The relation of politics and the media has been symbiotic and it is ever-growing and evolving. In Pakistan, the democratic system and media are in the process of maturation and, therefore, their mutual linkages need to be understood as it is extremely important for the development of democracy and the media.
In the contemporary world, people are living in a milieu in which media presence is ubiquitous and their influence is pervasive. Multiple media genres, channels and outlets are providing us information which is very difficult to process. Therefore, there is a need to pick and choose which is not that easy either. At times the information disseminated by the media seems to be haphazard but it is mostly not the case and every media provides public information with a set programme, which in communication lexicon is called media’s agenda-setting role. Research has discovered that there is a close connection between media agenda and public agenda. At present times of great political changes in Pakistan, the role of the media has become extremely critical in particular the wrangling among the executive, military and judiciary.
The basic premise of agenda-setting research hypothesis is that mass media could configure the public agenda, meaning the matters of significance they think affecting their lives, by giving importance to various items in their news agendas. The media through their role in the structuring and construction of socio-political reality influence the public agenda in a manner that which issue to give how much importance. Thus, the media plays an instrumental role in building political campaigns, influencing political decision-making, like voting. The hypothetical agenda-setting concept was first put thorough empirical research by Mc Combs and Shaw (1972) during the 1968 US presidential elections. The researchers collected data both about the agenda of the news media and the public. Pre-supposing that the responses of undecided voters would be most likely to be measurable, the researchers conducted surveys on undecided voters in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Apart from it, they conducted content analysis of both electronic and print media, national as well as local, which was used by the undecided voters. The finding of substantial linkage between public and news media agendas pertaining to political and social issues established a core bond of concatenated evidence regarding the role which the press or media play in setting the agenda of the public.
The indecisive voters of Chapel Hill Study still had their leanings towards one of the two parties─ Democratic or Republican. Capitalizing upon the information, comparisons were made between the total agenda of the press, including all issues covered by it as well as the agenda of issues attributed to the preferred part of voters and its candidates. So it was hypothesized that if the link between voters’ agenda and the total press coverage was higher, it was evidence of validity of the concept of agenda-setting. On the contrary, if the correlation between voters’ agenda and preferred party agenda was greater, it testified the viability concept of selective perception. It was found that 18 out of 24 comparisons favoured the concept of agenda-setting interpretation.
Observably, the links between the media agenda and public agenda in Pakistan is quite intimate. The issues and events which the media, particularly news media channels, give prominent coverage seem to have become quite important for the public. However, it is important to note that the media in Pakistan today may not put the most important issues for the public on top of their agenda and instead pursue their vested interests, inflicting serious damage on the public interest.
Another important study which established the power of the mass media in public political agenda-setting was a series of a laboratory experiment. The studies conducted by researcher Iyengar and Kinder (1987) in which the agenda of issues of US defence or environmental pollution were studied. It was very clear that news agenda had a great impact on people’s agenda. Because the issues focused on in the experimental newscast were perceived as more important. Some important findings of the studies were that in one experiment even exposure to a single TV news programme had influenced the public agenda. Otherwise, previously conducted research had shown that agenda-setting effects were evident only after viewing a series of newscasts.
Brusius and Kepplinger (1990) conducted another study which is assumed as a milestone study of agenda-setting influence of the news media. The researchers used the original research design of Mc Combs and Shaws by comparing a content analysis of a significant West German TV news programme of one year with the weekly public opinion polls on the issues considered as significant agenda effects were recorded. On other issues news agenda lagged public agenda or there was no correlation at all between them. The most important rather underlying findings of the study, which was evident from pattern of results, that news media not in totality dictate public attention. Although there is a need to carry out systematic-scientific studies in Pakistan in this regard but at the moment, as pointed earlier the relations between news media agenda and public agenda have strong correlation.
Further research on media agenda and public agenda established that issues could be arranged along a continuum oscillating from obtrusive to unobtrusive. The obtrusive issues are those which literally obtrude or impacted on our lives in real terms. Rising prices of food items and petroleum and its products have been an obtrusive issue in the lives of Pakistanis. Resultantly, no one in Pakistan is dependent on news media for information on the issue. Obviously, daily experience or everyone paying more for food and petroleum products, being household items, put this issue in general discussion and automatically on the national agenda. Noticeably, the media as a whole does not focus on the price-hike issue and, therefore, it has not been instrumental in bringing down prices or could stop the ever-increasing prices of key commodities.
On the contrary, the people are entirely dependent on news media for information on many other issues, like a tussle between the judiciary and the military, government corruption, the situation in Kashmir, Iraq and Afghanistan. In broad terms, media agenda have a great role in setting the public agenda regarding unobtrusive but no influence at all regarding obtrusive issues of the day. In uncertain situations, individuals are in dire need of information for orientation to the situation.
So, if the media has such a great influence on the public agenda, the former must act extremely responsibly. Otherwise, the boom of the media in Pakistan has no significance for the public interest.