I go face to face with Wadim Schreiner for the inside scoop on agenda setting and the battle for control of your brain. Schreiner is a specialist media analyst and the MD of Media Tenor South Africa and partner in Media Tenor International (Switzerland). He decodes and analyses media trends and interprets the media agenda for leading politicians, political parties, CEOs and blue-chip companies. He also shows them how to influence the media agenda.
Before we get started, let’s take a step back. Let’s talk about the truth, and whether there is such a thing. As humans we appreciate that everything we experience has to be perceived. Humans never experience things directly or objectively; rather, we experience life, events and objects through subjective perception shaped by ideology or the way that we’ve learned to understand the world. Similarly, every message we perceive is shaped by an ideology or can be said to be manipulated by an agenda.
Agenda-setting theory explains that there is a correlation between what the media believe is important and public salience or perception. There are two key assumptions with agenda-setting:
1. The media do not reflect reality; they filter and shape it.
2. The media concentrate on select issues that lead the public to perceive these issues as more important than others.
By understanding agenda-setting, one can understand the pervasive role of the media and the effect on influencing our opinions.
Wadim, how does agenda-setting work? Who shapes the media agenda and why?
Schreiner: There are internal and external “forces” that are shaping the media agenda. Internally, you have individual journalists’ opinion, which might differ from those of the sub-editors, the editors, the copy editors et cetera, or even the business management of the medium. Externally, you have political entities that exercise pressure on the media (government, parties et cetera); you have commercial pressure (corporates and their advertising accounts); you have NGOs and their campaigns, all of which influence the way a particular medium reports. And of course the reader through the power of his or her wallet.
How is the media agenda set in South Africa?
Not much different from the rest of the world, and depending on the issue. Currently it is to a large extent set by an anti-government position (pushed by the new ANC). It is also influenced by business with certain agendas. Everyone is trying to get their interests into the media, for either commercial or non-commercial purposes. It has not always been this way, and interest groups have woken up to realising that the media in this country do indeed have the ability to influence public perception during the past four or five years. This is a sign of a more mature media environment.
How is reporting influenced in by the media agenda or agenda setting?
Everyone who is writing has a particular position, which is mostly in line with the medium’s vision. Everyone is also influenced by their own, personal experiences (such as crime), which influences the way journalists take an angle on a story.
Why does Beeld report so differently on news than say, the Mail & Guardian?
Because it has a different and clearly defined audience (not that the M&G has a less defined audience). Beeld has a niche market that is different from the M&G, and delivers accordingly. Topics on language, culture, gossip — that is what Beeld readers want. In between there’s some seriously good business information. Because it cannot rely on the English news wires, Beeld has to come up with most of its own content — and does so brilliantly. The M&G is a more intellectual paper, with lots of discourse and opinions. Equally valuable, but just for a different audience.
How does ideology influence reporting in the media?
It does, and this can be seen in many publications. City Press, for example, clearly has an Afrikan agenda and is reporting accordingly. I don’t see ideology as a negative concept, so this must not be misunderstood. The SABC, for instance, subscribes to a “developmental news” concept — nothing wrong with that as well, if properly managed.
Can news ever be neutral or objective?
It can. I have been in Singapore recently and their media are neutral because of governmental law. One must, however, not mix neutral with objective. These are different things. Neutral means that it does not take a position; objective means that it gives both sides of the story. I think media should not be neutral — they must express opinions, because this is the very reason they exist: to give the reader and public stakeholders something to ponder about, to make up a mind, to stimulate, to engage. Neutral media serve no purpose.
Objectivity is important, but objectivity is subjective to whoever considers it objective. True objectivity is very difficult to achieve. I have no problems with media taking a subjective opinion — as long as those who do so publicly state that they do and don’t try to hide behind the notion of “media freedom”.
What should people be aware of when they read, watch or listen to the media?
That it expresses an opinion, and that others might have a different opinion. That it is not always fact. And that usually a story has many sides.
Do the media shape our realities and perceptions?
Absolutely. Research company TNS released results about the perception of our president. These results correlated with how key media reported on the president (Media Tenor findings). People think that crime is out of control, while some types of crime have actually declined. The media shape perceptions sometimes towards reality, sometimes away from reality.
What is the relationship between the world outside and the picture we have of it in our head? How is the picture in our head shaped by the media?
Not everyone is influenced by the media because not everyone has access to it. But we tend to believe some more and others less. Government is usually the least credible source; academics, for example, one of the most. Depending on who is speaking, this influences the way we see things. Is the picture in our head different from the actual reality? Absolutely, but then again, whose reality is it anyway?
Do media organisations have set agendas that they follow as a goal? How do these differ from organisation to organisation? Say from public media to private media.
They obviously do. Public media have a mandate, which might not be in accordance with commercial sentiments. A public broadcaster, for example, would need to report on minority groups, although they might not contribute commercially. It might also have to do programmes that are not commercially viable, but as it receives money from the government (rather from the taxpayer), it might have still to do so. Privately owned media don’t have that need. They can do what they please and what makes money.
From an ethical point of view, both have challenges. Both can be abused by interest groups for various reasons. None of them has any particular reason to be more credible than the other, although international TV research shows that public broadcasters generally have a high credibility. I do believe they follow their goals, either for commercial or political reasons. They have to.
What is the real role of the media?
In my opinion: to create a debate, a discourse. A society that accepts different opinions, discusses them, agrees and disagrees is an evolving society, a growing society and an innovative society. And the media should help with this intellectual undertaking.
Have the media in any way failed to take on this role?
Because of the pressures exercised and mentioned above, of course media fail in some instances and not in others. One example where media have failed is with the issue of xenophobia. When reporting on foreigners that have committed crimes, the media have reported on the crimes committed and the effects on the victims — important, no doubt. But what about scrutinising the reasons for foreigners to commit crimes? What about their social situations, their desperations? That is a discourse that could have easily been pushed by the media — but they chose not to do so.
The media are often blasé about the impact that they could be having on people’s perception. They realise the power, but are not always mature enough to know how to use the power for healing.
Where have they succeeded? If it was not for the fierce critical media, many of the flaws of governmental activities would not have been uncovered and the leadership would not have been taken to task. This is something that our media have done exceptionally well. Of course this is a statement that the government will disagree on.
Sometimes the media will “win” in the role they have, sometimes they might “fail”. The challenge is, of course, to win more than to fail.