Media as Quintessence of Democracy

Labeled as the “fourth estate” in democratic societies, the media possesses a distinctive capability to influence and shape government policies. Normatively ascribed the role of a “watchdog” with a capacity to contribute to institutional change, the media holds the political elite accountable, reflects the needs of the audience, and exposes transgressions of the power holders within the democratic system. Its role thus in influencing matters related to legislation and government policies is crucial and should not be overlooked.

Media’s origin is usually traced back to the French Revolution that witnessed an uprising of the press. Since then, the media has been used as a powerful tool in mending governmental policies and establishing free societies. Although it does not own the authority to “create” policies, it plays an instrumental role in exercising decisive influence over the general public’s policy priorities. This is achieved by the media’s omnipresent role as a mediator between the State and Society, actively participating in the public representation of policies, thereby also acting as the gatekeeper of the agenda of political discourse. Correspondingly, policy proposals are designed by the politicians anticipating the media reaction. This has increasingly strengthened the reciprocal power dynamics between the two. 

While dealing with the dissemination of government information, the media also plays the crucial role of a stakeholder in times of crisis, wherein it informs the public regarding the crisis escalation, and the news is framed through a ‘self-referential cycle’, that includes interactions between the media, the public, and policyholders. However, in this cycle, these parties may project their perceptions of reality onto the news. As a result, during adverse situations, Indian media lacks the independence to present critical perspectives and investigative reports.

Progressive Developments

The Indian media’s coverage of the price hike that followed the 2008 global food crisis, pressurized the government into introducing targeted strategies and policies to insulate the poor and vulnerable from the price shock. Submitting to panic, the government devised various measures like food stock to be sold at subsidized rates along with a public distribution system. It curbed the escalation through the imposition of export tariffs coupled with higher domestic price support of crops. The media thus triggered some well-calibrated policy formulations that helped the domestic market remain stable and restricted the overall food inflation.  

Studies have also revealed the determining influence of the media on foreign policy matters. On the issue of signing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which would ban all types of nuclear explosions, the political parties in India were divided on the opinions, especially when the agreement got linked with the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. India felt that the Treaty was essentially discriminatory and posed a threat to its sovereignty and so the majority opined that it should not be signed. The debates in Indian newspapers called for a rejection of the treaty, and this ultimately inspired the government’s final stance. 

Recognition of Rights: Raising the Bar

The Delhi Gang Rape Case (Nirbhaya Case, 2012) was one of the most sensitive issues where investigative journalism catalyzed the public outrage and stimulated debates around the need for social reforms. The increasing momentum placed this case on the priority list of the Indian policy, which eventually resulted in various amendments in Criminal Law. Here, the media provided a platform to debate the existing policies and pressurized the Centre to formulate stringent laws and regulations for women. Mathura’s rape case led to amendments in rape laws and a re-development of the concept of ‘consent’ in rape cases. The widespread dissent amongst people during the Bhanwari Devi rape case culminated in the landmark Vishakha Judgement. The recently introduced Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act significantly furthered legal recognition for transgender individuals as the ‘Third Gender’ under the Indian Constitution. In this manner, the media acts as the primary conduit between the public and policymakers, legitimizing the general opinion by addressing the same to the government institutions.

Media effectively brings into cognizance different instances that require government intervention in the form of policies. The campaign #blacklivesmatter gained momentum as the video of Police torture on George Floyd went viral by the media. In the Indian context, this case forced Indians to introspect about the inherent caste system in society. The recent images of Kerala’s elephant, that died due to the firecrackers in the fruit, reprimands the actions of humans and calls for government intervention to make stringent legislation on animal rights. The incident of the Boys Locker Room has forced the government to materialize the laws on cyber-crimes concerning juveniles. The images of the dilapidated plight of the migrant laborers circulated by the media have led the governments to introduce reforms in the labor laws. 

Perverse and Detrimental Effects of Media

The existence of an independent and impartial media that exercises journalistic objectivity is fundamental to the consolidation of democratic societies. Countries like India, that thrive on diversity, also regularly witness differences of opinion(s) between the public and political parties, concerning policy issues. In such cases, the media can get biased and present information in an increasingly obscure manner, through the crafting of political spectacles and distorted versions of reality, which may have pernicious effects. To substantiate, the extent to which the Indian media covers international issues is considerably limited, wherein it showcases a restricted interest in covering the latest developments in Sri Lanka and the Islamic World as compared to other regions.

During the 1984 Sikh riots, the released data and images had discrepancies. Rather than providing authentic reportage, the Indian media, heavily censored by the State, resorted to transmitting selective information, thus engineering ambiguity about the situation. Many legislations were passed like the National Security Act, 1980, the Punjab Disturbed Areas Ordinance, 1983, The Armed Forces Special Powers Act, 1983, however, no attempts were made to closely examine the causative factors. Instead, the editorials increased hostility between Hindus and Sikhs through citing instances of misinformation.

During the Gujarat riots in 2002, it is claimed that the media inflamed communal violence by circulating the dreadful images of the event. PUCL has also reported some distorted and fake reporting of the instances to blame Muslims as the perpetrators. Alternatively, when the Muslims were the victims of various crimes, the attackers were left unnamed. Such situations expose the prejudiced nature of the media.

The influence of the media on politics in some cases is not one-sided. The Pulwama Attack witnessed a war-encouraging brigade of people storming social media to express their stance, while the other side condemned such an outlook. However, this had negligible effect on the government, which chose to maintain secrecy under the garb of national security. This instance best substantiates the reciprocal power dynamics between the media and politics.

Concluding Remarks

The government’s accountability towards policy action increases manifolds relatively in a situation where media circulation and public pressure is higher. For instance, the legal discourse around rape and sexual assault cases in rural areas are tremendously low, despite villages reporting a relatively higher number of cases, as compared to urban areas. This is a result of low media coverage along with social stigmas attached to rape, haunting the survivors from filing FIR. The reach of the government to bring reforms in villages thus remains circumvented.

The media plays a crucial role in accelerating policy debates through increasing public awareness and initiating dialogues, thereby helping set the policy agenda. With its investigative faculties, it holds the potential to alter the course of policies by bringing the problem to the attention of the public, hence, playing an important role in expanding the scope of politics. Understanding the nature and magnitude of media effects on policy issues, thus, becomes an increasingly important endeavor.

By Mahima Sharma, Associate, Content Development, LQF and Naina Agarwal, (erstwhile) Research Associate, Policy, LQF