Mass media has become the greatest force of mobilising public opinion, in the contemporary world. The state of the world, whether it be politics, sociology, culture or economics, the mass media sets the agenda; even the opinion leaders look towards the media for shaping their opinion. The development of media in the new age, contributing to its many new forms such as the new media, has tremendously increased its reach and power. Thus, media is once more among the people, making them not mere passive spectators or listeners but empowering them with the power to telecast or publish. That’s how the new media has revolutionised the world, and the contemporary mediascape. The development of the mobile technology has also strengthened its power of gathering together public opinion in a much dynamic way.
Mass media has a great image of a crusader after social realities and truths. It underscores the basic democratic values; and becomes the central component of any democracy, basically through the public opinion it creates. Mass media, whether it be the newspapers, television, radio and film or the internet that comprise the new media; have come to represent the freedom of the individual and they champion the freedom of information which, with all its potential is used to expose corruption, oppression and exploitation. Napoleon had said that four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets (Franklin B, 1997, p.27).
Mass media’s primary task whether it is in the form of journalism or disseminating information is to spread the truth. Journalists’ main task is to conduct sincere and impartial enquiry into the social realities, digging deep and getting the facts. They bring out the veracity of all the happenings around, and seek to unravel the attempts to manipulate the public. This activity is regarded as the ideal journalism, and it is universal. Randall says that ‘good journalists will all be attempting the same thing: intelligent fact-based journalism, honest in intent and effect, serving no cause but the discernible truth, and written clearly for its readers whoever they may be.’ (Randall, 1996, p.4) Thus, mass media is at the helm of its activity, which is conducted independently of the state apparatuses, power elites and lobbies. Thus, the gathering of public opinion is away from influence from even the most influential in the society. Here we have to examine the professional competencies of the journalists, how they approach issues, apart from the organizational directives and policies. There could be differences of opinion and various perspectives again from an ideological stance; still the best one is published and gets acclaimed, and thus the agenda is set. Thus mass media acts as watch dogs and thus protects the public interest. They critically examine the behaviour of the powerful and the wealthy on the common man’s behalf. Politicians and governments form an essential focus of the mass media activity, particularly in its capacity as a watch dog, and its most important role is to uncover corruption and malpractice. The mass media also inform the democratic data base. The mass media provide the public with the necessary information and opinion, which as citizens they require to analyse the issues. This is particularly true with the political issues, which the public is expected to discuss and decide.
Among mass media’s various levels of activity, journalism has a great significance. Its sociological relevance makes it mass media’s one of the primary functions. In their classic study of news values Galtung and Ruge has pointed out the importance of time in the selection and the reporting of the news. Events are likely to be reported and become news to the extent that they fit, into the time span, and work schedule of the news organization concerned. The more similar the frequency of the event is to the frequency of the news medium, they claim, the more probable that it will be recorded as news by that medium (Galtung and Ruge, 1973, p.53) Thus the public sphere has become so precise and punctual, after the news gathering has become a professional activity.
Today, most of the media particularly the television and the new media work upon this concept of news values; making the public sphere much more receptive to information. They have also been able to cultivate a consumerist news culture, and receptivity, allowing more competition and room for information dissemination. Thus, the public sphere has become more open, with diverse viewpoints. The new media has given the right platform for these pluralist viewpoints. The internet in particular allows every netizen to become a publisher and provide access to immense sites that publish similar viewpoints. The other facilities provided by the internet like email, blogging, video streaming and chat has made the access as well as the dissemination of opinion faster and widespread. The public sphere has now become more public and now has intruded into the private sphere to allow more opinion.
But mass media is also being criticised for its potential to make propaganda. In this perspective, the mass media loses its democratic nature and takes the role of a propagandist. Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky share such a viewpoint. They argue that the American mass media are propaganda agencies of the state which are used methodically to mobilise ideological support for state policies; they say that the dissenting news is rare (Franklin B, 1997, p.43) They say that even though media function to amuse, entertain and inform, their essential function is to inculcate individuals with values, beliefs, code and behaviour that will integrate them into the institutional structures of the larger society. In a world of concentrated wealth and major conflicts of class interests, a systematic propaganda is required to fulfil this role. The private ownership of the media and the absence of censorship make this system of propaganda less evident but no less effective than in single party politics where the mass media are under the direct control of the state. All the potential newsworthy events have to pass through the five filters, which leave only a residue, which has been cleansed of dissenting opinions, available for broadcast and publication in the media. By filtering news in this way the media marginalise dissent and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public. Thus the public sphere does have platforms and ways that can scuttle the real public opinion.
This was later linked with the globalization. The American aid programmes to developing countries and the free flow of information policies initiated by the American government have helped the American media industry in its efforts to conquer the international dominion. This was later reflected in the birth of the CNN and its live telecast of the Iraq war. CNN cleverly mobilised the public opinion in favour of Iraq, changing news as entertainment. The whole world was watching the fireworks, the prowess of the US air force, and the precision bombing of the advanced supersonic jets. No body did hear the laments of the millions who were running for the shelter; the media game was so calculated and precise. But the media propaganda was shattered in the second gulf war by the innumerable sites and the blog rolls, thereby creating a space of free discussion. The rise of Al-Jazeera has also contributed for the birth of a diverse viewpoint, making the public platform once more alive. It also reiterated the fact that the public sphere in the modern world is free and open for rational viewpoints.
But again the public sphere is strengthened by the process of globalisation. Globalisation has extended the fundamental tenets of communication and cultural exchange. As Marshall MacLuhan forecasted the rise of communication technology, compressing time and space and the national boundaries has created a global village. This has substantially reduced the regional division and improved the international understanding and the empathy. This reason is that the people are now well connected to each other through international channels of communication. The phenomenon can also be viewed as the opening up of new lines of communication between different groups, constructing new platforms for dialogues and mutual acceptance. These international communication systems also offer opportunities of new forms of bonding and solidarity and new ways of forging cultural communities. ‘New media crossing national frontiers are giving people access to information and ideas that those in authority, in national societies have sought to suppress. The audio cassette recordings of speeches phoned through by Islamic fundamentalists in Paris, and then amplified by loudspeaker in mosques in Iran, played a significant part in the successful revolt against Shah. Similarly transnational broadcasting played a part in the erosion of the authority of communist states in the former Soviet bloc’ (Curran and Park, 2000, p.7) Today globalization is also supporting and encouraging the ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic diversity within nation states. Thus, the cross-cultural population across the world can view their own ethnic programmes in television channels, thus preserving the ethnic minority identities. Robins et.al call this ‘peripheral visions’ and can be transmitted centre stage through the globalization of communications. This is the way the public sphere of information is now changing throughout the world.
Wartime: The September 11 attack of WTC and the media
The September 11, 2001 marked a new era not only in American Journalism, but also for the media across the world. The journalism was utterly confused, what to report and when, and how to report a casualty; it was also a lesson for the best practice of journalism. It not only analyses the subjunctive dimensions of journalistic form, content and practice. The events exploded in a manner, which is indicative of most major breaking news stories, providing little warning, few precedents and insufficient time and resources in which to organise a coherent response. Journalists and the news organisations treated the story with a determination to hep unfold it as quickly, broadly and clearly as possible. Thus they had to discover new ways of presenting it. Some reporters explicitly referred it to the happening in a Hollywood movie. Tom Shales said in the Washington Post that it was the most harrowing day of television since the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.(Zelizer and Allan, 2002, p.4) Most of the news organizations rewrote their priorities to accommodate the shock and emergency situation created by the event. Most of the media beats and resources were pooled, stories reassigned and the reporters reassigned. The news managers also made changes to certain professional and competitive priorities, like the profits from commercials, sponsorship and even the broadcast ratings. The most important shift is that of the news value that the differences between national and global news vanished at once. The stories immediately looked as if they were convergence stories. M
ost of the media organizations worked hand in hand. During first two hours after the attack, the four major US television networks mutually agreed to share the available video and the satellite footage. They immediately cancelled their programmes for the day and started to cover the attack, continuously for the day. The cable and the other satellite stations too immediately shifted from their entertainment mood to news feeds. The greatest surprise came with the commercials as the most of the America’s media outlets avoided them despite the earnings from advertising. Much of the initial reporting was done for the television, with stunning images that expose the horror of the event. On a day of death, television was a lifeline to what was happening. (Zelizer and Allan, 2002, p.4) The broadcast and cable news organizations went into full time work, and they resorted to the cover the episode, through their available resources. Major news channels scrolled more than one headlined over the screen, so as to accommodate multiple stories. Similar was the pressure placed on the responsibilities of many broadcast journalists. There was a show of emotion on the face of every anchor and every news reporter, but there was clamour from all parts that what the journalists wanted to show was emotional reassurance. It was of course a time of breaking the precedence. ‘The stories with all its tragic dimensions, does illustrate the important role that network journalism still plays in the lives of Americans in time of crisis and there is nothing like the networks for knitting the country together.’ (Zelizer and Allan, 2002, p.4) Thus apart from this there was a greater speculation filling the airwaves, most of the observations and the deductions made by the commentators later turned to truths, which of course added a collective sense of panic. There can be excuses for such happenings as at that time of panic, journalists were just passing along the reports. The situation indeed was frightening in a professional point of view as nothing could be done to prevent the fake or unwanted stories going through the line.
Apart from the television other media also played their part very well; the radio did a very marvellous job. Several radio stations then started to broadcast live television news feed. According to a report by the Pew Research Centre about 11 percent of the people in the United States used radio as their first source of information in the immediate days after the attack.
The print medium’s reaction was much stronger, crisp and traditional. The newspapers provided with more analysis and extended information. But on the outset of the disaster it just enacted its role as the immediate conveyor of information. Some of the newspapers rolled out special editions; one example was the Chicago Tribune that filed two editions in a single day. Some news magazines also joined the fray with special midweek supplements that contained more photo essays than news reports. To meet the emergency situation some bi-weekly newspapers were turned into weeklies. To address the horror, the newspapers concentrated more on the layout tactics. The story presentations were quite revealing, and showed the emergency of the situation. The editions multiplied, headlines were set in the biggest types with bolder style, larger typeset and importance was given to pictures. Photo essays lined the pages of most of the dailies and magazines and news reports were few. The print media for the first time with a real objective, dared to challenge the precedents. ‘For the first time in its 19 year old history USA Today dropped its traditional front-page ears, the Atlanta Constitution ran a front page with only one story, and the New York Times ran more pictures and in more prominent places.’ Every available resource was used to capture and convey the enormous scale of what was transpiring. (Zelizer and Allan, 2002, p.7)
The greatest thing that has to be noted was the way of news presentation that most of the dailies shifted to tabloid style journalism. The headlines showed the immediate impact, which were minimised to one or two word phrases like ‘Attack!’, ‘Outrage’ etc. There was also considerable amount of emotion in the playing up of words. The San Francisco Examiner was the best example, which ran the headlines ‘Bastards!’ in large letters across the front page. The editor of the newspaper defended himself saying that it fitted the anger and outburst. A report of the Poynter Institute of Media Studies says that ‘as you move from ‘terror’ to ‘attack’ you make a very, very important step. To bastards is one step further, you move powerfully into the rhetoric of the war.’ (Cited in Zelizer and Allan, 2002, p.7) It should be noted that the fear was the enemy, than the real enemy and there was a tendency to demonize everything, even the objects or people that looked like the enemy was demonised. This type of headlines and treatment of the news stories came from this psychology that worked at that time.
Public opinion through mass hysteria
The media since its inception has been an area of concern among psychologists, sociologists, educators, broadcasters, government policy makers and the general public. It is seen as a medium of communication that has been held responsible for creating and instigating violence and aggression in the society. There are a number of factors that underlie this, and the medium has warranted investigation over its possible detrimental effects. The mass mind is an object that could be easily manipulated, influenced and made suggestible by external forces. The mass mind was the site of pychopathology and is the key explanation deployed in wider debates concerning the impact of television viewing on the masses. Many psychological studies have investigated the effects of long-term exposures to television on adolescent boys. The modern theories in media and cultural theories in an ethnographic perspective have rejected the lack of agency accorded to the audience in these accounts, instead seeking to find and celebrate the creative activity and intentionality of its subjects. Studies have shown that the masses can resist and that they are able to reject the media message see them in a logical perspective; that the masses are not as stupid as we have previously thought. Fiske says that popular culture is made by the various formations of subordinated or disempowered people of the resources both discursive and material that are provided in the social system that disempowers them. If the subcultural commodities or texts do not contain resources out of which people can make their own meanings of their social relations and identities, they will be rejected and will fail in the market place. Popular culture is made from within and below not imposed from without and above as mass cultural theorists would have it (Blackman and Walkerdine, 2001, p.13) The apparent inability of some, to read against the grain is located within their social background, which does not allow them access to the cultural resources with which they would be able to resist. The mass mind creeps back into these accounts through the back door, linked less to developmental problems and more to social experience. This active passive dichotomy in relation to the audience has generated various approaches that take the link between the mass media and masses and seek either to verify or reject it. This dichotomy in itself contains a historically specific set of assumptions about the nature of the human subject and its relation to the world in which it exists. It also understands the role of the media through a traditional socialisation model viewing the individual as one entity with precultural attributes and the media or social context as separate entity that can only ever influence the individual in a peripheral fashion. Thus there is always a tension between the individual and the social, including the mass media, which may unduly influence those who lack something prior to their engagement with the media. The approach of the mass media particularly in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attack underlines this tension, and the media portray of the events have shaped the public opinion creating a mass hysteria, rather than a logical assimilation of the facts. The attack against the Muslim population, and decrees through the editorials of many news papers out of mere emotion, prove this.
Mobilizing public opinion after the attacks
Many days after the attack, many newspapers recognised the relevance of the refined practices of journalism to mobilise the public opinion. At end of the month, the New York Times had a great revelation, that it began carrying the ongoing news stories along with the horror stories. It also brought out a section called ‘A Nation Challenged’ for carrying opinions about the events, which was carried throughout 2001. Soon after the trauma, professional media watch groups and other research centres started thinking about the refined practices particularly how to react in a trauma situation and evolved code of conducts. The most important among it is them is a booklet on crisis reporting published by the American Press Institute. This humble effort was augmented by the trade journals like the Editor and Publisher and the American Journalism Review, which carried reviews of the coverage. The Columbia Journalism Review did not publish its anniversary issue just to accommodate the crisis related coverage. In both the popular and the trade platforms, those invested with telling the story made their work seem non-heroic. Most of the journalists worked from 12 to 18 hour days in many shifts which were then coordinated by many senior professionals.
But many days after the horror, journalism’ role was again discussed nation wide, particularly in the context of a self evaluation, which was then criticised by many politician and media experts. They feared that America’s preparation for war might be scuttled, if journalists resorted to impartial reporting. The journalists began to wear shirts that had the colour of the American flag and many networks displayed the flag, as a mark of dedication to the nation. This any way mobilized the public opinion but also invited criticism. Thus the journalists were asking what, where, when and how and nobody spoke about the ‘why’ factor. Any attempt to formulate a response, begins with the confession that the news coverage of the international affairs has been increasingly neglected with the why factor remaining almost elusive. This tendency was particularly very much in the US television networks, but the media watchers point out that it was apparent in mainstream journalism throughout the western world. A historical context of the news accounts has been substantially absent in many coverages leaving the audience in lurch. They were practically denied the information regarding the cultural, political and economic factors underlying them. Investigative reports into the truthfulness of the official claims have been few and far, with totally biased people acting as ‘experts’. Those journalists committed to pushing beyond such platitudes were more than likely to have their loyalty called into the question. By this rationale, the task of reproducing Pentagon propaganda became a patriotic duty, at least in the eyes of these fearful that critical reporting would undermine the public interest. It is that the other non-American news channels acquire significance. The BBC’s World News provided a much more in-depth approach on reporting the war on terror; because it worked without the ‘sugar-coating’ Britain’s ITN World News for Public Television similarly attracted greater interest with ratings up over 50 percent in the US. Most of the cable operators started to carry these news channels, due to their growing popularity.
Internet has been the main champion in spreading the news and views just like it did during any of the world events. The development of internet as a news provider is often described as a series of formative moments each of which highlights from a respective vantage point the evolving dynamics of online journalism. The great news stories like the Oklahama City bombing, TWA 800 explosion, the Heaven’s Gate mass suicide, Princes Diana’s car crash, Drudge Report’s posting of the initial reports concerning Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky are spread more through the internet. In the aftermath of the September 11, it is not surprising that the internet became the greatest news provider about the event. There has been a flow of opinions across the online platforms, so that the main online news sites like the CNN.com, MSNBC.com, ABCNews.com, CBS.com and FoxNews.com were so besieged by user demand in the early hours of the attack. Due to the attack, several telecommunication facilities were destroyed and it has lead to a disruption of the internet services. The dramatic footage of the crashing jetliners was indeed such that individuals with access to television were much less likely to turn to the internet than those who were deskbound, such as office workers. Even the popular Google.com search engine posted an advisory message asking its users to look for radio or TV for the current information. Online news sites painfully aware of their users’ frustrations struggled to make the best of a desperate situation. In the early hours of the crisis efforts to cope up with the huge upsurge in traffic were varied and met with limited success Several news sites responded by removing from their web pages any image sensitive graphics, in several cases even the advertising content, so as to facilitate access. In light of the many difficulties associated with the accessing major news sites, many users were forced to look elsewhere on the internet for information about breaking news. News sites offering links to less well-known newspaper sources like the drudgereport.com were typically les burdened with the web traffic. It was also the case with the speciality news sites.
In the internet, the definition of the news totally changed, with new things and parameters coming into its definition. This was the start of the new era of personal journalism. The invitation to be the media, and thus to challenge traditional definitions of what counted as news as well as who qualified as a journalist was very much consistent with the animating ethos of the internet. Hundreds of refashioned websites began to appear over the course of September 11, making publicly available eyewitness accounts, personal photographs and in some cases video footage of the unfolding disasters (Zelizer and Allan, 2002, p.127) The contributions from the so-called personal journalism or citizen produced coverage appeared from various locations and it kept the public sphere live with discussion.
Peace time: US Presidential Election 2008
US Presidential election is the biggest media spectacle after the Olympic Games. The US election is covered around the world and with great political significance particularly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the world shrinking to a unipolar world. The US has become the dominant global political power and the diplomatic relationship with the US determined the economic as well as political future of a nation. Thus, the coverage of the US election process and the prospective candidate became the hot favourite for the media around the world. The US elections invite tremendous media activity and it is perceived as one of the media determined political process. The elections trigger a great amount of campaigns, by all the candidates generating a great amount of information flow. Thus the public remained live till the elections are over. The hallmark of the US elections is the television cross fire, where the candidates present themselves before the public. This significant media exercise is seen only in the US elections, and it shows how the political process in America values the public opinion and the mass media.
The campaign issues included the Iraq, the unpopularity of the President George Bush, and the economy. The most detested war in Iraq was a primary topic during the entire campaign. John McCain supported the war but at the same time Barack Obama was against it right from the beginning of the campaign, because there was no substantial evidence that Iraq had links to Al-Qaeda or it was responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks. The Bush Administration used the allegations to attack Iraq, claiming that it was necessary to start an immediate military offensive for the fear of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction. But Obama used the arguments to fight against McCain and used it as a link to connect him to the unpopular President Bush. Bush’s unpopularity is one of the other campaign issues. Although McCain supported the military operations in Iraq, he tactically disagreed with Bush on many other vital issues such as climate change, to keep away from Bush’s unpopularity. The economy is the other factor that most of the voters concerned very much. Most of the media reported that the economy was suffering severely since the Great Depression McCain also suffered from his adverse comments about the economy. The cost of campaigning for President has increased substantially in recent years. In January 2007, Federal Election Commission Chairman Michael E. Toner estimated that the 2008 polls will be a $1 billion race, and that to be taken seriously, a candidate needed to raise at least $100 million by the end of 2007.
Internet campaigns apart from the other media campaigns invited large contributions. In 2008 elections most of the candidates used every possibility to reach out to Internet users by means of their own websites and popular social forums like the YouTube, MySpace and Facebook. Democratic Party candidate Barack Obama initiated a widespread grassroots movement and a totally new method of campaigning by courting and mobilizing activists, donations and voters through the Internet.
Mass media has been in the forefront of mobilizing public opinions, which is created though the media spaces. When we take the media spaces into consideration, it can be seen that there are two dimensions of interaction involved in all the media: interaction with the mediums; and socially with the media technologies which give us gateways to such mediums. Interacting with the mediums is explored by the ritual perspectives of communication whereas the intersubjective communication is explored by transmission accounts. Thus mobilising public opinion works on these two levels entrusting media its fullest responsibilities. The contemporary media has a greater advantage when perceived from this perspective. Mobilising the public opinion and keeping live the public sphere is another way of setting the agenda, which is regarded as one of the functions of the mass media. The mass media is significantly more than a purveyor of information and opinion. Its task is not in telling the readers or the viewers what to think, but empowering them with what to think about. World looks different to different people, depending on their personal interests. Even though the mass media convey a lot about the political, social and economic phenomena, the discussions in the public sphere are the one that make them creative and fruitful. In information societies individuals increasingly interact with medium rather than with other interlocutors. Thus the contemporary mass media, particularly the new media emerges the champion of the public sphere; thanks to the internet, thanks to the blogs, today opinion is free to travel without any resonances and restriction. Network communities have emerged as the most influential and primary public spheres generating, and mobilising opinions. The cyber society has changed the mediascape and the public sphere, and the online forums have reinforced its strength, to give more freedom to the public.