Economic Rationality and Functional Responsibilities of the Media
By Philip Acquaye
Living a dual life and serving interest for both remains a paradox for many. Indeed, across many fields of study, the concept of duality remains an ontological question to be answered. Operating a business entity to maximize profit and in same vein, expected to remain professional, ethical and responsible often presents a conjoined dilemma for many media organizations.
Globally, organizations set up with a profit making motive develop business models aimed at making meaningful returns on investments for each accounting year. Various components of the organization’s offerings including product design, marketing strategy, pricing policy, human resource capacity and other elements in the value chain constitute the aggregate of activities to deploy in order to maximize profit or at worse break even in the short run. Media organizations, like many other organizations in the service sector, equally exist with the hope to make profit and remain competitive.
However, for the media, there are higher expectations other than income generation. All constituents of society often make a call on media organizations to rather, prioritize a conferred cultural, legal and sometimes religious responsibilities of facilitating access to information, facilitating civic engagement on issues of national development, performing a watchdog role by unearthing ills of society and holding duty bearers accountable and leading advocacy to reject policies inimical to good governance, reform antiquated regulations that tend to stall developmental processes and adopt good policies that seeks to build strong democratic polity.
In pursuance of meeting revenue targets, most profit-driven organizations offer products and services, often economic goods, to identified markets in order to sell and rake in revenue. Mass media products (news, weather reports, sports programmes etc.), on the other hand, are usually not sold at cost. Best described as ‘free goods’, consumption of media products is barely at any cost to the audiences except for the medium of broadcast (radio and TV sets) which the consumer procures separately. In the case of newspapers however, cost of the media product to the consumer includes such components as cost of the newsprint, printing and to some extent the information shared.
In the past three decades however, there has been a massive proliferation of satellite television networks where media products on such platforms are only accessible by subscription. Consumers interested in patronizing content on such platforms pay for the information before it can be consumed. In this sense, the consumer bears the cost of both the medium of broadcast as well as the message (product) distributed. Apart from the monies generated from initial and renewal of subscriptions, advertisements on such media platforms are often the organization’s major source of income.
In countries where the airwaves are liberalized with lots of media organizations in operation, the scramble for advertisement is fierce. It does, eventually, create a scenario where programming is influenced by the advertisers’ choice. In such and many instances, programming is driven by profit motive and skewed towards advertiser’s interest. This phenomenon tends to make media content profit-driven rather than people-centered.
In instances where advertising influences and drive content, the media’s role in holding duty bearers accountable, creating a platform for citizen participation on issues of national discourse and its general watchdog role eventually hobbles. The expectation then, of media owners to rake in substantial revenue on their investment on one hand and demands for same media outlet to live up to its responsibility of being a guardian of public interest is often a nightmare to media managers and a quicksand media organizations find themselves trapped in.
Bill Moyers, a U.S. television journalist explains that “the press, should draw citizens to the public square and provide a culture of community conversation by activating inquiry on serious public issues. In new democracies, the expectation is that the media would help build a civic culture and a tradition of discussion and debate which was not possible during the period of authoritarian rule”.
Because of the need to cater to the market or to kowtow to the state in some instances, the media often shirk their civic responsibility and contribute to civic illiteracy instead of public enlightenment. Indeed, the pecuniary and political interests of media owners and financiers often limit the freedom of journalists to conduct exposés and create a platform that engenders issues-based and development-oriented discussions on air.
In some African countries like Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, the media landscape experienced and continues to experience a boom as airwaves for media operation were liberalized. The exponential growth in the broadcast industry, particularly radio and television, led to intense competition for audience share, which often means racing for the headlines and sacrificing substance and depth. Consequently, media reportage drenched in sleaze, sensationalism and superficiality has become a commonplace phenomenon.
In Ghana, media organizations find themselves in such quandary and are often torn between pandering to a profit-driven content generation on one hand and honouring a call to live up to its functional responsibilities. Many media houses today that are benefiting from the uncapping of the airwaves after the liberalization are owned by business organisations and individuals, political apparatchiks and lately, religious organisations. Content generated and programming, in most cases, are a reflection of the ideology and interest of the owner. And for many with business motives, the lenses are continually focused on good returns on investments.
As the fourth estate of the realm, an agenda setter and a driver of development in any socio-political environment, there is always high public expectation on the media to rise to the occasion in attending to its responsibilities. The media have at all material moments contributed immensely in giving the masses opportunities to be active participants in national discourse at all levels of governance.
In many fledgling and advanced democracies, the civic role of the media transcends a medium that merely provide information for consumption but actively leads in advocacy to bring about a public good. Media accountability therefore is not only to owners who expects positive returns on investments but also to the general public whose interest the organization is expected to serve. Given that the media needs to be self-dependent in order not to be influenced by corrupt individuals who will hate a light to be shed on their activities, developing a business model that will make media organizations stay afloat in the market is crucial.
This notwithstanding, the core duty and responsibility of the media ought not to be sacrificed on the altar of profit motive. Such a development will amount to derailing in one’s track and losing one’s essence. Admittedly, serving two masters has often been close to impossible in satisfying both at the same time however, given that economic rationality and the functional responsibilities of the media are not mutually exclusive, honouring both do not present a choice but an obligation to be adhered to somehow.