Lecture On ‘Mass Media: Setting The Nigerian Agenda’ By John Momoh





I am very pleased to be here today at the invitation of the UNILAG Mass Communication Alumni Association, to speak on a very vexed topic; The Mass Media:  Setting The Nigerian Agenda.  I’d like to thank the Alumni Association, and in particular its President, High Chief Lawson Omokhodion, for considering me worthy to deliver this lecture.

As one who is privileged to have passed through this great department, even more so this great institution, I consider it a rare privilege and particularly delighted to be the first to speak at this series, on a subject which has become my pre-occupation at least career wise.

Theoretical Grounding

Theoretically, the agenda setting theory of the media as put forward by Maxwell McCombs and Donaki Shaw (1972) during their very influential research on the role of the media in the  1968 US Presidential elections, observe that:

In choosing and displaying news, editors, newsroom staff, and broadcasters play an important part in shaping political reality.  Readers learn not only about a given issue, but also how much importance to attach to that issue from the amount of information in a news story and its position […] the mass media may well determine the important issues – that is, the media may set the “agenda” of the campaign.

Overtime, the Agenda Setting Theory research has demonstrated that the more stories the news media do on a particular subject, the more importance audience attach to that subject.  In relation to AST, Stanley Baran holds that the “media may not tell us what to think, but media certainly tell us what to think about” (2002).  He further argues that the agenda setting power of the media resides in more than the amount of space or time devoted to a story and its placement in the broadcast or on the page.

It’s now more than four decades since the publication of the original agenda-setting article by Maxwell McCombs and Donald Shaw; 43 years to be precise.  It is truly inspiring to take a step back and ponder at what that simple little study comparing a few media … agendas with the … agendas of 100 undecided Chapel Hill voters has led to.

The latest estimate is that there around 500 published articles on agenda setting, not to mention hundreds of conference papers and numerous books and book chapters.  In addition, the domain or focus of agenda-setting research has moved beyond politics and public affairs to the world of business, sports, the economy, education, health and entertainment; and the methods used in such studies have gone far beyond the simple rank-order correlations, between media and public –agenda.

The theory’s central claim as stated earlier is that the media focus the public’s attention and influence the public’s perceptions of what are the important issues of the day.  Whether you agree or disagree with this claim depends on what school of thought you belong to.  After all, the original McCombs and Shaw agenda setting study focused on four local sources – The New York Times, Time Magazine Newsreel, NBC and CBS.  So you can understand why critics of the theory are quick to emphasize that in a digital world such as we now find ourselves, the fundamentals have changed and the theory may not remain viable.

Such critics argue that people now get their news from a finite number of news outlets, run by professional gatekeepers, with shared news values.  As the numbers of news outlets increases the advance for them shrink. Therefore, the assumption of a unified media agenda has become problematic.  In other words, as the audience gains more control over what news services it will use, the audience will likely seek services that support their point of view.

But let’s put aside the academics and focus on the Nigerian Media and how they set or do not set the agenda for the public.

Nigeria’s media landscape is perhaps the most vibrant in Africa.  The nation has about 350 broadcast stations made up of 170 television stations and 150 Radio Stations, each of them with about 80% population coverage.  There are also cable and direct-to-home satellite offerings, the print media which has 150 national and local press titles, and the internet. So far, the internet and the World Wide Web cannot set an agenda, primarily because the audience remains small, and many online publications depend on major brand names as the primary sources of information.

Therefore, the broadcast outlets and newspapers that operate the websites still maintain control of the setting of the journalistic agendas and the public debate. Even at that, online journalism stands to dramatically alter the traditional role of the reporter and editor.

First, online journalism places far more power in the hands of the user, allowing the reader to challenge the traditional role of the publication as the gatekeeper of news and information.  The user can depend on the gatekeeper to select and filter the news or the user can drill down to the basic documents of a story.

Second, online journalism opens up new ways of storytelling, primarily through text, audio, video, and photographs—unlike other media.

And third, online journalism can provide outlets for nontraditional means of news and information.  As A. J. Leibling once said: “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one”. The internet enables everyone who owns a computer to have his or her own printing press.  But the audience for news and information on the internet and the World Wide Web remains small.

Be that as it may, “unlike the twentieth-century media environment, in which media largely was limited to traditional media entities, 21st Century Media options are endless, captured by the economic metaphor of the long tail. The Long Tail is a phrase coined by Chris Anderson, in 2004; in which he argued that products that are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current best sellers and blockbusters, but only if the store or distribution channel is large enough.  Citizens can now opt to be creators and or distributors.

They now curate the web in large numbers for interesting content sharing links and other newsworthy information out in the confines of newsroom home pages and within the digital world such as blogs, twitter and social networking sites (Meraz, 2012).  Consequently, traditional media is no longer capable of leveraging complete media agenda setting influence, which in effect means that Agenda setting power is also influenced by external forces, who constantly seek to put their own agenda in the front burner, now shared between citizen media and traditional media.

For Nigerians who painstakingly watched the setting and the general atmosphere at INEC’S press conference in Abuja, on February the 7th, 2015, the methods, intricacies and critical tools of news reporting could not have gone unnoticed. Individuals with certain skills and an array of equipment crowded up the whole space all day-long for a singular purpose; to receive or extract the final word from the leadership of the electoral body and to disseminate the information to the wider public.

When the press conference finally got underway, observers must have had further insights into processes leading to the final product i.e the news (whether in print or broadcast, social media or Internet). In the question and answer session when the INEC Chairman had to explain some knotty issues, it was evident that journalists carry out pre-event investigations and research and are able to elicit information or commitments that could bring some issues to closure.

In the aftermath of that press conference, the newspapers, magazines, radios, television channels, social media and the internet were awash with stories and news analysis, as well as features. All of them the product of the labour of news reporters.

From several other beats (Business, Capital Market, Energy, Environment, Metro, Sports, etc), stories – exclusive and otherwise – sourced by other reporters competed for airtime in the news bulletins or space on the pages of newspapers, with prominence accorded those with the greatest ‘impact’ and immediacy, among other considerations.

What the reading public and viewers found in the many and diverse news of February the 8th, 2015 were not just stories deriving from the presentation by Professor Jega and the question and answer segment but also ‘stories behind the news’. The same has to be said about virtually all other news reports in the editions of that day or any other, with the exception of interviews.

In the letters and opinion pages of the print media, phone-ins on radio and television, Twitter handles and other platforms, reactions of members of the public at home and abroad, deluged with facts and data, are regularly published. And public discourse is enriched. But you know what? even though the seed for the agenda setting was sown several week earlier  at Chatham House by the National Security Adviser to the President, the Nigerian media did well to bring out more issues to the public domain- Jega’s purported sack, IDPs, North East and the elections and Boko Haram.

Why all this media attention, you may want to ask? Because media attention is one of the most potent resources in the political system.  Indeed, it has the power to move people, and even nations.  As the INEC press conference illustrates, attention can mean the difference between ignorance and action, between silence and solution.

In the National Assembly, attention is what distinguishes policy problems that are addressed from those that remain in disrepair.  In the courts, attention is what distinguishes the judicial precedence that are deliberated from those that are left unquestioned.  And so in the context of the subject matter of this gathering, news media attention is what distinguishes the events and related policy issues that become matters of media discussion from those that go unnoticed.

Let’s take Channels News at Ten and Three national newspapers, The Punch, The Guardian and Thisday.

These programme and Newspapers are largely representative of other national news outlets across the country and by some accounts help to lead national news coverage.  Each day, the issues captured on Channels News and the front pages of these newspapers send signals to politicians and citizens alike about which problems are important and which are not.

So, indeed, media attention can shape public opinion, governmental attention, and public policy (Dearing & Rogue 1996, Iyengar& Kender 1987; McComb 2004). Without media attention, Policy needs generally have slim chances of garnering public endorsement, financial support, or legislative action (Cobb & Elde’s 1983)

So, if media attention is important …….. I mean, really important as I have made it, the question then is by which mechanism does media attention get distributed, such that some stories get the five star treatment, while other receive a scant amount of front-page coverage or, in most cases no coverage at all.  Why for instance will the possession or non-possession of a school certificate by the APC Presidential Candidate get front page treatment, while the rot in the nation’s primary schools across the country does not get any attention.

Why is it so important to give prominence to the tirades of the spokesmen of the two leading political parties while nothing is said about the state of the country’s economy.  Why black out the atrocities committed by Boko Haram and skew the story about the kidnapping of the Chibok girls to suggest a phantom event, and instead give prominence to government contracts.  The questions are endless, so too are the answers.

But, the Big question is – What Forces Drive The News? 

The process of making news is messy and complex, with many moving parts.  Although, it isn’t possible for us to account for all the factors that determine the news on any given day, we can point to systemic forces that affect how news outlets and the people who run them behave.

Like many other institutions, the media is shaped by specific incentives that derive from its formal rules and informal norms of operation.

Three scholarly frameworks have been identified in a bit to explain the news generation process. First, from the journalistic perspective in the “organizational process” approach, which focuses on how journalists and editors respond to professional incentives by using specific mechanisms, such as new judgment and elite indexing, in order to sort through each day’s inflow of events and generate the day’s news.

Second is the “Market Place” approach which explains how competition-based incentives dramatically shape newsroom operations and therefore, the stories that make the news. In particular, these market place incentives drive news outlets to distribute their service resources in such a way, and to mimic the behavior of other news outlets in such a way, that media coverage is strongly driven by path dependencies.

I add a third approach called The “ Pied Piper” approach, which is basically that the man who owns the media, influences to a large extent what is reported as the day’s news.  You only need to look at the government controlled print and electronic media and some of the media proprietors in the private sector to understand this.


Let me conclude by saying that the Nigerian media should endeavor to re-focus its attention on the issues of poverty reduction, addressing youth restiveness, education, the economy, unemployment and security.

If I may borrow the words of Osakwe Stevenson Omoera of Ambrose Ali University in his work titled “Towards Redefining The News Agenda In The Nigerian Media For National Development” Osakwe posits, that The Nigerian media must begin to de-emphasize mere routine reportage of news that pander to the whims and caprices of selfish political leaders at various levels of government in Nigeria.

It should also be part of setting the agenda for development for the Nigerian media to do more of investigative journalism in order to keep both public and private individuals and organisations on their toes to achieve set deliverables.  A situation where high profile corruption cases such as the Julius Berger, fuel subsidy heist, Siemens, Halliburton and banking sector scandals remain largely unresolved does not inspire any confidence in the system and must be avoided.