Agus Sudibyo, Coordinator Program Monitoring of Aceh ISAI, Jakarta
In performing its social function, the mass media is more than just a source of information for the public. Ideally, the mass media must possess a particular framework or adopt a particular strategy to ensure that reporting will not be oriented only toward day-to-day events and issues, but will also be geared towards molding public opinion about a particular subject.
The mass media must stimulate the public to seriously think about a particular problem and wield influence over policy makers when they make a decision that is concerned with the well-being of the public. It is in this context that the concept of agenda-setting by the mass media comes into play.
The question of agenda-setting is highly relevant when viewing the performance of the mass media in covering the conflict raging in Aceh.
Has the media demonstrated consistency in its reports about Aceh? Has the media showed a very clear focus in its reporting? How significant are these questions in respect of the principle of the media as a social institution? The Institute for the Free Flow of Information Studies (ISAI) has been monitoring the mass media’s reporting of Aceh since July 28, 2003.
With the help of the content analysis method, a study has been conducted to identify the tendencies of the country’s television stations in their coverage of the conflict in Aceh.
The television stations monitored for this study are RCTI, Metro TV, SCTV, Indosiar, TVRI, ANTV, TPI, Trans TV, TV7 and Lativi. The findings of this study may answer the questions referred to earlier.
The results of the monitoring show that less and less attention has been paid to the discourse on Aceh lately. Gradually, the television stations have reduced the intensity of their coverage of Aceh.
In the early monitoring period (July 28, 2003 up to Aug. 6, 2003), there were a total of 470 news reports aired on TV, while in the second monitoring period (Aug. 7-15, 2003), the total number of reports aired went down to 388 and in the fourth period (Aug. 26, 2003 — Sept. 4, 2003) the number of reports on the conflict in Aceh that the television stations aired dived further to 268. By comparison, prior to and in the early days of martial law in Aceh — in May and June 2003 — the conflict in Aceh made the headlines in the print and electronic media every day.
Today, however, Aceh is no longer a priority for television reporting. Fresh and more up-to-the-minute issues have taken its place in television coverage. A number of television stations have also changed their editorial policy about this matter.
Aceh has lost its attraction and has given way to more “happening” issues such as the purchase of Sukhoi jet fighters, the bomb blast at the J.W. Marriot Hotel, the preparations for the 2004 general elections and the violence at the Public Administration College (STPDN) in Jatinangor.
Nevertheless, it should also be borne in mind that war is still raging in Aceh and the conflicting parties are continuing to engage in violence. In point of fact, it is the power of the media that can most realistically be expected to control how power is exercised there. It must be underlined that the intensity of the reports on Aceh between April and June 2003 made the public focus their attention on the problems related to this province. The public consequently became highly dependent on the media to be able to keep abreast ofdevelopments in the conflict.
Unfortunately, consistency seems to be elusive in this respect. The television stations, which at one stage were tripping over each other with reports on Aceh, have just as easily forgotten it. We are witnessing, therefore, a tendency to let the coverage flow without any clear patterns or goals.
Eventually, it is considerations based on market psychology that play the bigger role in determining the extent to which an issue continues to capture the attention of the mass media.
From the aspect of reporting focus, there has been no significant change in the preference of television stations in exposing the reality of Aceh as first of all “the reality of violence.” Coverage of killings perpetrated by both conflicting parties on the battlefield continues to dominate television news.
This coverage is allotted a much bigger portion than, for example, reports on the conflict in Aceh viewed from the side of the victims or the displaced people. As much as 51.9 percent of the news analyzed has been centered on the players in the conflict. By contrast, only 14.2 percent of total news analyzed has been focused on the victims of the conflict.
Killings and violence continue to assume greater significance in reporting compared with the condition of the displaced Acehnese or the victims. Scenes depicting violence seem to quickly satisfy the curiosity of a part of the public about developments in Aceh.
The social functions of the mass media should place the media in a position where it can question the urgency of a war. Unfortunately, it is hard to imagine that the media will ever be in such a position unless they adequately focus themselves on the humanitarian and human rights dimensions of a war. This focus, alas, has been missing in the TV coverage of Aceh.
Another conclusion that can be derived from this study is that television — a form of electronic media — is still allowing itself to be overly dependent on the government’s official sources. The study shows that 60.8 percent of the sources that the television stations quoted during the monitored periods (July 28, 2003 — Sept. 4, 2003) were official government sources: The Indonesian Army, the police force, the government and the House of Representatives.
By comparison, only 4.1 percent of the sources quoted came from the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and 11.6 percent from Acehnese community figures and residents. The media has continued to voice the psychological reality of the power elite, particularly the Indonesian Army.
Therefore, the media, actually, are still facing difficulties in freeing itself from the government’s reporting framework. The biggest loss that arises from this situation is that the mass media has failed to present a balanced discussion on the conflict in Aceh. Furthermore, there is still a latent weakness in television in satisfying the “cover both sides” principle.
This study shows that 51.9 percent of the total news reports analyzed failed to satisfy this principle. It is a shame that television continues to neglect one of the most essential principles of journalism — something that it is actually not so very hard to satisfy.
Source: The Jakarta Post, Thursday, November 6, 2003