Interpretation and judgement in news reporting.
In this chapter I will undertake a review of theories relevant to the theme of this work. Various scholarly positions on the theory of media representation, media and social responsibility and pattern of crisis reporting will be thoroughly examined. I will equally review scholarly works on the origin and nature of the Nigerian press.
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The media in any society serve as the window through which the wider world is viewed. They give and account of reality but not the reality in the real sense. Positions of various scholars in the field of media studies reveal that what we read, hear or watch on the media is representation of reality and as such, the media have the ability to and actually do construct the reality through their coverage and reportage of events. The knowledge and perception of people about events, issues and objects within and beyond their geographical settings are usually formed and shaped by media representation of such events, issues and objects. The idea that the media utilize language, semiotic and visual images to construct realities has been extensively written and researched in various works and among various scholars in the field of media and communication studies. While some scholars have espoused cultural views of media representation (Hall, 1997) others have adopted the notion of race (O’Shaughnessy 1997, Ferguson 2002, Acosta-Alzure 2003) language, and identity (Rayner 2001).
To Hall (1997, p. 17) “Representation is the production of the meaning of the concepts in our mind through language and it is the link between concepts that enables us to refer to either the real world of objects, people or events…”. The concept of representation according to Hall (ibid) entails “using language to say something meaningful about or to represent the world meaningfully to other people…it is an essential part of the process by which meaning is produced and exchanged between members of a culture”. Hall describes representation as a phenomenon that involves the use of language, signs and images to symbolise and represent objects. The use of language in cultural studies can be reflective when it reflects the existing meaning of an object, intentional when it reflects the personally intended meaning and constructionist when meaning is constructed through the use of language (Hall, 1997).
Hall (1997, p.15) examines the concepts of representation in terms of the “circuit of culture” which implies that representation, as a concept in cultural studies “connects meaning and language to culture” The media utilize a great deal of images, signs and language to describe and report events or objects to their audiences and their use of such elements serve as the basis upon which the knowledge and perception of audiences about the objects and events being reported rest. Representation therefore dwells on how the media create meaning and form knowledge through the use of language and visual images. In their view, Acosta Alzuru and Roushanzamir (2003, p.47) assert that “Representation constructs meaning by connecting the world language and live experiences. By performing these connections representation does not reflect the frame of the world but that it constitutes the world”. In their view, Rayner et al (2001, p.63) describe representation as “the process by which the media present to us the real world”. They further assert that “there is a wide philosophical debate about what constitutes ‘reality’ and whether, in fact, reality ultimately exists. If however, we assume, for the convenience of looking at representation, that there is an external reality, then, one key function of the media is to represent that reality to us, the audience”.
One issue central to various postulations of scholars on media representation is the inability of the media to reproduce the exact real word. News generally is an account of reality, not reality itself, thus most media organizations and journalists often fall prey of adding their interpretations and judgment to certain news stories with a view to creating meaning.
INTERPRETATION AND JUDGEMENT IN NEWS REPORTING
In reporting and presenting issues, media often add their own judgment and interpretations thereby defining the public knowledge of certain events. On the other hand, audiences also subject media messages to some interpretations which explain why they are of the view that media bias is possible in their reporting of events. According to Hawk (1992, p.1) “there are no such things as facts without interpretation”. This assertion is supported by Said (1981, p.154) as he succinctly observes that:
“All knowledge that is about human society and not about natural world is historical knowledge and therefore rests upon judgment and interpretation. This is not to say that facts and data are non-existent but that facts get their importance from what is made upon interpretation”.
In their coverage and reportage of events media therefore give their meaning and identify for readers those events that are considered important. Relating these assertions to the Nigerian press representation of Niger-Delta Crisis, it is evident that media tend to give meaning and interpretation to the activities of the Niger-Delta militants vis-a-vis government reactions and perception of the general public.
Based on the argument and counter argument between African and non-African analysts on the western media coverage of Africa, especially in the area of media subjecting their reports to judgement and interpretations, scholars have emphasized the need for news analysis. In his work “Islam and the West in the Mass Media, Hafez (2000) points out that international news coverage can be analysed by focusing on the textual patterns, linguistic feature, as well as the arrangement of facts, arguments and frames in foreign reporting to understand whether or not such report is based on objectivity or sensationalism (p.27). Empirical evidences based on existing views of various scholars reveal that in understanding the causes and effects of media coverage, it is important to examine the individual perception of the journalists and the orientation of the mass media in relation to the object being reported. As argued by Falola (2000, p.30), “most foreign media use certain stereotypes and images to represent African states as epitome of vampirical authoritarian governance, parasitical political elites, fierce religious and tribal animosities and endemic sickness and misery”. Having examined the theory of media representation vis-a-vis the discourse of media interpretation and judgements in news reporting, I proceed to discuss the media representation of Africa within the context of the theory media representation.
THE MEDIA AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
The social responsibility theory is based on the notion that the media must perform its role bearing in mind “public interest”. McQuails (2005:164) rightly observes that the concept of public interest is simple yet fraught with many disconnected views about what it entails or should entail.
In Nigeria, for instance, the issue of resources control has been a subject for many debates and cause for protracted conflict. What would constitute “public interest?” Should the press promote the position of the proponents of resource control, or should it support those who say every State should share in equal measure from the nation’s oil wealthMcQuail, however quickly clears the fog by stating that the mass media must operate by the same principles that govern other units of society; principles which are justice, fairness, democracy, and prevailing notions of desirable social and cultural values. Any practice in society that undermines these principles singly or collectively constitutes sabotage of “public interest” and may correctly suffer report from the media.
Further, McQuail identifies the factor that may affect the promotion of public interest which he defines in terms of cultural, political, professional and commercial interests. On culture-induced effects, there is the institutional entrenchment of a culture of apathy and distrust for the people of other tribes or ethnic groups. The Nigerian society’s penchant for religious and ethnic conflicts is an unfortunate testimony to this fact. And since the News must carry the stories, including that of casualties, there is the tendency for reporting to cause an escalation of the crisis. Liebes and Kampf (2004:79) captured it this way:
“….whereas politicians and representatives of the elite are free to address the media of any time (crossing the threshold through the “front door”), the only chance of radical groups to invade the screen is via the “back door”, that is, by the use of violence…the more violence they created, the greater the chance of crossing into the screen and being viewed by the public. The chance, however, is also greater for the coverage to be more negative, and therefore acts as a boomerang”.
The political inhibition to “public interest” reporting may play out in the bias of the practicing journalist who might have a stake in the issues for which the group is agitating. How does a journalist from Niger Delta maintain neutrality on the issue of resource distribution and control when it has such profound effects on his life and that of his familyOr how does a journalist from Katsina State maintain neutrality when the ceding of resource control to the generating states means that his state’s allocation may be highly reduced.
Beard (2000, p18) is of the position that “to expect that a political journalist or politician can tell the truth is problematic, because such an expectation fails to take account of the fact that both the creator and the receiver of the text bring ideological values to it”. He explains further that reporting capitalizes on certain language forms such as metaphors, metonymies, analogies and transitive, to show subtle or blatant sympathy for or apathy to various ideological positions extant in society (Beard, 2000:25)
However, Keeble (2005:269) advocates for journalism practice that is found on universal principles of honesty, fairness, respect for the privacy, the avoidance of discrimination and conflict of interest. But he also correctly observes that “cultures and political systems around the globe throw up very different ethical challenges for journalists.” It is difficult to maintain neutrality in the face of threats, especially when such threats reach the point of fatality (Hartley 1982, p84; Tumber, 2004, p199), but the universal ideas require a reach toward neutrality and objectivity.
Another factor that affects the responsibility of the media to the society is low level of professionalism.Professionalism may be seen as a commitment to the highest standard of excellence in the practice of journalism. It is a combination of the finest skills with the highest ethical conduct. This ideal contrasts sharply with the prevailing shallow approach to coverage and analysis of issues of public interest as seen in sections of the Nigerian media. The rate of unemployment and the abysmal state of corruption and nepotism have created an opportunity for unqualified individuals to practice journalism. The result, as Gujbawu (2002, p71) rightly observes, is the press’ increasing penchant for being a mouth piece for the ruling elite, and at the expense of society; a tendency for writing media content that misinforms, misleads, confuses and destroys society. In view of this, a classic work on theories of mass media has shown what many media problems are attributable to the education of reporters and editors and poor preparation before undertaking assignments. Observable errors of fact may lead to questioning the authenticity of an entire report, which further brings to question the credibility of the media as dependable custodians of public conscience (Severin & Tankard, 2001, p314-5).
Another factor identified by McQuail (2005, p164) as the bane of “public interest” journalism is commercialism. Scholars agree that there is an increasing tendency toward monopolizing the media into the hands of a few rich business and media moguls (Dominick 1994, p109; Aufdeheide, 2004, p333 Stevenson, 2005 p40; Harrison, 2006, p164). These investors are engaged in stiff competition for market share with attendant repercussion. As noted by Folarin (1999, p27), the commercialists press “worships at the altar of profit and consumerism which often vitiate the ideals of social responsibility.” The profit motif makes the media vulnerable to the ideologies of big advertisers while consumerism lowers values since the media must give the public what it wants. Under this circumstance, commercial interests precedence over public good.
Albeit, the social responsibility theory holds that the while the press must be free, it must also be adequate or responsible. The basic tenets of the socially responsible press, following the recommendations of the Robert Hutchins Commission of 1947, are thus outlined in (Severin and Tankard, 2001 p314; McQuails, 2005:171):
A socially responsible press should provide a full, truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning.
It should serve as a forum for the exchange of comments and criticism as a common carrier of the public expression, raising conflict to the plane of public discourse.
A socially responsible press should give a representative picture of constituent groups in the society while presenting the goals and values of society, issues that have relevance to the well-being of the local community.
A press with this kind of orientation is what is needed in a crisis –prone, or crisis –ridden society. Coverage of crisis in Nigeria requires that the media be truthful, comprehensive and balanced, representing the views and interests of the constituent groups in the federal state that it is.
PATTERNS OF CRISIS REPORTING
Pattern of reporting is a description of the differences in the reportage of news stories resulting from the different perspectives from which people view events. The patterns could be intrinsic or extrinsic, rather than being opposites, they are simply two sides of the same coin.
Intrinsic patterns are the latent patterns that reflect the peculiarity of a paper, those features that differentiate one paper from others. These features are manifested in the language and the point of view that a paper expresses. It is seen in the way a paper challenges or reinforces certain stereotypes; the overt political position a paper adopts or discards (McNair, 2005:35). As Curran (2002:34) would suggest, the location of a news story within the frame of reference of a political position, by attribution, is a subtle way by which journalism advances one political opinion against another.
On the other hand is the extrinsic pattern which is the obvious physical characteristics of a news report as it appears in the paper. This is marked by such features as the choice of a front-page story. The choice of a front-page story reveals the level of importance a newspaper ascribes to a story as against other stories. It is also manifest in the amount of space given to a story. A story that is considered as important will have depth of discussion, attributions, background information; a detailed description of the events and persons in the story.
Also, an important story in the news is marked by extensive non-news editorial commentaries in the form of features, letters to the editor, opinion articles, and brazen editorials by the paper. This is where societal views are extracted and harnessed to set further agenda for public discourse to provide ideas for policy makers.
Meanwhile, there are certain features that characterize crisis stories. One is that a crisis naturally commands prominence. In any crisis the suffering of the victim usually engages sympathy. This human interest factor makes the story popular, thus giving it prominence. The other factor is drama. Simply put, drama is action, deed or performance that interest people presented on a stage or theater. In this case, the stage for the drama in a social crisis is the public sphere (Abcaran &Klotz, 2002:19). Drama in the news describes the day to day actions that occur in human societies, actions that are considered worthy of mediation. The crisis story is typically drama-laden. Crisis reporting captures the intrigues, blackmails, betrayal, protests, etc., that happen in man’s experience. Furthermore, the crisis story has conflict – the inability of players in the social sphere to reach consensus on issues of ideology, personal or group interest, and opinion. This may degenerate into violence, often of fatal dimension (Veer, 2004:9). The interest is heightened by the impact of the conflict on human life and property.
CRISIS COVERAGE AS CRISIS MANAGEMENT
So far I have used the terms ‘crisis and ‘conflict’ interchangeably. The Chambers English Dictionary has defined crisis as “a crucial or decisive moment ….a time of difficulty and distress”, while conflict is described as “an unfortunate coincidence or opposition; violent collision”, some synonyms provided are “to fight; to contend; to be in opposition”. Conflict may be an overflow of crises. As it occurs in the Niger Delta, we may see a crisis from ethnic, political or economic dimensions, occurring hardly mutually exclusively, and manifesting in the form of protests, walkouts, strikes and often such violent expressions as killing, maiming, shooting, and kidnapping on which the study is focused.
Simply put, conflict, as manifested at the community level in the Niger Delta, is the expression of disaffection and outburst of tension built up over time, due to denied or subverted expectations. Conflicts may be violent or non-violent.
Reporting crisis takes different forms depending on the nature of the society in terms of its social structures and ethnic composition i.e. homogenous, plural, or multi-cultural societies. Owens-Ibie (2002, p33) citing Corbett, (1992) shows that “media in homogenous societies, characterized by an inclination toward consensus, tend to air conflict less than those in plural societies. Owen –Ibie goes on to state that Nigeria as a heterogeneous society tends to play out this trend. The media in the country is a terrain for airing conflict, and such coverage is a reflection of the socio-cultural and other diversities that the country typifies”.
This statement cannot be untrue if weighed against the historical background of the Nigerian state, which comprise different ethnic nationalities fused against their wishes by the colonial explorers, a contrivance in mischief (Isoumonach and Gaskia, 2001, p55). This history has therefore been characterized by the constant strive for relevance and self-determination by each component of the amalgamation, especially the so – called minority groups. Expectedly, the media assumes a center state in these agitations, a hegemonic stance at that. Hartley (2002:99) explains that:
“The crucial aspect of the notion of hegemony is not that it operates by forcing people against their will or better judgment to concede power to the already powerful, but that it works by winning consent to ways of making sense of the world that do in fact make sense…..the concept is used to show how everyday meanings, representations and activities are organized and made sense of in such a way as to render the interests of a dominant ‘bloc’ into an apparently natural and unarguable general interest, with a claim of everyone”.
Two basic approaches for assuming hegemonic control quickly come to the fore. One is the media approach; the other is the people approach. With particular reference to the Niger Delta, what Curran (2002:150) refers to as ‘dominant discourse’ finds a fitting application in the agitations of the Niger Delta people. There has been a determined resolve to keep the media (and every occasion that promises media attention) awash with messages on resource control, fiscal federalism and equal rights to national political leadership. The expected outcome is to allow national and global attention, to the plight of Niger Delta people in the Nigerian state.
The people approach is exploited when non-elite groups constitute themselves into “organizations” which are used as sources of news and comment by the media. While non-elite group, have in general restricted access to the media, this can be modified through improvements in organization (Curran, 2002 p152-153). Although this modification has come to be in the negative sense, the organization of various pressure groups and even militia forces has brought much media attention to the course of the Niger Delta in an unprecedented state. It is true that media coverage tends to favor the elite, official position. As this work shows, the news is most times written from the official stand point. By its very nature, the official is furnished with paraphernalia of office that guarantees that he makes a statement on a particular issue either in person or by proxy. The Nigerian President, for instance, has a Special Assistance for Media and Publicity, Special Adviser for Media and Publicity and host of other officials; not counting that the services of the entire Ministry of Information and National Orientation and its quasi-organizations which include the Radio and TV networks, are at his disposal. It is therefore an onerous task for the other parties in the Niger Delta to beat this communicative advantage. Should the media then give a voice only to the elite party to the exclusion of the otherThis model shows that crisis management should be in three phases. The first phase or pre-crisis phase is the time when a crisis is anticipated. Having established that in a plural, multi-cultural state like Nigeria is conflict prone, the press should always anticipate crisis by observing the signals that portend disturbance in social equation. Then the media must provide such coverage as will help to nip the crisis in the bud. The media should identify, expose, educate and enlighten citizen on those things, persons, or policies that constitute a threat to national security (Odunlanmi, 1999, p132; Galadima 2002:P62).
The next phase will be the in-crisis stage, when a nation is facing a condition of distress. Galadima (2002, p60-62) presents the atmosphere that may characterize conflict reporting. First is that reporting advertently or inadvertently gives publicity to the crisis. Reporting tends to win appreciation or engender resentment by the different parties involved. This is because certain interests are either being protected or subverted if reporting is seen as biased, it could precipitate very unwelcomed reactions. The Nigerian experience shows that the parties that are not favored by a report may descend into unleashing terror on the reporter or the organization he/she represents, and even unworthy members of the society.
Thirdly, reported violence in a conflict, especially casualty figures could lead to more violence. Nigeria is also a typical illustration of this. Whenever killing is reported, it usually precipitates reprisal attacks elsewhere.
Fourthly, it should be noted that each party in the dispute wants to have a voice through the media from where they can air their subjective opinions on the issue. The media must not become or be seen as a horn speaker for either of the parties, as that would not be without grave consequences.
Then we have the Post-Crisis stage. The media must determine, suggest and promote through editorial and commentaries, what “strategies and policies can be developed [and deployed] to prevent similar or related crisis” (Ajala 2001:180). There should be a continual emphasis on those issue that guarantee peace, justice, equity and mutual coexistence, while denouncing those that cause disaffection, frustration and distress in the system. If these steps are observed, the media would be a veritable tool for, not just crisis reporting; but crisis management through reporting.
The Origin and Nature of the Nigerian Press
Nigerian Media historians generally agree that the Nigerian Press has a Christian missionary origin. Goaded by the motive “to excite the intelligence of the people…and get them to read”, Henry Townsend established the Iwe Iroyin in 1859 (Duyile 1987 cited by Mohamed 2003:19).
Shortly, after the establishment of this mission –oriented press, the nationality press came on stream. The primary objective of this era was to attack, decimate and summarily expel the British imperialists. It was hostile to the British colonial administration. The press in this era championed the liberation struggle, agitating for sovereignty and self-governance. It had a nationalist (not a nationality) focus. This era technically ended on September 30, 1960 (Ajuluchukwu 2000:14).
Subsequently, the press had the task of engineering a new state and guiding its evolution into a viable venture. Ajuluchukwu (2000:42) speaks of the journalism of this post-independence era in this wise:
“For our professional journalists, the transition experience (from colonial to civil rule) proved sickeningly tortuous, mainly because they apparently failed to be reconciled with the fact that the emergent democratic government of independent Nigeria was not an extension of the preceding imperialist despotism. In that lingering frame of mind, the press remained hostile to the government of indigenous Nigerians as they were to the expelled British Regime. It was as though the media in the First Republic regarded our independent federal administration as a government neither of the people nor by the people and not for the people. The independent print media of the period demonstrated a clear unwillingness to give a blanket support to the government”
It is important to note the emphasis on independent media. Contrary to the independent editorial stance of private-owned media, the earlier established organsiations of the leading politicians of the three major regions – Eastern, Western, and Northern – were heavily partisan promoting the interest of the regions that had founded them. Mohammed (2003 p33-34) provides insight into the implications of this on the place and role of the press in this era:
“In the Northern Region, such media establishments as the Hausa language publication Gaskiya Tafi Kwabo established in 1948, and remained New Nigeria in 1966; and Radio Television Kaduna, established in 1962…the Western Nigerian Television founded in 1959; the tribune group of newspapers, founded in 1951 by Chief Obafemi Awolowo; Sketch Newspapers established in 1964; Dr Nnamdi Azikiwe’s West African Pilot founded in 1937 and its chain of publications, in addition to the Eastern Nigerian Television established in 1960…The attainment of independence in 1960 and the devolution of power of the petty bourgeois politicians through the three major political parties (National People’s Congress, based in and serving the North, National Council for Nigerian and Cameroon in the east and Action Group in the west)…were to impact on the of the mass media in post – colonial Nigeria.
Although they were once united in ‘fighting’ the colonial impostors, they became divided, serving partisan, ethnic and sectional interests. This may be regarded as the beginning of the nationality press in Nigeria.
Currently, there exist in the Niger Delta streams of community-based newspapers that seek to foster the Niger Delta agenda. Most of them, based in Port Harcourt, a city which, for some strategic political and socio –economic reasons may be regarded as the defacto headquarters of the Niger Delta. Some of these papers include Argus, Hard Truth, and The Beacon, among others. Appearing in the tabloid form, most of them circulate on weekly basis. Most also have their circulation scope limited to Port Harcourt, but are no less effective in shaping the opinion of the people and presenting their position on issues plaguing the oil-rich area. It is important to state that the press in the Niger Delta will make an elaborate subject for another research.
THE NIGERIAN MEDIA AND NATIONAL SECURITY
There are two positions on what constitutes national security-the militarist perspective and the developmental perspective.
The militarist perspective locates national security on the ability of a nation to deter attack or defeat it (Lippman cited in Odunlanmi, 1999 p.128). Here national security is seen as the protection of the territorial integrity of a nation by military might. Therefore, a nation should develop the necessary weaponry to curtail and prevent the invasion of her territory by enemy forces and ensure that her citizens enjoy physical freedom, political independence and that their minimum core values are protected (Odunlanmi, 1999:128). On the other hand, the developmental perspective sees national security beyond territorial security of a nation or physical safety of her citizens. As observed by Nweke (1988) :
“There is no doubt that national security embodies the sovereignty of the state, the inviolability of its national boundaries, and the right to individual and collective self-defense against internal threat. But the state is secure only when the aggregate of people organized under it has the consciousness of belongings to a common sovereign political community; enjoy equal political freedom, human rights, economic opportunities, and when the state itself is able to ensure independence in its development and foreign policy” cited in Odunlanmi (1999 p129).
Alli (2001 p201) agrees with this thought by advancing that security should be all-embracing and may include: ‘personal security and freedom from danger and crime’; ‘freedom from fear and anxiety’; ‘freedom from disease’ and ‘a general feeling of well-being’. Thus the people in a state must not just be said to have access or means of economic self-reliance, political participation, respect for basic human rights and dignity; they must be seen to enjoy these benefits. They must be seen to be sufficiently empowered to access and enjoy good food, good shelter, equal rights to political participations, right to freedom of expression and civil decent and other basic rights.
One of the basic causes of conflict in any society is the lack of free flow of communication. Each segment of society needs an outlet to vent the feelings and opinion on issues of the day. Sewant (2000 p20) speaks of civil institutions in society which are “uncommitted to any political party or ideology”. These institutions may be educational, religious, literary and cultural, sport, financial and economic, or social welfare. “These institutions”, he says, “occupy spaces in the social life not covered by the political institutions. There is a competition and even rivalry between the political and the civil institutions need a voice through the media.”
Clearly, the media must provide a platform for civil discourse and dialogue in which people must air their views on matters that concern them. When opinions are suppressed, emotions repressed, and views ignored, the result may be a state of anarchy, whose perpetrators may want to excuse on the unavailability of “option[s] other than when opinions anxious to voice their own idealistic, even altruistic, goals” (Whittaker, 2004:3).
Alli (2001:201) explains that “in a heterogeneous society like Nigeria, suppressed opinion is unhealthy to the foundation of state, it [breads] discontent and violent expression”.
In his work on ‘the capacity of the media for social mobilizations’, Folarin (2000, p104) observes that “media’s potential to counter threats to stability, minimize panic and anxiety and maintain cultural and political consensus”. By simply giving people the opportunity to talk, a lot of problems may be avoided, curtailed or solved. The media must provide this opportunity. “When the media represents and speaks on behalf of all sections of the society, particularly the voiceless, it gives meaning to democracy as a truly representative regime” (Sewant, 2000:25).
Secondly, the media have capacity to champion polices that encourage better living condition by promoting accountability, responsible leadership and good governance on the part of leaders. At the same time, should be on the vanguard of campaigns against any policies or actions that undermine national security. The media provides a platform for debates on public policies, so that both the rulers and the ruled have the opportunity to make inputs, the effect of which are far-reaching in strengthening democratic structures and guaranteeing national security. This is the correction role of the media.
Further, programming in the media should also address the need for citizenship and cultural education, so that in a plural society, like Nigeria, one segment of the polity is able to understand, appreciate and respect the other cultures extant in the society. This will cause less tension. For this to happen, it is crucial to have a media that is plural, to the extent of being representative of the different interest in the state. Oyovbaire (2000, p103) advocates for pluralism of the press in terms of an operational base that is diffused and a programming philosophy that is liberal and accommodating of interest other than that of the proprietors. Unfortunately, as Oyovbaire argues, the media has not only been concentrated in the south-west of Nigeria, particularly Lagos State, it is often seen to hold and highlight sectional opinions. In promoting national security, the media must educate and enlighten the citizens on the factors that unite them, while avoiding and dislodging divisive tendencies and sentiments (Odunlanmi, 1999:132).