Thursday, 10 October 2013

Their Words, Our Minds

In media studies, Paul Lazarsfeld gives us the concept of ‘two-step flow theory’ in which he believes: “in a society there co-exist two types of people: opinion leaders and opinion followers.” He explains that to convince the masses, one must convince the leaders. If one compares Lazarsfeld’s theory to columnists and their followers, we see that columnists act as opinion leaders who have the power to shape public opinion through their words. The aspect and dimensions that a columnist persuades his or her readers to see determine which way popular opinion moves. They can reinforce or re-form popular attitudes.
Modern psychology states that the human mind responds positively to stimuli that are favourable to him/her and the adverse is usually ignored or rejected. The smart and powerful know this pattern of behaviour of society too well and use mass communication to serve themselves or their causes. Typically, most people consume information that reinforces their viewpoints. It is less frequent and more difficult for writers and columnists to transform or completely alter this tendency. This can be borne out by the kind of praise or abuse heaped on an article that commits itself to a particular point of view.  The more extreme a point of view the more extreme the feedback. Often comments and feedback criticize a piece for it’s “bias” or lack of objectivity. But is that at all a fair expectation?
“In my view, editors who say they are neutral and objective start from a position of bias. Columnists are expected to take a position and argue their case with robust knowledge and that the evidence can be independently verified. It is the job of columnists to influence public opinion through their arguments. It is for the masses to decide whether or not a case is well made. This explains why some columns are eagerly awaited while some are ignored. To cite an example, The Economist comes to mind. I do not agree with a lot of what they say, but I read the magazine for the way they state their opinion and make a case for it,” says journalist Chitra Subramaniam Duella.
The difference between persuasion and manipulation is thin and it is a topic that can polarise readers. “Why would someone write if not to let people know what s/he thinks? Why would you want people to know what you think as a writer if you do not want them to think and persuade them into thinking like you? If that is manipulation, sure it is. There is no line between persuasion and manipulation. I don’t wish to persuade anyone. I wish to manipulate them. I want a monocultural world wherein everyone thinks like me. Fortunately, for me, as much for anyone else, this is impossible because you can only manipulate someone who wants to be manipulated. Else, you can try to persuade them. So, the line isn’t in the head of the writer but in the head of the reader,” says journalist and author Jerry Pinto.
Individuals in any society make up their own minds on issues but are influenced by those who society itself elevates to opinion leaders, if not through columns in print, as permanent panelists on TV. However the latter are often created by geography or proximity to journalists and anchors.
“A columnist is not someone who conveys news.  S/he has views, though I accept that sometimes, the difference between news and views can get blurred.  No one is truly objective.  Even if a person claims to be objective, he/she has subjective biases and those creep in.  Let’s not pretend there are no biases.  Columnists take themselves too seriously and exaggerate their own importance.  But yes, columnists can influence public opinion.  I am not sure how to respond to “persuaders” versus “manipulators”.  Every columnist is attempting to “persuade” readers.  That’s the reason for writing columns.  I guess “manipulator” means when there is more to it than that, when that persuasion is driven by some ulterior motive, even pecuniary.  Most columnists I know wouldn’t do that.  But I am sure it happens,” says economist and writer Bibek Debroy.
“I think influencing tends to happen on a subconscious level. A columnist’s facts are assumed to be vast and their research is regarded highly by their reader base. At the end of the day, they are as human as we are and have their own biases. A responsible columnist would indicate his opinion and refrain from using judgmental words. The columnists I follow closely are Bibek Debroy and Arun Shourie who take a lot of care in separating fact from assumption in their opinions. In such cases, readers are enabled with more data to form their judgments. However, there are also columnists who start with controversial titles and knowingly or unknowingly blur the difference between facts and biases by forcing their opinions on the subconscious mind of the reader,” says business analyst Saiswaroopa Iyer.
“Columnists are entitled to their opinions as individuals. I’d call certain columnists as manipulators for the utter disdain with which they report on certain personalities. At the same time, a column must be realistic. Hence, I like reading “Loose Canon” by Manas Chakravarty (in Hindustan Times) which uses humour to comment about happenings of the society. Yes, I do agree that columns do tend to influence our opinion in a way that objectivity takes a backseat but at the end of the day, it is the style of writing and the name of a columnist that matters,” feels journalism student and reader Sharada Kishore.
“The most effective columnists do influence public opinion. Manipulation as a word has negative connotations. But if one wants to use the word ‘manipulation’, stripped of any value judgment, it’s exactly what columnists do. As they should. That is what news reports very often do as well. There is no such thing as perfect objectivity. The moment you pick one story to report and not the other, objectivity has ended. The attempt can be and should be to fairness, that in the story picked, all viewpoints are presented fairly. But that does not mean there is no bias.
There are two basic differences in a news report and a column. One is the obvious nature of content. A report is a first hand account by a reporter presenting facts as he or she finds them while columns mostly are opinions on an issue presented by the writer having drawn conclusions based on reports (by others) and/or personal experiences.  The second is in terms of “bias”. In a column the bias most often is overt and stated (implicit or explicit) and in a news report it is not. That’s not to say all bias is motivated from some personal benefit or corrupt practice. A bias can be an internalised prejudice on account of class, religion, caste, personal experience, family, friends’ circle exposure, etc. In presenting such a piece of writing, the columnist is trying to convince a reader to look at the issue from his or her point of view. So yes, it is manipulation. Although since any information we consume alters how we look at things everything is manipulation in the bigger picture. Some is more fair and fact based than others. That’s the only difference,” says Managing Editor of Newslaundry, Abhinandan Sekhri.
Everyone has the power to manipulate or influence, if words, speech or images have that power. Those with a larger space in media have more of it. While reading a column if one can compensate for its leanings and biases and still find value in what is expressed, the exercise is more complete.

This article was originally written and published on the media-watch website Newslaundry. If you wish to add the article in its original avatar, you can read it here

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