Bhaskar Parichha, a senior journalist, explores the role of editors in swaying public opinion.
In recent years the increasing influence of the media has changed the shape of Politics all over the globe. Consequently, it has raised provocative questions about journalism’s role in the political process. There are questions about media’s effect on the political system and the subsystems– the legislature, the executive and the lobbies.
Is media power in politics a myth or an exaggeration? Who influences whom? When does the media power peaks and when does it touch the bottom — these and similar other questions, however, defy any clear cut answer.
Research suggests that the media effect on politics cannot be answered in broad generalities. There are various types of effects, on various types of political dispositions, at various levels of political activity, under various conditions. Further, the mass media are highly diverse in content, of which politics is only a minuscule part .
In politics, the mass media influences not only individual opinion but also the way politics is conducted. If political roles are changing, so are the expectations of politicians. Changes take place even between the relationship of followers and leaders, and also, perhaps, some of the values of political life itself.
Walter Lippmann, the renowned American Journalist and political analyst, once said: “Journalists point a flashlight rather than a mirror at the world.” Accordingly, the audience does not receive a complete image of the political scene, they get a highly selective series of glimpses instead. Reality is also tainted. It was his view that the media cannot possibly perform the functions of public enlightenment that democratic theory requires. He reasoned that mass media cannot tell the truth objectively because the truth is subjective and entails more probing and explanation than the hectic pace of news production allows.
Images of reality portrayed by the media differ from country to country. Judging by their respective media, audiences are apt to form varied images about events and the international ramifications. Different media produce different opinions. There is no commonality in which political actors and actions deserve the spotlight and which should be regarded positively, negatively, or neutrally.
Influence also depends on the credibility of the media and on the esteem with which their audiences regard them. A TIMES NOW story or one by CNN-IBN will attract diverse opinion from viewers. So,credibility is the big thing in media exposes.
Nearly everyone acknowledges that the media play a powerful role in our public and private lives. Also,opinions about the media and estimates of their influence on society’s other institutions are important barometers of democracy’s functioning. On the other hand, attitudes about the media have at times been highly critical and critiques of the press have spanned a century and several continents..
Whether the media actually impede the operations of the other three organs of democracy is difficult to say, but as the Indian experience shows, media have an abiding influence on government and its institutions than the institutions have on the media.
American humorist Will Rogers said long ago, “All I know is just what I read in the papers.” For many Indian politicians there is a good bit of truth in this aphorism — what they learn about ongoing political events — comes primarily from the news media.Therefore, media as a supplier of information undoubtedly molds public opinion and influences political decisions. If the media guides citizens’ attention to certain issues and influences their thinking process, it goes without saying that the media influences politics. That, in essence, is the reasoning behind the agenda-setting hypothesis of scholars like Maxwell E. McCombs and Donald L. Shaw.
Agenda-setting or the ability of the media to influence the course of events in the public mind has been part of the political culture of the United States of America for nearly a century. The idea of agenda-setting asserts that the priorities of the press to some degree become the priorities of the public. What the press emphasizes is, in turn, emphasized privately and publicly by the audiences.
In 1952, the Republicans led by Dwight Eisenhower successfully exploited the three Ks — Korea, Corruption and Communism — in order to regain the White House after a hiatus of twenty years. The prominence of those three issues, cultivated by press reports extending over many months and accented by partisan campaign advertising, worked against the incumbent Democratic Party.
There are numerous instances of how popular American presidents’ actions and statements reported in the media affected public opinion. These include President Nixon’s persistent opposition to accelerating troop withdrawals from Vietnam during 1969,1970 and 1971;Reagan’s 1981 argument of AWACS airplane sales to Saudi Arabia; Carter’s 1977-78 increased attention to Arab countries, his 1982 bellicose posturing towards the Soviet Union; Ford’s 1974-75 defense of military spending and Carter’s advocacy of cuts in domestic spending . In contrast, a number of unpopular presidents made serious efforts to advocate policies but failed to persuade the public.
In no area of public life have practicing politicians take media effects more seriously than during elections. Political campaign organizers spend much time, effort and money to attract favorable media attention to candidates for major electoral offices. When their candidates lose, they frequently blame the tone of media coverage or rather the lack of it.
There is an old saying that there is many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip. It is one thing for politicians to try to create a particular image and another for that image to be conveyed to people and, through them, to the voting public.
Systematically establishing the impact of election communication on the public’s opinions and behavior is a real challenge. The nature of campaign coverage has also a profound impact on the way people vote. This is confirmed by how people tended to view the candidate – as the winner or the loser. As for the media, that old line of legendary coach Vince Lombardi – Winning Isn’t Everything, It’s The Only Thing — is taken to heart and the public response usually follows suit.
The media affect politics and public policies in a variety of ways. By mobilizing hostile public or interest group opinions the media may force a halt to political choices. But, as a general rule, journalists should disclaim any motivation to influence public policies through their news stories. Except for the editorial pages, their credo calls for objective, neutral reporting. Only investigative stories may be the major exceptions to this rule.
Contemporary political folklore pictures the media as adversaries of officialdom who alert the citizens to governmental misdeeds or failures. In reality, there are, or may occur, many situations when officials and journalists work together to bring about needed action.
The power of news people rests largely in their ability to select news for publication and feature it as they choose. Many people in and out of government try to influence these media choices. But in the ultimate analysis, it is the editor and news directors –the gatekeepers in news media — who decide which item to pass and which to kill.
First published in Bhaskar Parichha’s blog
Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha (2020) and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.
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