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Public Opinion and Role of Media

Media is considered to be the fourth Pillars of Democracy, the other three being Legislature, Executive, and Judiciary. The system of checks of balances which is followed among the other well-known pillars, media also keeps a check on the functioning of the three independent organs of government to keep the system intact.

The role of media is to ensure that the people are aware of the social, economic, political developments taking place around them. In performing its role in spreading information, media also plays a pivotal function in creating public opinion. It holds significance in a democracy as a positive public opinion on any subject would mean legitimization and validation from the public.

How do media affect the formation of public opinion?

Firstly, public opinion is nothing but an amalgamation of opinions, views, beliefs, and attitudes of individuals which can be on a particular subject matter, voiced by a comparatively significant segment of the society.[i]

Human nature is such that it makes them eager to know about their surroundings, the tendency of being informed, such an atypical nature makes them prone to relying upon and getting influenced by the information that they receive without critically thinking about the authenticity of the information. It can be observed that sometimes the information providers not only tell the bare information but also state their opinion along with it. Mass Media including news channels, internet (social media), newspapers, etc. have the power of changing people's perspectives on an issue in hand. [ii] All such instances combined help in the formation of public opinion, depending on the authenticity of the news and how the people wish to interpret it.

Public opinion matters as with the help of public opinion, several policy decisions can be taken by the government. In a democracy, government policies and programs are people-centric and to know whether the government can create the desired impact through its actions, public opinion is necessary. Mass media works as a medium between the government and the public. Its function is to provide the people with information for them to form an opinion based on the piece of information.

The media coverage that was received by Anna Hazare brought the issue of corruption into the limelight. Anna's support to the Lokpal Bill reached masses which helped in the formation of public opinion so as to fight against corruption. [iii] Thus, creating awareness is the primary task in the hands of media to make the public capable of forming some sort of opinion because to form an opinion on a particular issue it is vital to be aware of what is going in and around the society.

Role of Media and Social Networking in the creation of Public Opinion

One needs to understand that role of mass media in shaping public opinion can be positive as well as negative. Every coin has two faces to it; sometimes the controversies created by media can help to give momentum to a cause for good whereas sometimes it can prove to be detrimental. For instance, if a local social movement gains media attention on a nation-wide level then it can create an impact on a wider scale which was not originally expected out of it.

The Agenda-setting theory of media plays the biggest role in shaping opinions.[iv] There are two aspects to this agenda-setting theory i.e. first, media doesn't show the reality rather the reality is filtered and shaped before being telecasted. Second, it is not necessary that the media will show everything that is out there rather importance is the concentration on few subjects which in turn leads the public to think as if they are the only important issues to be dealt with. [v]

Now, these aspects need not be presented as good or bad by itself, some issue being more important than the others is not something which should concern an individual but if the audience wants to be informed about the other issues is a choice that they have to make.

The role of mass media including social networking sites becomes even more significant when there is no direct experience or some other knowledge on a particular issue is unavailable. In such a situation, all that the audience has got is what is being presented by the media, where there is no way to cross-check, which gives them the benefit of doubt. Even when there is an availability of other sources to verify, what makes it easier to shape public opinion according to the agenda-setting, is the growing tendency of the people to believe in each and everything which they see that is out there.

The important role played by mass media in shaping opinion can be well understood by looking at an example i.e. of China. The Chinese government has complete control over what is being shown to its populace. From television to the internet, the government decides what its citizens need to watch and what not to.

The Chinese people are not free to post according to their whims and fancies on the internet, what is worse is that it is not even considered as an infringement of their right to speech.[1] This clearly shows how the government tries to curb the freedom of press and media from shaping any kind of public opinion which goes against the government.

Media Trials and Public Opinion

Nowadays, it is a normal saying that an accused has to face two trials- one is in the courtroom and the other one is outside court i.e. the 'Media Trial'. Trial by media of the under-trials is no more an alien concept, it is very much prevalent in Indian society and there has been media intervention in some high profile cases which have even influenced the judgment of the court. A lot of times it has been noticed that even before the court can pass its judgment, media passes its verdict.[vi]

Does such passing of verdicts impact the case in any way? For instance, while deciding on matters like awarding the death penalty to a convict, strong public opinion works as an aggravating factor. [vii] What happens in real life is that, in sensitive cases like that of rape, strong public opinion is formed with the help of media attention which is completely based on the emotions and morals of the people due to which often the judiciary has to give the decision accordingly keeping in view the aggravating and mitigating factors.

Critics have also considered the Nirbhaya Verdict to be one such result of such public opinion. It is not a very healthy practice for the functioning of the judiciary. A Law Commission report even suggested to abolition death penalty except in the cases relating to terrorism as it doesn't serve the purpose of deterrence and also because of the attached arbitrariness of 'rarest of the rare' case.[viii]

The Janta Adalat has initiated to interfere in the court proceedings. The much-required difference between an accused and a convict has started to diminish and the age-old basic principle of innocent until proven guilty is not being respected by these public courts. Not only the press but social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram, Tweeter, etc. have their own share of the role that they play in passing their own verdict.

Even if an accused gets acquitted from the court but the amount of trolling that is received by the person on these networking sites is in itself enough to defame him/her and once that is done even if the person gets an order of acquittal still social bullying not only cause mental trauma but also tarnishes one's reputation.

Social Media Influencers and their Contribution: A Modern Phenomenon

Social Media is also a platform to influence public opinion and this act is done by the social media influencers. A social media influencer can be anyone from a celebrity to a blogger who has the credibility to persuade people according to their recommendations. As social media is a platform where anyone and everyone can express their opinions, influencers have the power to shape opinion as well.

For instance, the recent killing of an African-American, George Floyd, by a cop in the USA has gathered the attention of many of the celebrities and this has in turn brought the issue of racism into the forefront yet again. Violent protests are being carried out against police brutalities targeted towards the blacks in the United States. [ix] Celebrities in and around America are condemning such practices of the US policy, which has not only helped in shaping public opinion but has also given momentum to the protests.

However, sometimes influencers on social media glorify an event that should actually be condemned keeping in view the principles of justice. Hyderabad's police encounter case in which Hyderabad police killed the 'accused' persons of a murder-rape case in an encounter was celebrated on social media by a lot of influencers. [x] This particular case of encounter like many others was a failure of the judicial system which should have criticized but rather such an act by the police was labeled as heroic and a lot of celebrities tweeted as they thought that 'justice had been served'.

Principles and effectiveness of self-regulation for media

Self-regulation mechanisms are essential to uphold and maintain the quality and also the credibility of media. This is one way of making free media accountable to the public. The self-regulating mechanism might include ethics codes which will help in maintaining editorial standards, complaint commissions will assist in maintaining the quality quotient and an ombudsman to verify the redressal mechanism.[xi] Fairness and rationality will make the medium of getting the information more reliable. Freedom of media is necessary so as to curb state intervention.

There should be a clear cut division between stating facts and stating one's own opinion if this division is not clear then it can lead to spreading propaganda which is not healthy. Ethical journalism, also with respect to the online information that is available on social media, is the need of the hour and it is being promoted to uphold genuine professionalism.[xii] Codes of Ethics might vary from different countries depending upon the traditions but few aspects which are like the basics of such codes are fidelity towards independence, accuracy, and truth.

Self-regulation policies should be such that it promotes independence of journalists, right to information of the public, better understanding to form public opinion, and developed redressal mechanism to institute trust relations between the public & media.

Media must promote pluralism, be it the news channels or social networking sites, what is important, to present both the sides of the picture to assist people from a better and holistic opinion. Public opinion is the first essential of democracy, and the role played by the media informing this public opinion is immense thus the success of a democracy is very much based upon the effectiveness of such self-regulation practices of media.

Critical Analysis: Conclusion
The question then arises is that, whether media is shaping the world or the way the audience looks at it? It will be really tough to present the impact of media and social networking sites on the minds of the public in black or white. A similar piece of information might force a person to rebel against a community or government whereas it won't even bother the other person. So, what could be the way out other than following the principles of self-regulation by the media?

In a world were access to information on the internet is not a big deal for many, one big way out can be if people decide to behave like an informed citizen in real sense. It should be considered as a duty of every individual to cross-check or verify what all they read or hear. As it is there as a well-settled principle in criminal jurisprudence that hearsay evidence is no evidence, similarly before forming any sort of opinion it is necessary to go through a fact-checking exercise.

End-Notes:
  1. Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan, 'The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics', 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009
  2. Husak & Fialka, 'Social Medial Influence on Public Opinion and Youth Behavior', 2018
  3. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/fast-over-lokpal-will-go-on-till-my-last-breath-anna-hazare/article26142955.ece
  4. McCombs & Reynolds, 'News influence on our pictures of the world', Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers, 2002, pp. 1-18
  5. Dearing & Rogers, 'Agenda-setting research: Where has it been, where is it going?', Vol. 11, Communication Yearbook Journal, 1988, pp. 555594
  6. Michael Bristow, 'China defends internet censorship', BBC News, June 2010
  7. Norrander, 'The Multi-Layered Impact of Public Opinion on Capital Punishment Implementation in the American States', Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 53, No. 4, 2000, pp. 771793
  8. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/law-commission-recommends-abolition-of-death-penalty-except-in-terror-cases/article10344061.ece
  9. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/us/officer-charged-with-george-floyds-death-as-protests-flare/articleshow/76104411.cms
  10. https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/hyderabad-rape-murder-case-an-encounter-that-left-a-nation-divided/hyderabad-encounter/slideshow/72413017.cms
  11. Haraszti, 'The Media Self-Regulation Guidebook', Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe, Vienna, 2008
  12. Hammarberg, 'Ethical Journalism and Human Rights', Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Strasbourg, 2011
Written By: Dhriti Yadav, BA LLB(H), Bennett University

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