Theorising The Media – OpEd


“The advancement and diffusion of knowledge is the only guardian of true liberty.” — James Madison, Political Theorist, President of the United States of America (1809)

Communication since time immemorial has been a dominant reality of life on earth and has aided progress, growth at each stage of historical evolution of both man and societies. Communication technology has redefined existing realities in the 21st century. The power of new mass media was realised when terrorists hijacked planes and used them to attack the Twin Towers in New York in September 2011 and roughly a global audience of two billion people watched the attack on television in real time.[i] Apostles of the CNN effect argue that the changing dynamics of new media has given rise to a new form of media research that revolves around the dissection of qualitative impacts of real time news coverage, and dissimination of information through diverse mediums.

Convergence in production, distribution and consumption of information has brought about profound transformations in the way we look at society and life today. Shrinking of spaces and ability to connect with others instantaneously has led to media gaining prominence as a powerful tool that can bring about remarkable changes in the world especially in times of conflict and peace.

The world today is driven by what we see, hear. The explosion in the means of communication especially the digital revolution has left a drastic impression on the way we form our perceptions about the existing world order, its socio political and economic implications.

Modern mass media essentially is a combination of information sharing tools such as radio, print, electronic and digital which have completely altered the processes of information sharing that existed before. This is rightfully echoed by Canadian Media Theorist Marshall McLuhan who argued that society today is influenced much more by the type of the media that by its content or the messages which are conveyed by it. Electronic media tends to create a ‘Global Village’ in which people all over the world witness major events unfold and thereby participate in them together.

This article seeks to explore the many dimensions of convergence of information production, distribution and consumption.

Media discourses have undergone discernible changes in the last few decades and with changing global political order, wars, natural calamities and political mobilization a fresh approach towards understanding the functioning of Media in times of conflict and peace becomes inevitable. Equally, the need of the hour is to remember that arbitration by juxtaposed media, however well meaning may serve to aggravate situations, inflame passions and therefore subvert or frustrate conflict resolution measures.

In all intents and purposes the mushrooming of 24×7 News Channels , widespread use of the world wide web and the rise of Social Media platforms recently have redefined the mental constructs that helped us to understand the functioning of Global political order especially in times of Conflict and Peace. The effect of a strongly linked, cosmopolitan and international neighbourhood owing to superior access to all forms of media may not necessarily be a positive aspect; ideologies, identities, territorial integrities, and indeed the very concept of nation states may be challenged by perceptions of global institutions percolating via the Media.

Access to 24×7 real time information through diverse media forms and their ability to mould perceptions have forced a re-evaluation by governments, international businesses and even non state actors to view the heightened role of the Media in the shaping of conflict. Time and Space are two distinct variables in communication studies that have aided paradigm changes in existing theories and questions that have already been answered but need a fresh perspective that can solve key issues which affect the socio political environment in contemporary times.

With real time broadcasting of on ground events our perceptions about the world around us has undergone significant changes. One of the sterling examples of this was demonstrated during the 9/11 attacks on the American mainland; raw ability to transpose events as they unfolded into people’s homes was on evidence, giving a perspective not seen hitherto fore.

It has been widely debated that the corporate nature of commercial Media is prone as well as responsive to influences wielded by governments because of their inherent need to access corridors of power. Contrarily it has also been argued that governments are vulnerable and inclined to pressures by commercial media, due to their widespread reach and their ravenous yearning to connect with the masses.

The architecture of communication technology which is used as a persuasive instrument of psychological warfare forms an integral part of statecraft. Research has proved that Journalism marginalises, denigrates and demonises certain sections of the massed positioning them as stigmatised outcasts [ii] . The ongoing conflict between the military and the media testifies the same. Public scrutiny of strategic decisions and army operations as they unfold through relentless coverage has often has damaging consequences.

Media’s Agenda Setting Role

Case Study 1- American occupation of the Spanish Empire, 1898

Historically, one of the earliest examples of Mediatised conflict was seen in 1898 following the American occupation of the Spanish Empire. It is known that during this period American Media were at their irrepressible best and irresponsible worst.[iii]The well-known so called telegraph between William Randolph Hearst and his combat artist in Florida tells the story. “Everything is quiet. There will be no war. I wish to return,” Frederick Remington called. Hearst replied “Please remain. You furnish pictures, I will furnish war.”[iv]

Censorship failed to control the content that was transmitted for public consumption. Plain stories better known as “Yellow Press” flourished. Richard Harding Davis, well known war correspondent of his times gave a detailed account of exhausted American troops at the San Juan Hills. New York Herald published the story and Madrid took action. The Santiago garrison surrendered. The scene is somewhat similar today. Commercialisation of news media, globalisation and access to information instantly has created a trend in communications which if not controlled can have very damaging repercussions.

Case Study 2- The Kargil war and the Media

Media coverage of the Kargil war in 1999 was without dubitation outstanding. However there were also serious instances of “sensational reporting”. Media coverage evoked war hysteria. Aggressive nationalism was practiced by the journalists. Indians were swayed by jingoistic anti Pakistan rhetoric.[v] It was believed that the news coverage was strictly controlled by the political elites echoing the views of the Atal Bihari Government.
The Kargil war coverage generated a public debate calling for more censorship. There were diverse views on whether access to information and transparency in the work of the armed forces for their citizens is important or should media’s role be neutered to boost the morale of fighting soldiers in times of conflict. It is evident that peace is no news for media. It is conflict and war that generates more curiosity.

Case Study 3- The Danish Cartoon Controversy, 2005

In September 2005, Conservative Danish weekly Jyllands- Posten’s culture editor solicited sketches of the Prophet Mohammed to elicit views from people about self-censorship in Denmark. On 30th September, the weekly published 12 cartoon caricatures of the Prophet. Outraged by the act, some 5000 Muslims of the Danish Islamic Society gathered outside the office of the editor to protest against the blasphemous caricatures.

Ahmed Akhari gathered a group of Danish Muslims and travelled to the Middle East to inform the community about the cartoons. Hate mails were shared that were never exchanged. An emergency meeting was held in Mecca attended by more than 50 Muslim nations to condemn the act. Tensions escalated thereafter.

*Vishakha Amitabh Hoskote, M.A ,MPHIL (International Relations, Political Science, Development Communication)

[i] Giddens, Anthony, Sociology-6th edition, “The Media”, 2009 Cambridge UK
[ii] Cottle,Simon, Mediatised Recognition and “The Other”, 2007,MIACP
[iii] Singh,Kumar Anil Dr. Military and Media,Lancer Publishers and Distributors 2006 New Delhi
[iv] Cited in HDS Greenway, “The Warring Century”,Columbia Journalism Review October 1999
[v] Singh,Kumar Anil Dr. Military and Media,Lancer Publishers and Distributors 2006 New Delhi

Vishakha Amitabh Hoskote

Vishakha Amitabh Hoskote is a Communication Professional, Research Scholar and a Defence Enthusiast. With an MA, MPHIL in International Relations, Political Science and Development Communications, Ms Hoskote regularly writes for Eurasia Review on subjects of geopolitical importance.

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