Media impact on public opinion
Posted on July 9th, 2016

By Dr. Tilak S Fernando Courtesy Ceylon Today

Many tend to believe and accept that violence is a complex issue influenced by many factors such as racism, poverty, drug abuse, domestic issues, thuggary, guns, mental disorder and terrorism, which can ultimately lead to aggressive behaviour and violence.

Current news bulletins are generally classified into two main categories. First, to define what is meant by news, and secondly to describe how news is made. The Webster’s New World Dictionary defines the word news as: “New information about anything, information previously unknown, recent happenings, especially those broadcast over the radio, printed in a newspaper and reports of such events, collectively”.

Melvin Mencher says, “News is regarded as information people need in order to make rational decisions about their lives”. Larger the number of people for whom the event is important, greater the newsworthiness becomes significant. In this respect recent news items become more newsworthy; equally feature articles on popular personalities or organizations are newsworthy. Closer proximity of an incidence is more important to the audience than distant occurrences. The unusual news always attracts attention. Conflict or controversy is newsworthy.

‘Hard’ and ‘Soft’ news

Journalists tend to classify stories into a relatively small number of categories – ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ news. Here the news is broken into stories about current events and feature stories that are less time-bound. Hard news stories are further sub divided into ‘spot’ stories, which develop unexpectedly such as a fire or a plane crash. Developing stories require news organizations to allocate a staff writer to carry the story for an extended period. By the same token dozens of other stories just end up in the wastepaper bin!

Another powerful resource with regard to media is the know-how. Journalists often turn to sources who are in a position either to know what’s going on or who believe to have valuable insights into current events to help them make news. Stories normally come from large newspapers, the networks and news magazines; many stories come from the organization’s own news staff. Much of this news is redundant. A newspaper or a media station may have several stories about the same event, and in this case, it will most likely use the version prepared by its own staff member.

News is not only made by newsmakers, but ‘raw’ occurrences must be made into stories. Each medium imposes its own demands on what a story is. TV stories demand a visual element, print media stories are frequently structured in ‘inverted pyramid’ style; that is, with the most essential information at the beginning of the story and less essential detail and explanatory information further down.

Representation of reality

News is supposed to be a representation of reality, which at times even its critics acknowledge. Journalists are doing no more than reflecting the world in which they live in, having to face with similar circumstances by holding and supporting the existing power. Faced with the same set of circumstances journalists reflect, uphold, and support the existing power relationships of society.

All media bear some relationship to reality, but not all do so as directly as news media do.

How do the media represent public life and what role do media have in political behaviour? There are significant differences between the ways various media sectors approach reality: The news and information media attempt to represent it. Advertising and public relations practitioners try to focus attention on those aspects of reality that further their client’s interests. And producers of entertainment may use the “real world” as a source of raw material for fictional content.

Media effects on politics

To what extent media have effects on politics is important on a social dimension. Political campaigns have a definite beginning and a defined end, which is on the day of the election. The end becomes solid depending on voter behaviour as some may either vote or abstain from casting their votes. There are, of course, other forms of political behaviour such as volunteering time to campaigns, contributing money or other forms of attempting to bribe and persuade voters. Media, in such situations can serve as the principal source of political information, determining how well voters are informed about politics.

Generally, when it comes to politics half of all the potential voters refrain from discussing elections or politics with others. In such circumstances, the only source of influence on such people becomes the media. During an election campaign those who pay heed to the media reactions may decide on their candidate quite early thus making the potential effect of the media on them to a greater extent. Media are able to make evaluative pronouncements to persuade and to influence voters’ behaviour in two ways. They can be made through endorsements where a particular medium may urge voters to support a particular candidate and through political advertising, in which third parties taking a course of action in favour of certain candidates, political parties or others.

There is a vast difference between political party candidates and consumer product entrepreneurs in advertising. Ideally, politicians’ task would be to seek citizens’ votes based on their public policies rather than offering money and promising voters the sun, moon and earth. Here what a candidate should do is to sell his/her ideas and promises about the public policy rather than some product people use now and discard later. Political advertising frequently tends to be negative compared with consumer product advertising because the type of behaviour required should be to gain a vote and not to sell a product. Usually, what takes place is that a candidate would attempt to persuade voters in his favour by finding something to criticize in an opponent’s past record.

Agenda setting

The news media by and large do not set out to persuade their audience, but to inform people what issues are important for public debate. The idea behind agenda setting is quite simple. The media may feature some issues prominently while giving the public a sense of what issues are important. This is done in such a manner that people get a sense of the importance of an issue by the prominence given to a particular topic on the front page headline or buried somewhere inside. All media present precisely the same agenda simultaneously. Logically speaking, people’s agendas should resonate with the media.

The writer holds a PhD in Philosophy of Media Communication

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