Who Really Determines What is News?

I published an article a few weeks ago that discusses the two ‘reporters’ of the news — professional and citizen journalists. But this article is attempting to answer some other questions- Who really determines the stories that make the headlines, and what role has technology played in dictating this? It tries to challenge the notion that the traditional media still have greater agenda setting effects than online media.

First, let’s talk about how the news gets to your television or radio box. We’ll use a ghastly motor accident scene. As soon as the update gets to the media house, a reporter is sent immediately to the scene to cover the story. After necessary edits and the editors deems it fit for public consumption, we find them the next morning on our newspapers or perhaps the late night news hour.

Besides, the reporter can decide to give live reports which have even become predominant, all thanks to innovative technological tools. So in order words, the reporters or editors serve as gatekeepers for the public by dictating the news items that the citizens have access to.

But let me ask, if Sky News decides not to report the fresh number of COVID19 cases in the United Kingdom or the BBC World news reporters refuse to cover Myanmar’s political protest, does that mean the public will be denied the story?

This was rather possible two decades ago but not anymore. In fact, if news channels do not cover the news, it would be at their own loss. Just a 30 seconds video of Myanmar’s protest by an average citizen on sight with a thought provoking caption on his twitter or Facebook account is enough to make news and set the agenda for discourse across the globe through shares, likes and comments. This is irrespective of whether the mainstream media decides to broadcast it or not. The #EndSars protest in Nigeria proved this point.

On the above account, the news pre and post production process is now a beehive of activities; the gates are now really wide open as in citizen journalism; the protocols for news production, dissemination and consumption has been altered. It’s faster and more efficient. Whatever you see on the television is already stale news on the internet, in fact mainstream media are in fierce competition with their competitors (online platform users) to break the news.

Withal, the mainstream media rely heavily on the internet for news stories. Messner and Distaso (2008) conducted a content analysis of about 2000 articles over a six-year period from The New York Times and The Washington Post and discovered that the newspapers used blogs as credible sources and supplements for their news item.

Further, a group of authors while analyzing quantitatively how news reporting has metamorphosed in the last 30 years discovered that the news content has ‘generally shifted from more-objective event- and context-based reporting to reporting that is more subjective, relies more heavily on argumentation and advocacy, and includes more emotional appeals.’ And who else but citizens (online media users) are advocates for one idea or subject or the other, even Twitter and Facebook have been regarded as advocacy platforms.

Here’s another reason why the disruptive nature of technological tools has challenged the status quo that journalists still define what is newsworthy. During the #EndSARS protest in Nigeria, COVID19, an equally important matter was less of a topic covered by the mainstream media. Why? The masses via the social media were focused on the protest.

The #EndSARS campaign which actually started on the ‘streets of twitter’ progressed to the streets of Lagos and the other parts of the world in solidarity with over one million tweets with the tag #EndSARSNow per day! It just made common sense for the mainstream media to dance to the people’s tune.

In spite of the rising cases in the country, the mainstream media and the social media pulled weight on the protest across the world. This actually brings to the fore in the agenda-setting studies about the public’s limit on how many issues can matter at any given time. This case #EndSARS took prominence.

Finally, there are mixed reactions about these latest developments and one of the biggest concerns about allowing social media users to influence the agenda is the accuracy and fairness of posts done by outsiders who lack the training of professionals. And as Dr. Alecia Swasy asked in a journalism report, will professional journalists become agenda chasers instead of agenda setters?

We will talk about this in another post.

A budding researcher with a keen interest in the media and developmental policies that has the propensity to spur growth