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Misuse of Power in Journalism: When the Fourth Estate Forgets its Duty

As an essential component of democracy, journalism serves a crucial function. Acting as a sentinel, it prevents the government from overreaching and engaging in unethical activities. Contemplate it akin to a custodian. Certain rulers attempt to subjugate or muzzle the press to manipulate populations within a nation. However, journalism holds significant clout. Although one person's ballot may appear insignificant, the information we peruse and view has the potential to mould our existence.

Long ago, William Randolph Hearst, a newspaper owner, wrote stories that enraged Americans against the Spanish government by alleging that they destroyed a ship called the USS Maine. Between countries, war broke out due to his reporting, though it was most likely an accident. Throughout time, the mighty force of journalism has been demonstrated, as Hearst once said: "I want the images and I will bring you the war." This phrase acts as a strong cue that reminds us of the far-reaching effects that journalists can have on the global community.

Journalism is renowned for uncovering the truth, as proven by the scandal that took down Richard Nixon, Watergate. Journalists' tireless reporting brought to light the previously concealed corruption and deceit within Nixon's inner circle.

How we perceive things can be altered by the pictures and videos presented in the news. Witnessing the bloody battles and immense casualties of the Civil War through photographs helped highlight the atrocities that had been committed. The visual footage of Vietnam demonstrated the extensive harm and distress the war had been inflicting.

With the current wars, images remind us that actual individuals are being impacted instead of just being a mere statistic. Journalism in nations with open press has the potential to change lives. It allows victims of war and disaster to have their experiences shared and comprehended by the outside world.

In certain nations, there is strict government oversight of the media, limiting the expression of varied viewpoints. This leads to a biased portrayal of current events, failing to present a comprehensive outlook.

Reporters have a duty to be impartial, yet discrimination within media can obscure reality. The accurate dissemination of information through journalism is often overshadowed by channels that exhibit favouritism toward certain political parties. Nonetheless, it is the responsibility of news outlets to portray events transparently and without bias.

Navigating through the vast sea of news today requires astute attention. Consulting a diverse range of credible sources plays a vital role in gaining a complete grasp of a subject's intricacies. This is imperative because the accuracy of the accounts we encounter cannot always be guaranteed. The significance of journalism, as a tool for shaping opinions and ideas, should not be underestimated. It is a potent force that carries great weight, and its practitioners must remain accountable in their reporting. Remain vigilant as you consume news - it has the ability to shape a nation's trajectory and lay bare the reasoning behind the actions of those in power.

Journalism in India
In India, the media is often viewed as either supportive or critical of the government, which is a commonly noted distinction in the field of journalism. This differentiation, which holds implications for the media's democratic functions, is based on how media groups and individuals position themselves in relation to the ruling power.

Pro-establishment Journalism
Journalism that supports established institutions has been widely criticized in recent years. Some argue that this style of reporting lacks objectivity and often serves to reinforce the status quo. Maintaining social order and stability is something some argue pro-establishment journalism can achieve, while others disagree. But it's obvious that the media landscape has been dramatically impacted by this type of journalism, moulding public perception on vital subjects.

At both national and regional levels, the pro-establishment faction in Indian journalism is perceived as having a close alignment with the ruling administration. Typically, this coterie of media entities and journalists provide favourable coverage of the government's undertakings and decisions.

Focusing on the positive aspects of governance, pro-establishment media outlets often highlight the successes and policies of the ruling party or coalition. While they may turn a blind eye or lessen criticism towards their shortcomings.

Often, journalists and media houses that back the establishment have been granted significant access to policymakers and government officials. In fact, they may be given exclusive information and interviews, which can lead to greater reach and influence.

Using Hindu-Muslim debates to polarize communities for political gain, some media outlets have been heavily criticized for their divisive narratives which foster a sense of us-versus-them based on communal or identity-based issues. Some have accused pro-establishment media of highlighting these issues in an attempt to divide communities for their own and their masters' benefit.

Critics have alleged that pro-establishment journalism sidelines criticism and may appear biased. This outlook can prioritize appeasing the powerful over acting as a public interest watchdog. The journalists including the owner of the media house favouring the establishment are rewarded handsomely for their 'services' in the form of increased advertisements, eye-catching salaries, projects, perks, positions, powers, help in legal matters, influence in the corridors of the government, and foreign tours.

In addition to this is the growth of the 'howling media' which has no work to do except shouting over non-existent issues trying to give a sensational angle to them and dividing communities and spreading hatred. It is a pity that people from different communities are falling to their designs by attending their hateful debates.

Anti-establishment Journalism
Journalism that goes against the norm, challenges authority, and questions conventional thinking is often labelled as anti-establishment. These journalists often seek out stories that others won't touch and are not afraid to take risks to get to the truth. Their reporting can be seen as controversial or disruptive, but to many, it is a necessary force in holding those in power accountable. By breaking down barriers and pushing boundaries, anti-establishment journalists offer a unique perspective and can inspire change within society. Anti-establishment journalism, though essential for a free and democratic society, often incurs criticism for defying the status quo. It provides a much-needed voice to the marginalized and uncovers corrupt practices.

To maintain transparency and protect the public interest, the media must scrutinize the government and hold them accountable for their actions. Their duty is crucial.

In order to achieve this, anti-establishment outlets delve into potential corruption, investigate policies, and draw attention to matters affecting the public.

As a crucial check on those in power, the anti-establishment media faces numerous challenges due to its minority position. These challenges include pressure from the government, legal actions, and financial constraints. Despite these obstacles, it plays an important role in providing a unique perspective.

From the anti-establishment world, journalists and media outlets face challenges in the form of curtailment in advertisement revenue, harassment or intimidation from the government's different arms sporadically. Physical threats, legal cases, or regulatory actions may serve as forms of harassment.

There are some outlets that take pride in their independence in the world of journalism; they vow to maintain the highest standards of ethical reporting unfettered by any outside influence. Their express goal is to offer fair and impartial accounts of events, unimpeded by any agenda-setting forces.

In any democracy, assessing the credibility and bias of media reporting is critical. It's worth emphasizing that "pro-establishment" and "anti-establishment" are not set-in-stone labels, since media outfits and journalists may adjust their stances according to various factors such as editorial decisions, shifting governments, or altering circumstances. To promote a robust democratic environment, a media ecosystem that embraces different viewpoints is vital, as it enables a more thorough and nuanced comprehension of political matters as well as government actions. Therefore, upholding journalistic standards such as transparency, media proficiency, and ethical codes is essential.

Misuse of Power in Journalism
There are occasions when journalists misuse their power, although journalism is critical for informing the public and keeping those in power responsible. Misuse of power in this line of work is diverse and does not indicate the entire field of journalism. The following are some examples of how media reporters can misuse their power:

To create enticing headlines and boost ratings, media outlets frequently manipulate or exaggerate reports. This is an often employed tactic.

Reporters may sometimes let their personal biases seep into their reporting, resulting in a lack of objectivity. Lack of objectivity may occur when reporters allow their personal biases to creep into their reporting. This frequently results in coverage that is unbalanced and is unsuccessful in presenting diverse perspectives on an issue. The influence of bias on reporting can be problematic.

Breaching journalistic ethics is a serious matter when journalists use false reporting. Fabricated stories or knowingly sharing inaccurate information could be used to achieve personal or political goals.

Individuals' privacy can be violated when journalists engage in aggressive tactics or encroach on their personal lives. Such actions can harm people and also undermine ethical standards.

Without proper attribution, journalists are often found to use content from other sources, a violation of professional ethics which can severely harm their credibility. This action is known as plagiarism.

Reporters, due to financial or personal connections with the topics they cover, might have a conflict of interest which compromises their impartiality. Such interests may blur the lines between reporting and advocacy.

The truth can be distorted and the audience can be misled when reporters selectively present information that aligns with their desired story angle and exclude facts that don't match. This is known as selective reporting.

Disseminating unverified or false stories can occur as a result of inadequate verification and fact-checking.

Injecting personal opinions and commentary into news reporting can blur the line between objective journalism and editorializing. Some journalists fail to clearly distinguish between the two, muddling the information for readers.

Individuals vulnerable to harm may be negatively impacted when reporters disclose sensitive information about them without sufficient thought or permission. This is especially true when it comes to victims or populations that are at greater risk.

Media outlets and reporters are often motivated to produce clickbait articles and flashy headlines to ensure their website gains traffic, even if that content lacks any real value or accuracy. This emphasis can skew journalistic priorities, and result in fewer substantial pieces being prioritized over more informative content.

Harassment and stalking can sometimes be used by journalists to secure interviews or stories. However, this goes against ethical principles and is a violation of the law.

Reputable sources must be sought out and examined with a critical eye in order to hold medial workers to the oaths provided to them by professional journalism organizations. Remember that while the majority of reporters work tirelessly to remain consistent with ethical standards, there are outliers. It should be noted that media consumers play an important role in ensuring the accountability of journalists and media institutions when ethics have been breached.

A minuscule number of journalists, who are allegedly underpaid, are involved in extortion at the police station level where they don't write anything against the officers who oblige them regularly with money, liquor and other facilities, frequently producing news items extolling their virtues and target officers who don't pay them or with whom they have no understanding.

They make huge story based on falsity and imagination vis-a-vis people against whom they have an axe to grind or who don't pay them. There is a nexus between a section of journalists and government officers including police officers at all levels and the relation thrives on the formula of 'give and take'. Some people misuse media persons paying them to generate a story praising them or fabricate a write up criticizing the person with whom they have enmity.

How heads of government misuse journalists?
Several forms of potential misuse of journalists by heads of government exist, due to their positions of power and the ability to use media for their own political or personal goals. Such misuse may include:
  • Media censorship and control can be used by some governments to suppress any information that portrays them negatively or any critical reporting from dissenting voices. Such control can be through exerting pressure on media outlets or imposing restrictive laws as legal means.
  • Using journalists as mouthpieces for their messages, heads of government selectively grant interviews, access, and exclusive information to those who align with their cause, while neglecting critical reporters.
  • Public distrust in journalism can be caused by leaders manipulating information and spreading it to the media. Misleading or false information may be provided to journalists, leading to dissemination of the same.
  • Threats, intimidation, and harassment are often used by certain governments against journalists who expose or critique their actions. The result is a stifling of journalism as reporters become afraid to speak up.
  • Silencing accurate, public-interest reporting is possible even if such reporting is truthful, as heads of government can take legal action against journalists or media companies for libel or defamation.
  • Promoting their own agenda and muzzling opposing viewpoints is a tactic employed by a number of administrations, achieved through controlling or exerting considerable sway over state-backed media.
  • Leaders can manipulate the news cycle by using selective information release tactics, which involve strategically offering information to journalists. This can serve as a distraction or diversion from any controversies or scandals that may be occurring.
  • Access granted to journalists by heads of government may be used to bolster their public image through positive coverage, while avoiding any critical inquiries. This method of exploiting journalists as a public relations tool has become increasingly common. Tough questions or critical scrutiny are usually avoided in these scenarios.
  • Smear campaigns, which aim to tarnish the credibility and reputation of journalists or media outlets perceived as threats, can be orchestrated by governments.
  • Governments may engage in monitoring of activities and sources of journalists as a way of spying and surveillance. This could result in a chill on investigative journalism.

Compromising the Principles of Journalism
Instances where journalistic ethics are compromised are not rare, whether intentionally or unwittingly, giving rise to the perception that media representatives, including editors, journalists, and media proprietors, may prioritize the interests of powerful individuals, such as politicians and big businessmen. In order to safeguard the public interest, accountability, and transparency, it is essential that these professionals adhere to crucial journalistic principles.

We may cite the following instances in this respect:
  • Prioritization of business interests is a common practice among media outlets controlled by large corporations. As a result, avoiding offense to advertisers or stakeholders may lead to biased reporting or self-censorship that compromises journalistic integrity.
  • Political events, parties, or politicians can sometimes receive biased coverage from certain media outlets or journalists due to their political affiliations. Either favorable or unfavorable coverage can be the outcome of this, contingent on the leanings of the journalist.
  • Reporters seeking information frequently turn to politicians and government officials as sources, but this dependence can lead them to write stories that are less critical. To maintain their coveted relationships with powerful figures or obtain inside scoops, journalists may tone down their coverage.
  • Various tactics are employed by politicians and their associates to impact media coverage, such as legal actions, intimidation, or threats. As a result, critical reporting may be discouraged, leading journalists to practice self-censorship.
  • Significant control over content that gets published or aired is wielded by editors and news directors. When closely tied to politicians or their masters, editorial decisions can understandably lean towards favoring those interests.
  • Media entities seeking to increase their audience or readership may prioritize sensational and controversial stories over others, resulting in the overemphasis of certain political characters or narratives.
  • In some instances, media outlets may be under the direct control or ownership of politicians or political parties. Being leveraged for personal gain or to disparage rivals is a common outcome of the media's use.
  • Politicians and their affiliates may use their advertising spending to influence media coverage. Advertising revenue is a crucial source of income for media outlets.
  • In terms of reporting, a narrow and biased focus can manifest when there's a dearth of diversity in newsrooms regarding perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences.
  • Independence and objectivity can be jeopardized because of some media personnel's financial interests and business connections with politicians or their associates.

Many in the media world opt not to act in such ways, as there exist numerous journalists and media organizations which pride themselves on honourable codes of ethics. It's these individuals and entities that prioritize supplying impartial, truthful, and objective information. The profession of journalism relies on the guidelines set by journalistic codes of ethics, editorial direction, and professional organizations. These elements establish the standards and ethics integral to this field.

In a democracy, upholding journalistic integrity and preserving press freedom are vital for its proper functioning. However, certain actions can erode trust in journalism, diminish reporters' ability to hold leaders accountable, and even infringe upon people's right to access information. To protect press freedom and prevent abuses of power, collaboration between media organizations, journalists, and human rights groups is necessary.

Ensuring that the media fulfils its duty to the public and not to political figures or other authorities requires educating the public on how to consume media with discernment. Additionally, maintaining the integrity of journalism relies on vigilant citizens, independent ombudsmen, and robust media watchdog organizations to address media bias.

Written By: Md. Imran Wahab, IPS, IGP, Provisioning, West Bengal
Email: [email protected], Ph no: 9836576565

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