, “That is, if a news item is covered frequently and prominently, the audience will regard the issue as more important”. It further argues that, “media concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues.”
Conversely, public agenda setting, the second form, implies that the media reverberate and are influenced by the public’s agenda. I would argue that this was the case on the Seer 1 issue. The public set and escalated the Seer 1 agenda. The media cannot be said to be culpable for running with the public agenda especially when that ‘public’ includes high ranking public officials, including an official government spokesperson. If the same media did not cover the statements by the government officials, they would be accused of dereliction of duty, or worse still repudiated in the case of government-controlled media. As the saying, what goes around comes around.
For instance, in an article titled, “Sumaili washes hands on Seer 1: I can’t confirm if anyone got his power”, News Diggers dated 31 January 2020, quoted National Guidance and Religious Affairs minister Reverend Godfridah Sumaili as having told a press briefing in Lusaka, on 28 January 2020, that it was difficult for her to confirm or deny claims by Nigerian prophet Andrew Ejimandu, popularly known as Seer 1, that he gave some members of the Patriotic Front party and government some “powers” to win the 2016 elections. “First, I can’t confirm that he didn’t give something to somebody; these are personal transactions; they are usually done in privacy. So I can’t confirm but I just want to say something that he has acknowledged that the powers that he uses are powers from the darkness,” she is quoted.
Instead of killing the story she somewhat escalated it with her revelation that government was taking the matter seriously and doing something about it. “Obviously, we have to work as government; we have to work as Ministry of National Guidance and Religious Affairs; we have to work with the Ministry of Home Affairs; we have to work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to ensure that something is done because he cannot not just stand there and start demeaning our governance and even accusing people of having taken his things.” Other statements came from the likes of Given Lubinda (Justice Minister), Nkandu Luo and Stephen Kampyongo (Home Affairs Minister) and others.
Therefore from an agenda-setting trajectory, to a large extent the media were simply responding to and reflecting the agenda set by those in the high levels of our society who dealt with the matter. They were mere messengers of the message and national agenda and discourse.
The IBA also repudiated the mainstream broadcast media for sourcing news stories from social media. News Diggers (30 January 2020), also reports that, “the authority has also noted the high levels of laissez-faire attitude among some broadcasters, leading to more Phone-in programmes that are heavily dependent on issues from social media.”
To put it into perspective, the Authority was referring to what is known as intermedia agenda setting. It is defined as “a dynamic and routinized process of news diffusion, where coverage of one media outlet is influenced by the agenda of other outlets” (Vliegenthart & Walgrave, 2008). In simple terms, it a process whereby a media organization or system picks news (diary) ideas from another (opinion-leader’) news medium or systems (e.g. social media).
While intermedia is as old as the journalism profession itself, it has become more pronounced over the last decade of social media and growth of online-only newspapers. It is one of the fastest growing fields of scholarly research. Empirical data so far unanimously shows that social media are a growing source of news ideas and narratives for mainstream media.
The Authority is right to suggest that mainstream journalists ought to exercise news judgement in dealing with social media news. However, the already high use and omnipresence of social media platforms makes it harder for media houses to resist the reality of intermedia agenda setting.
Empirical data asserts that one of the conditions when mainstream media find it hard to resist the influence of social media agenda setting is when an issue in the spotlight is “inherently more obtrusive than others” (Soroka, 2002; Zucker, 1978) and observable or followed by more people and thus making independent reporting hard. More so if high ranking opinion leaders in society are among the followers and debaters of a story, as was the case with the Seer 1 story.
The media’s closing argument would be that the Seer 1 story hit the Zambian news market through a video on social media. It was then picked from there and escalated by the public officials through official statements that made news for the mainstream media. According to the age-old criterion for news value judgment, the mainstream media are exculpable for covering the story as it evolved and grew. In the bigger scheme of things, the whole saga also speaks to the need to allow the media, regardless of their ownership, to develop their own interpretative capacities, which is a requisite virtue of journalism, Case closed.
The author is a media and communication researcher and scholar.