What You See In The Media Isn’t Always How Things Really Are

Posted on December 29, 2015 in Media

By Sakshi Jain

Mid-way through my course in Journalism this month, I was wondering about the ‘one lesson’ which intrigued my thought process in this journey so far. Indeed, as I was digging down my memory of the multiple books and lessons, the lesson of ‘subjectivity’ kept swirling on my mind. It was neither a proposed topic in my curriculum nor was it a part of an exclusive lecture so far. Yet, it seems the ultimate lesson of all the other lessons learnt in the course.

mediaSubjectivity, in general, is a philosophical concept that in the broadest sense of its term means interpretation of truth or reality governed by individual’s influence. Often in contrast to objectivity, it has a slightly negative connotation. However, the purpose here is not to distinguish between the good and the bad, negative and the positive, subjective and the objective. The purpose is to express how the milieu of media, its representation of the world and the ethics pertaining to it provide us a lens of subjective interpretation.

In the name of subjectivity, I do not intend to justify the actual malpractices or the careless mistakes in the communication process of media and others but to express the general trend of the rifeness of subjectivity.

The Lesson Of Subjectivity

The very existence of media is not objectively defined in our Constitution. The distinct provision of ‘Freedom of Press’ doesn’t find a mention in our Constitution even though it was the most sought-after fundamental right, evident in the history of India’s freedom struggle. The Freedom of Speech and Expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(A) is however seen as a provision encompassing ‘Freedom of Press’. However, the freedom isn’t absolute; it is subject to the reasonable restrictions mentioned in Article 19(2) of our Constitution. These restrictions are imposed in protection of ‘public order’, ‘decency’, and ‘morality’ or in relation to ‘contempt of court’, ‘defamation’ or ‘incitement to an offence’ that consequently limit the scope of freedom of speech and expression.

A simple analysis of these provisions acquaints us with subjectivity in and around media and the larger world. The definition of a ‘decent’ or a ‘moral’ act is subjective to an individual’s interpretation. The question then is, who decides the line of distinction between moral and immoral, decent and indecent? Is there a universal acceptance of such categorization? If not, then what meaning do these terms hold and to what extent are these restrictions reasonable?

Media is known to be the fourth estate of democracy by the virtue of its role in maintaining the cycle of dialogue between the people and its government. However, in addition, there is also a continuous cycle of subjectivity established in the society. The media presents the story which is naturally tainted by the subjective interpretation of the presenter, the audience’s grasp of the story is bound to be subjective, and the characters involved in the story will interpret it based on their own experiences. One story is subjected to numerous interpretations implying that there will also be dissension or disapproval with the perspective of the media.

In those circumstances, the interpretation of the constitutional provisions like those in Article 19(2) seems to challenge media’s representation. The government or the authority, also the characters of the story in most instances act as the arbitrator in serious issues of contention and clash of opinions. For instance, a person feels that media’s representation was an act of defamation and depends on the judicial body for the final decision of justice. It is important here to understand that the authority has no rule book for objective decision making based on every instance, the decision taken by the judicial authority is coloured by its own subjective interpretation, often in the name of ‘public interest’ which is again a contextual term. Thus, continues the cycle of subjectivity between the audience, media and government (who act as the audience too).

It is ironical how the professional ethics of objectivity in media is often overpowered by the subjective nuances. Media claims to justify its freedom of expression in the ‘public interest’. But, the quandary regarding the definition of public interest poses a reason for battle between objectivity and subjectivity. It is difficult to ascertain what really is in the interest of public, whether everything that the media deems fit for its audience, is really so. The question of where should a borderline be drawn and whether there should be one is debatable. Hence, there lies the subjectivity in deciding the kind of information that we as part of the public sphere need. The professional ethics of objectivity seems to be too utopian an idea to be actually practiced. It is easier to pen down these points of professional ethics but when it comes to actual practices, the web of subjectivity is too dense to escape.

There has always been a tussle between the laws that restrict the freedom of media and practices of media. It is common to see media practitioners being charged with ‘sedition’, ‘defamation’ and ‘contempt of court’ etc by the authorities or person aggrieved. However, the imposition of such charges is subjective to the interpretation of authority and/or the person aggrieved. On the other hand, the media practitioners justify their actions in the name of freedom of speech and expression and the very nature of the profession.

Is Subjectivity A Pervasive Maze?

When all these nuances are narrowed down to the level of inter-personal relations, it seems like the same maze of subjectivity has entrapped us everywhere. It feels like everybody has his/her own interpretation and that there is always ‘the other side’, or so to say the multiple sides. If each interpretation is the result of the social interaction and experiences then who should be blamed in case of a clash of two divergent perspectives? What determines a right or a wrong interpretation? Is there an actual distinction between the two? It is generally told that the intention must be right, to not harm somebody, but what is the indicator of those right intentions? On what grounds can someone’s intention be judged and justified?

Such questions have blurred the lines between a right and wrong expression; there is no universally appealing criterion to determine an individual’s expression as right or wrong. Just like there is a constant tussle in the realm of media, the same is replicated at every level of communication, be it inter- personal, intra- personal. As I am writing this, I have come to learn that this piece of work is open to as many interpretations as its readers, yet there will be no absolute interpretation of this. Such is the battle of communication, laden with the pervasive maze of subjectivity.

If there were only hardcore facts that shaped the communication processes in this world, there wouldn’t have been such a battle between objectivity and subjectivity. Each attempt towards objective communication entails a tinge of subjectivity.