Agenda setting at the time of COVID 19

-Dr. Moushumi Bhattacharjee

The concept of agenda setting theory could be traced to the year 1922, when Walter Lippmann expressed his concern on the vital role that mass media can do in influencing the setting of certain image on the public’s mind (Lippmann, 1922: 9-16). In portraying the influence of mass media, Lippmann indicates on how mass media can set a particular agenda which can influence the opinions of the public. However, he never uses the term ‘agenda setting theory’ in his book but it was he who did generate the foundation for the agenda setting theory.

The mass media has a particular access in contributing to or influencing the audience’s perceptions, values, focus and priorities. With such influence from the mass media, the media audiences tend to form their own opinion or focus on those issues that are considered as worthy of inclusion on their mental agendas (Littlejohn and Foss: 2009). The term agenda setting theory was first used by McCombs and Shaw (1972). This theory elaborates the connection in term of relationships between the emphasis that the mass media put as an issue and the media audiences or the public’s reaction or attributes to such issue. The connection between mass media in providing information to the public is undeniably important. And so the agenda setting theory is rightly termed as a theory that discusses on how the mass media influences in making a certain issue as a public agenda. 

The World Health Organization announceda ‘mystery pneumonia’ on 31 December 2019. Since then the virus identified as (SARS-CoV-2), and the disease named (COVID-19), has seen a global spread, with cases identified in more than 72 countries and tens of thousands of people testing positive for the virus with each passing day. And since then the media have been following every step of this journey- with multiple stories, incessant headlines and continuous updates across the past few weeks.

This constant barrage of new information, new cases and new advice has been challenging to keep up with. It not only makes the story difficult to keep up with from a journalist’s perspective, it makes it confusing for anyone trying to follow the story. A news piece we read today could be entirely out-of-date by the next morning, and this has meant there have been many questions from the public surrounding the outbreak and the virus. In addition, as more information has emerged over the past weeks, experts and public health officials have revised their opinions, advice and recommendations in line with this, and it has been suggested that these updates have made it hard to build trust. 

To add to our woes we have the surge of fake news which spreads like wildfire in the social media platform. The spread of misinformation on COVID19 has been no different – theories have been floating around that the cityby our so called rumour mongers.Not only does the common people fall a prey to it, we also have journalist and news channel which sometimes circulate these misinformation without thinking about the consequences.Mainstream media coverage surges the severity of the problem and this happens because at many outlets the reporters and editors were assigned the task to cover the unfolding of the pandemic without any proper medical and health training. In the process of completion of their task they scramble with scientific terminologies and methodologies resulting in misinformation.

Another challenge in the social media age has been avoiding stigma. Building stigma is incredibly bad for outbreak control as it can drive individuals to hide illness in order to avoid discrimination, it can prevent people from seeking healthcare and it can discourage people from seeking healthy behaviour, all of which helpsthe viral spread.

Appropriate language can also be important in countering stigma particularly with reference to places or countries. The virus does not differentiate between nationalities or otherwise, so there’s no reason journalists should. At many accounts it was seen that the journalists’ tone towards the migrant workers was also criticised by a section of the audiencebecause the channels try to project them as carriers of the virus as the rate of infected people took a steep leap after their entry to the state.Reporting should look at the bigger picture and move away from the details of individuals, to avoid stigma and its potentially devastating impacts.

Since most of us are at home during the lockdown and the unlock 1.0 series, it is natural to see a growth in media consumption. Lockdown has proved that the value of media is growing but what is important is the correct gatekeeping in terms of language and content so that any further crisis within the community could be dodged. People are using various media platforms for information related to Covid-19, flood et al. but what is provided is far from factual and does not further a critical rational discourse. Rather, the media has become a tool of propaganda and sensationalism. Switching on the television sets one can either see someone politicising the flood issuesof Assam or targeting Chinese army, while others would choose claims of corona virus vaccine or the conspiracy behind Sushant Singh Rajputs’ death, there are still others who would like to give priority to Rajasthan political crisis, while for some the health updates of the Bachchan family tops the chart. While the media do not tell people what to think, they tell people what to think about. That is, the media determine which issues and which organizations will be put on the public agenda for discussion and this is how the relation of Agenda setting theory gets established.

Dr. Moushumi Bhattacharjee – An Expert in Folk Media and working as a guest faculty in the Department of Communication and Journalism, Gauhati University. She has travelled extensively in the region for understanding folk communication, A fellowship holder from National Folklore Support Centre, Chennai she has published a number of articles on folk media in many journals and aspires to promote folk culture of the region through communication at a global forum.

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