Media is the disseminator of information and a catalyst of social change. It is the media which is responsible for bringing the day-to-day happenings of the world to the people; it is the media which connects nations together across the globe. Media is a reflection of the society. The way media depicts certain things ultimately shapes the public opinion and gives them a definite form and a sense of justice. The term “media” generally refers to the “mass media” which is specifically envisioned to reach a very large audience, the population of a nation state and to the entire world. The forms of media have been changing since the days of India’s freedom struggle beginning with printed newspaper to present electronic e-paper, television, mobile phone, etc. The advent of new technology has revolutionised not only the print media but also the electronic media in the ways how news is collected, processed and finally disseminated at local, regional, national and international level. Media came into existence in 1780 in India with the introduction of a newspaper namely ‘The Bengal Gazette’ and since then it has matured by leaps and bounds. The role of media can be traced back to the freedom struggle against the oppressive British rule. The newspapers and journals such as ‘Harijan’ and ‘Young India’ started by Mahatma Gandhi, regional newspaper ‘Kesari’ started in Marathi by Balgangadhar Tilak and many more had inspired the freedom struggle leading to the events which ultimately led to India’s independence on August 15, 1947. Media especially the newspapers, journals and magazines were guided by a purpose and an ideology to better the human society and guide the readers to walk on the path of morality and honesty. It was so because the nation was under siege and the British empire was draining the wealth by making Indian society weak and internally divided.
Now in the modern era, the media finds itself trapped in the cage of vices such as sensationalism, exaggeration of facts, fake newsandpaid news.In circumstances like this, is it justified to say that media as an agent of social change puts forth the reality and acts as the reflection of what we are and help us steer towards bright future? Don’t we feel that the role of media should go beyond just being a mirror in order to become creative and constructive for saving the values on which we as a society stand collectively? The modern media often tends to forget some of its basic social responsibilities. Firstly, it often indulges in sensationalising news to attract the attention of readers and focus on stepping up their TRP (Television Rating Point) to get more and more number of viewers. This is nothing but a yellow journalism. For example, the news of celebrities (particularly the film and sports personalities) is covered in a much wider way to provoke the baser instincts of readers and viewers than the cracking of a terror module by Delhi Police, Indian Army or a common citizen of the country. We also see cases of under-reporting regarding the act of benevolence and generosity by a person or an institution in our society. Secondly, vested interests in politics, trade, business, industry and crime pay for the news they want to broadcast, telecast or publish with the collusion of anchors, reporters and writers. This is called paid news. According to a Press Council’s report, paid news is defined as any news or analysis appearing in print or electronic media in consideration of cash or kind. Manifestations of paid news are: advertisements camouflaged as news, denial of coverage to select electoral candidates, exchanging of advertisement space for equity stakes between media houses and corporate. As per the reports of Press Council, it has received 58 cases of paid news during 2018-19 from the Election Commission and others. The Department related to Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology in its 47th report on “Issues related to Paid News” identified corporatisation of media, desegregation of ownership and editorial roles, decline in autonomy of editors/journalists due to emergence of contract system and poor wage levels of journalists as key reasons for the rise in the incidence of paid news. It urged the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to ensure periodic review of the autonomy of editors/journalists and their wage conditions.
There can be no doubt at all in the aforementioned statement that media has the onerous duty of promoting communal harmony in the nation. The Preamble of our Constitution uses the word ‘secular’ and since Preamble is the key to unlock the mind of the drafters of our Constitution, this makes it an eloquent case that secularism is one of the foremost features of multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-religious society such as India. All of us have experienced that India is the garden where people from diverse backgrounds, cultures, traditions live together. In a background like this, what sort of role should media play to promote and preserve the spirit of coexistence and attitude of tolerance towards each other? History says all about how Hindus were butchered, looted and converted forcibly to another faith by invaders for more than 5 centuries before Britishers arrived to subjugate the entire nation and divide us on the basis of caste and religion which came on fore at the time of Partition of India. We have seen how inter-religious harmony and spirit of tolerance took a back seat when a number of religious riots erupted when one or other religious group was targeted in independent India. For example, the 1984 anti-Sikh riots erupted in response to the assassination of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984 at her residence in Safdarjung Road, New Delhi. The unfortunate riots continued from October 31 to November 3, killing thousands of Sikhs in Delhi and other parts of the country. Similarly, the Godhra Train Burning, on the morning of February 27, 2002, killed 59 Hindu pilgrims inside the Sabarmati Express train near the Godhara railway station in Gujarat. The incident disturbed the inter-religious harmony which led to another unfortunate incident of the 2002 Gujarat riots, also known as the 2002 Gujarat violence, from February to March, in which scores of Muslims lost their lives. Here comes the importance of media as agents of positive change by promoting inter-religious harmony without displaying any coloured motive and by being neutral while reporting. It is in these situations where people trust news channels, news reports and get carried away by them. Anchors, editors and reporters as responsible journalists must play positive roles to avoid any attempts to spread hatred against any community. In such a trying situation, the reports of the journalists and the credibility of media are tested as such reports can either make or break the nation.
Media needs to understand that the way it depicts the news and presents it for its readers and viewers casts a kind of indelible impression on their minds. Just imagine when readers or viewers come across a news such as a Hindu activist killed by Muslim clerics due to a case of blasphemy, two Muslimboys beaten up to death by a Hindumob, a Dalitgirl raped and Amarnath Yatris attacked and killed by fundamentalist Muslims in Kashmir. One can easily find such headlines where the religion of victims and perpetrators of attack are often quoted by media. This creates a negative impression in the mind of a rational reader that only a particular community is being harassed thereby causing bigotry in our thinking. Is this the reality? Certainly not! People from all communities are victimised.
Looking at the other side, one cannot turn a blind eye to the benefits of media in nation building. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the First Prime Minister of independent India, called media ‘the watchdog of our democracy’. This in itself is a huge responsibility thrust upon media to steer the functioning of our society in the right direction. Media people must be extremely cautious as to what they are serving to people and must provide them in-depth insight on important issues which concern their life and nation. The role of media in shaping and influencing the democracy of the world’s largest democracy—India, has made it earn the title of ‘the fourth pillar or the fourth estate’ of democracy just at par with legislature, executive and judiciary. It is worth quoting late Thomas Jefferson who was an American statesman, diplomat, lawyer, architect, and ‘Founding Father’ who served as the third President of the United States from 1801 to 1809, “If it were left on me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Media helps the citizens in electing their representatives and forming a responsible government. It not only provides information with the help of which people make such choices but also shows the government what the citizens think about their elected leaders and their work. Media focuses on those sensitive issues which are often ignored by politicians and the leaders of ruling party such as increasing rate of unemployment, hunger; issues of women and child development and the condition of sanitation in the country. The role which media played in the infamous murder case of Miss Jessica Lal deserves a mention here. Media played constructive role in providing justice to a victim of reckless behaviour of a high class brat who hailed from politically influential family. Media unmasked many politicians in this case by conducting sting operations and reminding them of their promises which they make during elections to citizens during the election campaigns.
Looking at the future, there are some existing loopholes and lacunae on which the media needs to work. Indian media must adhere to the ‘norms of fine journalism’ during a trying situation as prescribed by the Press Council of India, which (Section 20:11) says, “Journalists and columnists owe a very special responsibility to their country in promoting communal peace and amity. Their writings are not a mere reflection of their own feelings but help to a large extent in moulding the feelings and sentiments of the society at large. It is, therefore, of utmost importance that they use their pen with circumspection and restrain.”The prescribed guideline is very important when it comes to maintaining communal peace. The Council also directs the journalist to be vigilant and restrained when dealing with issues of communal clashes. In the aftermath of the Gujarat communal carnage the Council revised the ‘norms for journalistic conduct’ by saying (Section 20:11), “The role of media in such situations (Gujarat Carnage) is to be peacemakers and not abettors, to be trouble shooters and not trouble makers”.
The primary responsibility of the media is of creating an informed citizenry in order to empower the society and strengthen the democracy and along with this, it should aim towards fostering communal peace, harmony and feeding emotions which promote brotherhood and thus uphold the ideals of Indian Constitution. When media is entrusted with such a great responsibility, it is imperative that freedom of press must not be compromised in the interest of successful functioning of the Indian democracy. Media must not be silenced by the executive, gagged by the legislature, suppressed by the judiciary, repressed and muzzled by the pressure groups through prepublication gag orders or in any other manner. The Supreme Court has observed that it is important to strike a balance between the freedom of press and right to privacy. Therefore, the state and its officials do not have the right to impose prior restraints on publication of materials that may be deemed as defamatory to the state. The media, as a chronicler of history, owes an undeniable duty to the future generations to record events in unbiased manner as simple untailored facts. However, a heavy responsibility devolves on the opinion makers in both print and electronic media when they structure the news programme or write the articles. The reporters need to understand that they are not just journalists but also the members of the same society and that they bear the cost of the reporting as others do in the end. However, there is one difference here: Reporters do not enjoy the same privilege as non-media spectators or readers who can always react and respond to what they have seen or read. Reporters have a compulsion to construct or reconstruct the events as news to serve before the readers and the viewers. This is what is called media construction of reality or distortion of the truth or spin to a story. The author of news and views must ensure that not only his/her analysis is free from any personal preference, prejudice or political interest but also it is based on verified, accurate and established facts. Also, as the famous saying goes “With great power comes great responsibility”, so the media too should be fully aware not only of its great power but also of the responsibility and should use it in the best interests of the society.