A weekly column on human psychology, youth & leadership with Dr. Debilal Mishra

Media and Society keep affecting each other. Today we’ll discuss some questions relating to media, society, ethics and development in the column Finding Hope with DLM.


What is the role of the media in our lives?
We are living in a media-rich world. The media has forced into our lives in a big way and affected our intrinsic behaviour to a great extent. Without the presence of the media the various dimensions of the human life are inconceivable. However, the media has to be responsible in the context of its social performance. Since influence can cause anything, it has to be a positive influence at the end of the day.

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what’s the nature of the relationship between media and society?
It is often assumed that the media reflects the society and that it is an effective instrument of positive social change; but with the changing social conditions the nature of the media has too undergone some significant changes. Journalism today is mostly based on the concepts of the market; and it is largely susceptible to the dominant market forces.

Observed minutely, the media and society share a reciprocal relationship.  The massive paradigm shift in the patterns of the audience-need psychology and media behaviourism seems to have caused the most drastic changes in their reciprocity. The media version of the reality based on the media logic has been instrumental in  the constitution of reality with media creating the selected frames of references as suitable to their agendas.

According to Westley and MacLean, the media provide their audience with a supply of information, images, stories and impressions, sometimes according to anticipated needs, sometimes guided by their own purposes of gaining revenue or influence, and sometimes following the motives of other social institutions( eg, advertising, making propaganda, projecting favorable images).

Given this diversity of underlying motivation in the selection and flow of the images of reality, mediation can’t be seen to be a purely neutral process. The reality will always be to some extent selected and constructed and there will be certain consistent biases which will reflect especially the differential opportunities available for gaining media access and also the ‘media logic’ in constituting reality.

What’s the state of the media in the present time?
To quote Susan Faludi, a noted American journalist, ‘ the information the modern media provide leaves people feeling useless not because it is so bleak but because it is so trivial. It doesn’t inform at all; it only bombards with random data bits, faux trends and surveys that reinforce preconceptions.’  Herbert Altschull, in his book—Agents of Power: The role of News Media in Human Affairs –has dismissed the notion of social responsibility as ‘absurd’ arguing that every media system pursues the interests of those who control it.

The major symbol of twentieth-century investigative journalism, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s coverage of the Watergate Scandal for the Washington Post helped topple the Nixon White House. In All the President’s Men, the newsmen’s book about their investigation, Woodward and Bernstein portrayed reporters as tenacious individuals locked in a bitter battle with corrupt and heartless institutions.

Journalism today has entered the convergent era of information. As discussed, it has become increasingly market driven. The dominant market forces seem to be affecting the ways of the media. Initially journalism was more of a mission, a service. That’s why Mahatma Gandhi, a distinguished journalist of all time, once said, ‘I have taken up journalism not as a profession. It is a service to the society.’

What’s the importance of media ethics these days?
According to a famous American journalist Joseph Pulitzer, ‘a journalist is a lookout on the bridge of the ship of the state. He peeps through the fog and the storm to give signals of the dangers ahead. He is there to look after the welfare of the people who trust him.’ Over the period of time the concept of journalism has kept changing. It has constantly been affected by the factors like politics, economics and technology. Now the question is: does the media ethics exist in the present era of competition and propaganda?

The whole concept of media ethics rests on the principles of social responsibility of the media which sounds absurd since every media content reflects some dominant interests which are not necessarily pro-people. The media is being used as a tool to gather power, profit and prominence. The technological innovations have also multiplied the scopes for the misuse of media. The nature of the use is always determined by the nature of the user. So any evil intention can make the media content menacing and detrimental to the larger social interest.

How can the media contribute to development?
Development in the new age is all about informing responsibly. There are always two survival strategies before the media: survival through education and survival through exploitation.  When the media tries to influence the social life in a  positive way and aims at increasing the level of the media literacy of its audience, it contributes to a positive media culture. And when it exploits the low media literacy of its audience as part of the agenda, it creates a negative media culture.

The positive media-society relationship essentially requires an environment where both media and society contribute to each other’s positive growth. There are so many social complications the media has to survive in the course of its performance since the society is a complex composition in itself. With the ever-changing social perceptions of the people the social dynamism is sustained; and the media at every step has to function as part of this social dynamism. In a sense, the psychology of the society always affects the philosophy of the media; and in the process, the nature of their relationship is determined.

According to Theodore Peterson, one of the exponents of the social responsibility perspective and one of the authors of the Four Theories of Press, ‘freedom carries concomitant obligations; and the press which enjoys a privileged position under our government, is obliged to be responsible to society for carrying out certain essential functions of mass communication in the contemporary society. To the extent that the press recognises its responsibilities and makes them the basis for operational policies, the libertarian system will satisfy the needs of society.

To the extent that the press doesn’t assume its responsibilities, some other agency must see that the essential functions of mass communication are carried out’. Peterson has further said that ‘the responsibilities include servicing the political system by providing information, discussion and debate on public affairs, enlightening the public so as to make it capable of self-government, safeguarding the rights of the individual by serving as a watchdog against government and so on’.

The positive media can activate the positive energy of the people in favour of the social progressiveness. The media is said to be the mirror image of the society. And that way it reflects the society. But the theory of reflection assumes that the quality of the reflection is largely dependent on the quality of the lens/reflector. And in the process of reflection there is some distortion of the real image. That is to say, reflection is just one image of the reality or one impression of the truth which may be misleading due to some natural distortions involved in the process.

The media, therefore, shouldn’t reflect the society since there are a lot of limitations in reflection; rather, it may strive to explore the social realities, expand the social knowledge and enrich the social conditions. Thus it can contribute in the making of a positive democratic society by being an instrument of positive change.

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