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Why should President or PM be given priority in news agendas?

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Urgent: need for the Yahapalana regime to introduce reforms into state media protocol

Many eyebrows were raised following a comment by a (non-media related) state official during a high-level meeting of state media heads along with a top politician during the previous week, several participants told this columnist. 

Ironically the top politician had left the meeting for a while when this incident allegedly took place when a heated argument between this particular official and a state media representative had been moderated by another top official and several others.

What was the issue? The official had accused a particular state media station alleging that it had not understood the political line of the government in following news protocol. 

News bulletins had always begun with the president. But what was the news protocol the official was talking about? The media person concerned had argued that the state media should not necessarily follow the government protocol in their news agenda, and that the only guide line should be news value. 

One of the main accusations against the previous regime had been the misuse of the state media and that the January 8 change was to bring a new state media culture, the state media head had argued. It had been highlighted at the meeting that the practices of the old regime  need not be repeated by the new administration.

The role of the state media had been a core issue in discussions on media reforms in Sri Lanka. There had been several discourses on this issue over the past couple of decades but nothing worked resulting in the deterioration of the state media- not only in content, but also in the conduct of its practitioners that fell below acceptable norms. Some editors and journalists of state media institutions became speakers on Rajapaksa political platform while others went to the extent of conducting press conferences supporting Rajapaksa. 

There are several interesting aspects to this drama from different perspectives but some key concerns are of paramount importance for the benefit of the society at large. 

One main concern still remains intact: it is the inflexible attitude of  state media-men. Many state media journalists and practitioners follow this strange news agenda where the top news is always be allocated to the president or the prime minister with more newsworthy stories getting less priority. Efforts to change this attitude of  state protocol of news  had brought desired results. 

Whether state or private, corporate influence on  news agendas is a global phenomenon. Because the private corporate ownership consider the media business as their own property [which is fair enough], the governments too thinks that the state media is the property of the ruling political party or its henchmen. We have seen this for decades the worst having been during the last four to five years where the state media was openly engaging in ‘prostitution’. 
During the campaign period for the January 8 polls, it came to a point of no return. But neither the excessive use of state media nor the excessive expenditure of funds could have brought victory for the culprits. 

People voted against gross malpractices but are we seeing drastic changes within the state media following that sociopolitical change on January 8? I am not convinced or satisfied. Excepting some endeavours by a few state media concerns, the rest still follow the same routine and news protocol, where the president, irrespective of newsworthiness, often comes first in the bulletins or on the front pages.

What determines newsworthiness? Among a few academic arguments Galtung and Ruge (1981) suggested ten elements: relevance, timelines, simplification, predictability, unexpectedness, continuity, composition, involvement of elite people, elite nations  or well know venues and negativity. 

Zelizer and Allen (2002), too, describe newsworthiness in ten elements which are more pragmatic compared to Galtung et al. Those are: immediacy and event-orientation, drama and conflict, negativity, human Interest, photographability / good visuals, simple story lines,topicality, exclusivity, status of information source and local interest which is mostly related to the “So What?” factor. 

But for state media (and for some private media as well) these factors that determine newsworthiness and news agendas do not matter, but the line of protocol. Several officials who have no idea on media and its nitty-gritty, too feel that the state media should follow their advices and guidelines in determining the news agenda of the day. 

One could never expect any government letting the state media to become true public service media institutions or privatising them. But at least it could let the journalists therein to be professionals by providing some a free environment to perform. We can still remember how Premadasa a tough president always requested state media newsrooms to carry at least one news story on the front page of daily newspapers. When this writer was manning the election desks of the state print media newsrooms on several occasions, the Opposition was allocated with at least forty per cent of publishing space. Editors always encouraged political reporters to bring stories covering the Opposition and news pages were somehow balanced to a considerable extent. 

However, the state media deteriorated to its maximum during the past couple of decades. The efforts of the Yahapalana (Good Governance) regime should be to bring professional standards to the state media by introducing drastic changes to the systems. That would include attitude, aptitude and structural revolutions from within. 

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