Tools Indian Media uses: “Mainstreaming”, “Mean World Syndrome” and “Agenda Setting”

The second edition of the India Ideas Conclave 2015 was held in Goa, from November 15th to November 17th. It was organised by the India Foundation, and saw the coming together of policy makers and public intellectuals from around the world. Over 350 intellectuals, professionals, scholars, journalists and social activists participated in this conclave.

There were many official sessions of talks on various topics, but there was one “session” which was not on the schedule. That was by Mr Vamsee Juluri, a novelist, author and professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco. He spoke on the topic of “Changing the media narrative in India” in a closed room environment where many high profile journalists found themselves as the audience.

Mr Juluri spoke on how media studies have evolved in the West, and what the results were from the scientific study of media behaviour. Interestingly, he found some findings from the research done years ago in the West, which had a relevance to the current media scene in India.

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Mainstreaming:

Mr Juluri explained the concept of “Mainstreaming”. He said, media studies in the West found that in a typical TV debate on politics, an anchor usually has a representative of the “Left” and one from the “Right”. The connotations of “Left” and “Right” may not be the same as in the West, but these are not relevant. What studies there found that, the person who the anchor presented to be from the “Left”, was in reality more inclined to a Centre-Right ideology. Thus, while viewers were told Mr X is from the Left, he was actually more Centre-Right than Left. What this effectively meant that the core “Leftist” was hidden from view and a more acceptable Centre-Right person was presented as a Leftist.

Mr Juluri observed that in Indian TV studios too, a similar practice was going on, but from the other side. Indian TV panels did show a “Leftist” as a representative of the Left, (although many times the core rabid Naxal-supporting Left is obfuscated), but the person who is supposed to be from the “Right” was more often than not someone from the Far Right. Such individuals from Far-Right would often have views which many people would find extreme. Thus, when a viewer sees a moderate Leftist vs a Far Right speaker, the viewer is bound to feel the Left is more rational in his views.

To quote a relatable example, why does Indian media run behind the Sadhvis and the Sakshi Maharajs? These are people from the Far-Right but due to media promotion, the average viewer would often interpret their views as that of the “Right” as a whole. This inspite of the fact that many on the Right itself would not subscribe to their views.

Mean World Syndrome

Mr Juluri also spoke about another finding from Western Media studies, the “Mean World Syndrome”. This finding said that people who watched more violence-related reports on TV and other forms of media, tended to believe that the world is more dangerous than it actually is.

Again, this is seen quite often in the Indian context. We have MSM constantly focussing on negative stories. The same stories are shown with dramatic music, alarming graphics and on loop for 24 hours. All this amplifies the negative news and a constant focus on such news can create a psychosis that the world is worse than what it is. This was seen during the “Intolerance is Rising” narrative where upto Bihar elections, all sorts of crimes against minorities, dalits were raked up and even some educated people fell prey to the general belief that “Intolerance is rising”.  In fact we had TV anchors prodding and probing every other “celebrity” the could catch hold of, hoping for an answer which would further the narrative.

Agenda Setting

Agenda Setting is another finding from the many studies undertaken on Media and public behaviour in the West. Agenda Setting simply refers to the practice of Media picking up one issue and giving it importance via constant coverage, and how this issue then becomes important for the viewers also, although in reality this may not have been that important to them.

If for example, the public deems Inflation as an issue which is more important than say Cow slaughter, but if the media constantly covers Cow Slaughter rather than inflation, over a period of time, the viewers too begin to feel that Cow slaughter is indeed more important. We see such a practice going on in Indian MSM on so many topics. Indian media frequently has debates on cow slaughter, on censor board, on some other frivolous issues, but very rarely on the economy, or other issues which an average Indian would probably be more interested in.

All the above research points emanate from Media studies in the West, hence Mr Juluri stressed on the fact that such studies need to be done in India as well, to see whether the above issues plague or media, to what extent, and also if we can uncover some other issues which are intrinsic to Indian media.

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