The impact of news media on society is felt in two broad forms – collectively and individually. As a collective, it articulates itself through public opinion, sometimes fostering change in governmental policy, whilst individually it happens when informed people voice their opinion to their elected representatives. Minister for Information and Broadcasting Manish Tewari said, “It's not just about offering counter narrative. There are two worlds now - the physical world and the virtual world. The government wants to make its presence larger in the digital world”. This, thus, brings us to the questions – to what extent does the news media contribute to national policy-making? Second, what are the key issues that determine its influence on government policy?
Media: Reinventing the Government?
The Delhi gang rape of December 2012 was among the most sensitive issues where investigative journalism brought to fore the intricacies of altering societal norms. It subsequently became a priority on the Indian policy agenda and led to substantial political reforms. It provided the public accessibility to debate existing government policies, and thrust the centre into formulating stringent laws and regulations as regards the safety and protection of women in the country. News Media coverage of a particular incident provides the prospect of being able to manage one’s own interests by way of favouring or upholding a particular stance on the issue, and consequently, voting for that party that promises the change one desires. With the news media allowing the common man to formulate opinions, pass judgement on political parties and question government decisions, the centre becomes obligated to act in haste as it cannot afford to enrage public opinion beyond a certain extent.
The news media is a significant contributor to the process of government policy-making. It is a parallel medium that provides debate on public issues whilst being an effective forum for political participation. During the Delhi rape case trial, the media managed to garner greater public outcry, forced the administration to institute immediate justice through the setting up of fast track courts, swifter judgements and increased safety-protection units for women across the country.
Between the Media and the Government
There are several issue(s) with regard to the effects of news media on national policy and strategy. This commentary looks at four major facets in the relationship between the two critical institutions in India. First, governmental accountability and its responsiveness towards the public’s policy preferences is comparatively greater in areas where news media circulation is high than in areas where it is low and/or negligible. The government thus takes action on several socio-economic and political issues amidst public pressure. For instance, studies indicate that a substantial number of sexual assaults and rapes take place in India’s rural areas. However, legal action is often missing due to negligible media coverage and social stigmas that hinder the victims from filing an FIR. As a result, governmental outreach and the ability to reflect on reforms remain limited and trivial.
Second, in India, as elsewhere, the media garners mass attention on specific issues that interest the common man. This, at times, skips some of the most pertinent issues that need immediate reformation by the government. For instance, there is a high probability that the new government provisions for the safety, protection and justice for women in India would not have been institutionalised if the Delhi gang rape had not received the media coverage that it received. The media’s tendency is to give prominence to the most newsworthy or sensational story.
Third, the media also has an indirect influence on national policy agenda. This is by influencing public opinion thereby shaping the policy agenda. Consequently, the government also influences public opinion via media coverage that eventually feeds back to the government, leaving the government as the key player in the end. Since India is yet to have a cogent national media policy, the government is the sole authority in the policy-making process.
Lastly, another noteworthy issue is that the government pays more attention to issues that are covered in the press. Policy-makers base their decisions on what they perceive as the mood of the nation. Indirectly, the effects of news media may be difficult to disentangle from other factors that shape policy-making, but there are substantial reasons to believe that it plays a pivotal role in it.