Is the Innovation a Distraction? Television News Ticker, Viewer Comprehension and Perceptions

Technological breakthroughs are continually playing very significant roles in the process of information dissemination through the mass media. The need to break news and necessary information to the teeming television news audience, in the midst of news and non-news programme(s) without necessarily breaking the flow of such programme(s), introduced as innovation whereby the audience do not only watch and listen to television news, they also read the news. The innovation is called news ticker bar. Since news ticker started as tool for breaking news events, people are wondering if it has deviated from that function and has taken over from the main newscast and if it is now also used for other news information – Soft news. It is against this backdrop that this study seeks to find out audience perception of news ticker use on television and what role news tickers play in viewer comprehension of the news.

 

Is the Innovation a Distraction? Television News Ticker, Viewer Comprehension and Perceptions

 

By

 

Chinenye Nwabueze, Ph.D

 

And

 

Ogechukwu Eluemuno

 

 

 

Abstract

This work is an evaluation study of audience perception of use of news tuckers on television. It adopts the survey method in studying a sample size 399 respondents in three cities in southeastern part of Nigeria – Awka, Onitsha. In-depth oral interview was also used to elicit response from some management staff of the television stations which audience were the focus studied – Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and Silver Bird Television on their views of news ticker use on television. it draws its methodology from similar studies by Keefe-Feldman (2007) and Nwabueze (2011). The objective of the study are to determine respondents’ perception of news ticker on Television, to determine whether the main newscast working together with the news ticker is a form of distraction and information overload, to ascertain what motivates audience exposure to news ticker, and to determine factors that can make news ticker have an impact on viewers lasting comprehension of the main newscast? The study found among others that from the perceptive of the audience, news bar and main newscast play complimentary roles since the news ticker gives information that is a fore knowledge of what to expect in the main newscast, and that when news ticker content is presented in simple language, precisely and straight to the point, it helps the viewers to remember and understand what they have heard in the main newscast. It was recommended that television houses should have editors in charge of the news information ticker bar so that they can always edit the news information in the ticker bar and also check typographical errors.

 

Key Words: News tickers, crawlers, main news cast, television screen

 

 Introduction

Technological breakthroughs are continually playing very significant roles in the process of information dissemination through the mass media. These advances in the communication process have brought about a paradigm shift from the information age to what is known as the attention age – “the age of human history in which information has become so abundant and available that attention has become the greatest commodity” (Aaron Endre.com, 2009, p.1). The struggle for audience attention has led to the innovation of media convergence which refers to “blurring the lines between media” (de sole Pool, 1987, cited in Fagerjord et al, 2010, p.3) or “different services integrating into one platform” (Fagerjord et al, 2010, p.3. The need to break news and necessary information to the teeming television news audience, in the midst of news and non-news programme(s) without necessarily breaking the flow of such programme(s), introduced as innovation whereby the audience do not only watch and listen to television news, they also read the news. The innovation is called news ticker bar.

Also referred to as news ticker or crawls, this is a small screen space on news television networks dedicated to presenting headlines or minor pieces of news. This moving strip of news often located at the lower part of the screen provides viewers with the headlines while they are watching reports on related or other events. Nwabueze (2011) writes that the emergence of news tickers or crawlers could be described as fallout of the attention age era where information goes in search of the audience and not vice versa as is the case in the information age.

Since the introduction of news tickers, the landscape of the television has changed. In addition to the tradition interviews, video footage, graphics and voiceovers, most television networks have added a swiftly moving line of text to the mix, prompting viewers to do something unexpected while watching television – read (Keefe-Feldman, 2007). These lines of text referred to by the television industry as the crawl, have extended a practice once reserved for breaking news and emergency alerts. They have evolved to a nearly 24-hour practice on some networks, continuously offering pieces of information ranging from hard news to updates in celebrity love entanglements (Keefe-Feldman, 2007).

Speculations on the reasons for the growth of the news ticker bar are numerous. Many point to the events of September 11, 2011 as a launching pad for the technique, observing that the amount of demand for information required a supplement to audio and video footage. As Sella (2001, p.66) observes, “News has become impossible to channel through a single televised human.”

Some other scholars have described the emergence of news ticker as effort by television stations to measure up with the competition for news audience by the traditional mass media and the new media (online media).. According to Everett & Caldwell, (2003: 11), “24-hour News networks sustained adoption of the continual News crawl is an effort to ensure that we don’t avert our gaze from the television in the information-rich internet age”.

Research evidence (Edwardson et al, 1985) suggest that the availability of video text may lead to a better informed public as it requires more active behaviour and attention that audio newscasts. However, there appears to be a dearth of studies to determine whether the newer generation of news crawl would have such an effect. In fact, the function and importance of the news crawl how it is utilized and how it affects viewers – is only beginning to be explored.

Although some researchers have begun to grapple with the Crawl’s effect on viewers’ attention to and recall of news broadcasts (Blain, 2002), there appears to be little research to date that has attempted to define and described the content of the crawl and also how the audience perceive the use of this crawl or ticker bar in television programming. This study is on audience perception of news tickers on television with a view to understanding reasons for exposure or non-exposure to these tickers bars.

Statement of Problem

News tickers or crawls are news presentation concepts that have become a permanent feature in most television stations’ screens both in Nigeria and abroad. The crawlers are used to television houses to re-enforce news formation in more ways than one. Keefe-Feldman, (2007) writes that since news ticker is a function of new technology equipped with a programme for social change, conditions brought on by technological change should not be embraced without attempting to fully comprehend all potential effects first.

It should not be assumed that the ticker by offering more information is automatically a positive development for news viewers. However, its benefits and unintended consequences should be understood, keeping in mind that no medium is excessively dangerous if its viewers understand what its dangers are (Keefe-Feldman, 2007).

Moreover, there is still the confusion as to whether news viewers prefer the ticker to the main newscast and vice versa. While some think “it is source of distraction from the main newscast since one has to move the eyes between the main newscast and the ticker bar as to consume as much as much information as one can, others take it to be a source of information overload which is basically meant for only the educated (Keefe-Feldman, 2007).

Since news ticker started as tool for breaking news events, people are wondering if it has deviated from that function and has taken over from the main newscast and if it is now also used for other news information – Soft news. It is against this backdrop that this study seeks to find out audience perception of news ticker use on television and what role news tickers play in viewer comprehension of the news.

 

 

Objectives of Study

The major objective of this study is to determine audience perception of the use of News ticker bar on television. Specifically, the study sets out to do the following:

  1. To determine respondents’ perception of news ticker on Television.
  2. To determine whether the main newscast working together with the news ticker is a form of distraction and information overload.
  3. To ascertain what motivates audience exposure to news ticker.
  4. To determine factors that can make news ticker have an impact on viewers lasting comprehension of the main newscast?

Research Questions

The research work sought to provide answers to the following questions:

  1. What is the audience perception of news ticker bar on television?
  2. What is the perception of the relationship between the contents of main newscast and ticker bar?
  3. What motivates viewers’ exposure to news ticker?
  4. What are the factors that can make news ticker bar have an impact on viewers lasting comprehension of the main newscast?

Theoretical Frame Work

This study is anchored on the uses and gratification theory propounded in by 1074 by Elihu Katz, jay Blumler and Michael Gurevitch (cited in Aneto, Onabajo and Osifeso 2008), the theory says that audience media use is based in certain satisfaction, needs, wishes or motives. These needs basically include information, relation, companionship, diversion or escape (McQuail, 2008). Similarly, Marghalani, Palmgreen and Boyd (1998, p.4) posit that the uses and gratifications theory “parents a coherent explanation of how the audience actively use the media to gratify their own needs and motivations.” The idea that media use depends on the perceived satisfaction, needs, wishes or motives of the prospective audience members is almost as old as media research itself. Audience for particular media and kinds of media content can often be typified according to such broad motivational types. McQuail (2008:423) says that “the approach has also been applied to studying the appeal of new electronic media”. he goes on to say “that relative affinity with different media is associated with difference of expectation and gratification sought”.

McQuail (2008) writes that studies on uses and gratification date back to the early 1940’s and focused on the reasons for the popular appeal of different radio programmes, especially soap operas and quizzes. McQuail further lists the basic assumptions of the theory as follows: media and content choice is generally rational and directed towards certain specific goals and satisfactions (thus the audience is active and audience formation can be logically explained): audience members are conscious of the media-related needs which arise in personal (individual) and social (shared) circumstances and can voice these in terms of motivation; personal utility is a more significant determinant of audience formation than aesthetic or cultural factors; all or most of the relevant factors for audience formation (motives, perceived or obtained satisfactions, media choices, background variables) can, in principle, be measured.

Television audience would expose themselves to news tickers based on gratifications they would derive from such exposure. The use of news ticker or crawlers as information sources by the audience could be determined by certain factors that motivate such use or exposure. The assumption is that media users have a reason for choosing a particular media source that will gratify their craving for a particular media content. News ticker is media content that plays the role of “more information” in television news cast. So, this approach will help us find out: why news viewers are exposed to it and what gratification (or not) they get from it.

Review of Related Literature

Crawl’s Beginnings

The birth of text on a television screen dates back to 1980 where financial news network added a stock ticker to the bottom of the screen Sella (2001). McCllellan, et al (2001) went on to say that in 1991 came the “buy” –a networks logo in the lower right corner of the television screen to help viewers find the networks they were seeking.

A decade later, scrolling texts and information tidbits at the bottom of television screens become a popular trend. Since 2001, numerous news, and network and entertainment channels have added news crawls or news tickers to their programs. In the past says McClellan, et al (2001) “news crawls were used sparingly to announce breaking news though sports statistics and scores as well as stock reports have been crawling along the bottom of television for years”. King (2002) writes that today’s version of the crawl did not become part of the daily news screen until the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when news programmes that were inundated with news happenings”.

Few months after the attack, Larry King said in one of his live shows as cited in Rutenbery (2001) that the crawl is no longer necessary, but it had become a tradition that no network was willing to drop because crawl’s and other enhancements were a toll to increase viewership among younger audiences. However, what is certain according to Moroe (2001) is that CNN had been preparing to introduce the crawl since the later summer of 2001 but when September 11, 2001 came about, the network rushed the new feature to air that day. Sella (2001) went on to say that actually, Fox news channel first broadcast a continuous news ticker on 9/11. Sella added that Fox’s crawl began at 10:49am. CNN followed 22 minutes later and MSNBC joined the pack just before 2pm.

The news ticker became permanent fixture in the wake of 9/11 and would soon become a portal for news on everyone from “Saddam and Bin Laden to J.L.O and Ben” (Phan, 2003:12). Interestingly, MSNBC temporarily removed its ticker once the chaos of 9/11 died down a bit, “but quickly put it back in action after other cable news outlets failed to follow its lead “(Romano, 2002).

How does the ticker work? Blain and Meeds, (2004) write that it is produced using a character generator that operates on a continuous basis (that is, even when you cannot see it on screen, such as during commercial breaks). Some items in news crawls come from news wire services and others come from in house sources, but all go through a producer who decides which among the vast array of story summaries will hit the screen (Phan 2003).

On September 11, 2001 and in the days immediately following, cable channels used crawls to re-enforce messages from the main story (which was nearly always related to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in some way). Broadcast networks CBS, NBC and Fox also made use of the ticker in this way. However, gradually, the tickers content began to shift. According to Al Ortiz, head of special event coverage at CBN News cited in McCllellan et al (2001) “We use tickers to compliment what’s being said on the air. We do that so it won’t be distracting or contradictory. I have seen quite a few cases on other outlets where the crawl contradicts what the anchor or reporter is saying. We go out of our way to make sure it’s consistent with what we are reporting on the air”.

The kind of re-enforcing ticker Ortiz describes became less common on television news outlet as time went on after 9/11. Now, the crawl is seldom related to the story that the anchor or reporter is reporting on. Because of this, some have speculated that viewers will find themselves “………….. easily distracted by information that does not relate to the main story” (Sella.2001). More and more local news stations are adopting tickers of their own: such services feature news under a variety headings, including strange news (Keefe-Feldman, 2007).

It is clear that not everyone is completely satisfied with the ubiquitous news ticker. In fact, former CNN president Jim Walton has indicated that he is not a crawl fan and nearly 200 people signed an online petition asking channels to get rid of it (Keefe-Feldman, 2007). According to Newsday newspaper as cited in Phan (2003), the petition stated in part “…………. the crawl distracts viewers from important issues and calls to question the cable news network’s real purpose and intent”.

Walton is not the only television news industry insider to question the value of the crawl. Some others have decided that on the run of the mill news day, the news ticker serves no valid purpose and in fact may even detract from the effectiveness of news broadcasts (Keefe-Feldman, 2007). For example, Mike Cavender, news director of WACL in Atlanta, explains that his station stopped employing the news ticker because he “had people tell him that some stations or networks provide too much information, too much to digest” (Steinberg, 2007: B7N). It seems Cavendar’s station stopped using the crawl because his viewers were in effect complaining of information overload.

The question here now is whether the ticker in actually presenting new and different information or re-enforcing the information presented within the main (non-ticker) news story? On September 11, 2001 all or nearly all of the news item’s presented within the tickers or on cable news channels were related to the main news story; both the reporters and commentators in the main part of the television screen and the ticker at the bottom of the screen were delivering information to viewers about the mornings terrorist attacks. In such a context, it is less likely that the ticker is more likely to re-enforce the information already being presented in the main portion of the television screen.

 

 

Television News and News Ticker

News tickers became popular and regular among major television stations in the U.S because the management of the three major news channels in that country felt that news tickers would help increase viewership amongst viewers with the ability to process multiple simultaneous streams of information for audience consumption. This same reason apparently informed the popularity of the use of news tickers by television stations across the globe. Nullriver (2011; describes news ticker as the news reading revolution. News ticker innovation is in fact, news in search of the audience, as opposed to the audience in search of news.

In the communication field, scholars have discussed the importance of understanding which media are best for a particular human need (Katz, et aL 1973). In the same vein, scholars find that “when news media appear on the scene, they often begin to blend with older media, blurring the lines between assorted media” (Davis, etal 1998). It is now happening with cable news, which according to Steinberg (2007: B7N) have been described as “TV as a web page and the next logical step in an age in which the computer and the television screen have already done everything but merge”

However, constantly giving viewers a choice of what to pay attention to may not always be the best route; after all, one of news media’s primary responsibilities is to edit on behalf of the public, to sort through all the different stories and then focus audience attention on those that truly matter (Schwartz 2004). By simply handing that choice over to the audience, Schwartz further observes, media producers may feel that they are empowering their audiences, but if the choices become cognitively overwhelming, such a technique is not so much an empowerment of citizens as it is an abdication of journalistic responsibility. In other words, “the fact that some choice is good doesn’t necessarily mean that more choice is better; there is a cost to having an overload of choice” (Schwartz 2004:3).

One of the main things that television news has done well or at least far better than other news mediums is emotional engagement of the viewer especially in regard to studies that the viewer did not previously care about. One has to wonder according to Sella (2001) if the news ticker is therefore detracting from one television news’ advantages since the crawl contains information that would seen jarring or silly if spoken aloud in midst of weighty war events. In other words, could the news ticker decrease Television news power of emotional engagement by dividing a viewer’s focus?

Another of television news strong points is its ability to warn people in imminently dangerous situations such as hurricanes, attacks, floods, etc. It has been found that, “in order for an already distracted citizenry to pay any attention to the media, the media truly needs to crank up its presentation style” (Enterman, 2004).

While there will always, be those who decry television as utterly worthless, scholars who have given much thought to the role of television in society tend to realize that, if nothing else, it has the power to unite us and that is no small feat in such a large, geographically- dispersed democracy (Keefe-Feldman, 2007).

Further, television cannot only give people the chance to come together in bonding experiences, but it may also have the capacity is galvanize citizens about public events (Fouhy,1995). This occurs most often when big stories arise; “big” news stories tend to create the most opportunity for shared dialogue (Lawrence and Bennet, 2000). In this sense, the breaking news, round- the- clock coverage of breaking stories on television may actually be desirable.

While the crawl may increase the potential that a viewer will stay tuned by offering multiple potential attention targets, it may also potential reduce the possibility for shared dialogue (Keefe-Feldman, 2007).

Studies have shown that people typically retain much of the televised information they receive yet they keep watching – perhaps because television does an excellent job of making one feel informed (Buckingham, 1999). Televisions future will be what we make of it, and research does indicate that viewers can learn from television when they are actually paying attention (Chaffe and Franks, 1996). In addition, citizen opinions of what is important have been shown to be affected by television news (Chaffe and Franks, 1996).

Media critics who rail against the evils of television and television news often fail to take into account how pleasurable the experience of watching television can be if television is to continue to serve as a source of inspiration for community dialogue. Its entertaining and information qualities must be preserved and improved upon, hence, the emergence of news tickers. It is in this context that we might consider the ticker on television news outlets, a feature that combines the two functions mentioned above, perhaps to the effect of entertaining a viewer while at the same time making one feel that one is spending one’s time in a worthwhile manner. After surpassing newspaper as the most used news source, television news remains a dominant force in the media world.

It is hoped that at the end of this study, the reader will know if the news ticker is important in television news or if it is a source of information overload and distraction to the news viewer.

News Ticker: The Nigerian Experience

As the media all over the world added the news ticker to their news programmes. Nigeria was not left behind. The media in Nigeria also joined the “band wagon” of other media that want to give their audience “all of the news” at the same time.

African Independent Television (AIT) and Channels television are the fore runners of this media concept. The started using this concept in the early 2000’s.

When they started (just like in America), other stations followed suit. Now stations like Nigeria Television Authority (NTA), Silverbird Television (STV), DBN, TV Continental, Minaj Broadcast International (MBI), Galaxy and so many others now use news tickers. NTA which is a government owned station started using news ticker in 2008.

According to Mr. Shola Atere, the deputy director news (NTA), “the station started using news tickers because the state of television started changing all over the world. We also started using it because we want to cue into the modern trend of providing news information to the viewers and also comply to the modern way of news reporting” (Atere, 2011, an interview)

Mr. Shola Atere said that what is in the news tickers are usually news stories from all over the world and news stories that have been aired. According to him, “In the tickers, there’s always a story title. The ticker is an additional to some of the stories that are transmitted but they are always news about what is happening all over the world including Nigeria. Some of the main newscast might be there but not necessarily what is been aired at the time. It is news on its own though part of what is transmitted might be there. Most of it is what makes news all over the world including Nigeria.”

When asked what he thinks audience perception about news tickers is, Mr. Atere said “the state of television has changed all over the world so people have actually blended to it. You won’t believe the kind of feedback we get. If there’s a typographical error for instance, somebody texts and tell us, that means that they are watching, that tells us that they like it. It provides additional information that can’t go into the news bulletin because the bulletin can’t accommodate everything that happens all over the world.

Silverbird Television (STV) which is a privately owned station started the use of news ticker in 2007. According to Mrs. Olayinka Ogundimu, the programmes manager STV, “news tickers which we call scroll messages is used during some programmes like musical programmes as an interactive medium- viewers are able to send out SMS messages to their loved ones. This attracts a some fees and is used for commercial purposes”(Ogundimu. 2011). She said that in STV “Scroll messages are used to break news when there is an important news item and the on-going program can’t be interrupted. Scroll messages are also used during the news as bullet points for the viewers to still be in -tune with what the news is all about and as news filter in, the news editor could send in the scroll messages before the news is fully developed.”

When asked if the main news cast and news ticker bar are always the same, she said “When scroll messages are used on news, the bullet points correspond with the news but not necessarily the particular item being read by the news anchor. She added that viewers don’t complain about the use of scroll messages and we can say it should be commended because it is an additional means of information.

In Nigeria major television stations now feature permanent use of news tickers. Such television stations as Africa Independent Television (AIT), Channels Television, Nigeria Television Authority (NTA), Silver Bird Television, and many other state or federal government owned and privately owned television stations feature news ticker bars on screen. Today, the use of news tickers is seen as a sign of modernization of television news presentation.

Method

The research methods adopted for this study are survey and oral interview methods. While the survey method was used in eliciting data from audience of Silverbird TV and NTA in Awka and Onitsha cities in Anambra State, in-depth oral interview was also used to elicit response from two management staff of the two television stations which audience were the focus of studied – Nigerian Television Authority (NTA) and Silver Bird Television on their views of news ticker use on television. NTA and Silverbird audience in Awka and Onitsha constituted the study population. A sample of 399 subjects was drawn out of a population of 728,857 residents in two cities (Awka and Onitsha) in Anambra State.

The reason for the study choice of Awka and Onitsha audience as the study population lies in the fact that a study of this nature requires audiences who are exposed and have access to television and indeed watch NTA and Silverbird television and audience who have attained the required educational qualification can be found in the areas chosen for the study. The sample size for this study is 399.  The researcher arrived at this sample size through the use of Taro Yamane’s formular for determining the sample size

The formular is stated thus:

n = N

1 + N (e)2

Where n = Sample size

N = Population

e = Error Margin

In view of the fact that both Onitsha and Awka cities are densely populated, the researchers used discretion to purposively allocate the numbers studied in each city (Awka – 199, Onotsha – 200). The responses on the items of the questionnaires are rated on a five point rating scale as follows:

 

Strongly Agree           –       5

Agree                        –       4

Undecided                 –       3

Disagree                    –       2

Strongly Disagree       –       1

The data obtained for each item were analyzed by taking a weighted average of the scores on the responses using the formular:

Mean (x)        = Fx

N

Where X = Sample mean, F = Frequency and X is the value allocated to the variable used. The level of acceptance based on the five point rating scale is 3.00. Scores from 3.00 above show acceptance while scores below 3.00 indicates rejection.

Discussion of Findings

The foregoing has examined the findings of a survey designed to explore the audience perception on the use of news ticker bar on television. Using two towns in Anambra State, Nigeria, the study came out with interesting findings.

Overall, the study reveals that despite the fact that media houses often times deviate from the actual function of news ticker bars, television audience believe that it is good innovation in our broadcast media. This can be proved in the option six (6) to the research question I which has a mean rating of 3.6. This also tallies with the findings in the study by Nwabueze (2011) which also found that audience see news tickers as a welcome development.

The research also found out that though some people see it as an information overload (3.1), more believe that it provides information that is not in the newscasts (3.6). This is a plus for the television medium since one can always read up what was not contained in the news bulletin. This contradicts findings in the study by Keefe-Feldman (2011) which revealed that the presence of the news ticker is significantly negatively correlated with viewer comprehension of main story information. Again, the study revealed that the transient nature of broadcast news, the way the information in the ticker bar is presented and the prominence news values attached to the news that was broadcast are what motivate audience that are satisfied with the amount of news that get on a typical day to still expose themselves to news ticker bar. This can be proved in options 17, 18 and 19 to the research question 3 which has a mean rating of 3.5, 3.3 and 3.3 respectively.

The researchers were also able to find out that there is a relationship between the contents of main newscast and ticker bars because it (news ticker bar) shows the summary of the main newscast (3.4) and because though they are not always related, they are both informative. Some of the respondents also believe that the news ticker bar gives information that is a foreknowledge of what to expect in the main newscast (3.3) which according to findings by Nwabueze (2011) means that main newscast and news tickers play complimentary roles.

Furthermore, it was revealed that simplicity of the language used in the ticker bar and how precise and straight to the point the information in the ticker bar are the factors that can help the viewers to remember and understand what they have heard in the main newscast.

Finally, this study has been able to reveal that television news viewers/ audience accept the use of news ticker bar on television hence the positive mean ratings gotten from the options to the research questions.

Conclusion  

From the data generated and analyzed in the course of this research, the following conclusions were drawn. News ticker bar is a good innovation in the broadcast media and that it works side by side the main news cast.

News ticker bars have a relationship with the main newscast in the sense that they are both news dissemination format and they are both informative. News ticker bars and main newscast play complimentary roles since the news ticker gives information that is a fore knowledge of what to expect in the main newscast.

When news tickers are presented in simple language, precisely and straight to the point, it helps the viewers to remember and understand what they have heard in the main newscast.

Recommendations

Based on the findings of this work, the following constructive recommendations are therefore proffered to improve the use of news ticker bar on television;

That television houses should have editors in charge of the news information ticker bar so that they can always edit the news information in the ticker bar and also check typographical errors.

Using the same research method, future research exploring the role and function of news crawls in terms of reading speed, recall and information processing should be conducted.

Caution should be made in generalizing the findings of this study to other audience in other parts of the country. This is because the sample was not randomly picked to guarantee that. For this reason, future studies of this nature should strive to use sample that is randomly picked. Such studies should not be restricted to one state and two television stations alone but also other states and television stations in the federation. This would make for comparison, with the aim of establishing the exact perception of different audiences in different states on the use of news ticker bar on television.

 

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The Author

Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a communication researcher with several years of lecturing experience in Nigerian universities.

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