6 Oct 2009

The media as the source of information has the power influence public opinion. But before getting into how it might, it is important to know what my understanding of public opinion. I would define public opinion as the opinion shared by the majority of the public. Majority because it is almost impossible to find an absolutely agreed opinion among people with different social and economic background, racial differences, age, gender, etc. Gauging public opinion is normally done by using opinion polls, which as we all know, are merely representative of opinions shared by different groups in a given society, or in research terms, population.

If a study that is measuring public opinion on the impact of global warming finds 75% of respondents thinks that global warming possess a major threat to the future of mankind, it would then be concluded as “the study found that global warming is actually a threat to the future of mankind.”Public opinion is more about what many, and not necessarily all, think about something rather than what each of us think.

Take an example of the Loch Lomond “myth.” Majority of those who believe about the Loch Lomond monster have not even been to Scotland, let alone Loch Lomond itself. One of the reasons for the publicity of the myth has been the stories we frequently hear of read, or hear from, the media. The publicity has led to many us believing the existence of the Loch Lomond monster. If there were an opinion poll on whether people believe there is actually a monster there, the results could very likely be “yes” mainly because a larger section of the media has led us to believe that way.

As the public is made of individuals, it is difficult for each of them to make their opinions known, hence the usefulness of the media in giving a medium for a rather general collection of what each of us think about something. If manipulated, the media could as well lead us into believing that majority of us something is the way it is because many think so. Neglecting deviants, many people tend to be conformists in the sense that they normally do not want to look different from what the majority’s position. Therefore, as the Americans were led to believe by a section of the US media that the Saddam Hussein’s regime was actually linked for the 9/11 atrocities, rather than a neo-con agenda spearheaded by the likes of Donald Rumsfield, Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz,so does a section of the British public becomes influenced in their opinion by The Sun, The Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail that asylum seekers and refugees as actually among the causes of the country’s economic problems.

A biased media could in short or long run effectively influences public opinion because it communicates what “A” thinks in Derbyshire and “B” thinks in Lanarkshire. Or in an international perspective, what Maggie thinks in Glasgow and Evarist thinks in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. It is even more effective in shaping public opinion in the less educated or less informed section of society that normally takes what is said by the media for granted.

During the 2005 general election campaigns in Tanzania, the ruling party courted the media to publicise a story that a neighbouring country’s army was planning to invade Tanzania. The ruling party then went on urging reminding the voters how the country emerged victorious in the 1978-79 war against Uganda under its (the ruling party’s) leadership. Some analysts believe that although the gimmick did not directly determine the outcomes of the election it all the same helped the ruling party to identify itself to voters as one they could rely on during uncertain times.

Exploiting the ineffectiveness of the Kenyan political situation in which a coalition of opposition parties successfully broke an “African political taboo” that a ruling party never loses an election, CCM-Tanzania’s ruling party-has frequently used the media during elections to tell voters that bringing an opposition into power could not solve the country’s problems, referring to the Kenyan situation. The pro-CCM media has also been telling Tanzanians that regardless of how bad they think of CCM, it still is the “devil they know”, and therefore should never try a political experience of voting an opposition party into power. Many would agree despite proving wrong in some African countries such as Ghana the trick has been very successful.

The pro-government media in Sudan has also been effective in swaying public opinion in favour of President Al-Bashir when he a warrant was made by the International Criminal Court in The Hague accusing him of being responsible for genocide in the Darfur region. The media working under the directives of the Sudanese government portrayed the warrant as an attempt by the West to re-colonise Africa.

Although public opinion could also shape opinion in the media, it is rather for commercial purposes than public interest. When The Daily Mail ran an exclusive story about an “illegal immigrant” employed by Baroness Scotland, it fair to believe that based on its strong anti-immigration stance, it did not do so to sympathise with the plight faced by those who make a choice of being in the UK illegally but rather to amass pressure to force the peer out of office.

If we agree that although the media the primary source of information broadcasted or published by the media comes from the public, and therefore a need to see the media serves the interest of the public, it still remains true that the flow information has usually been from the media to the public in terms of news consumption. The point here is that the media collects information from the public not for final consumption but rather for the public consumption. It is on such views that I argue that it is the media which shapes public opinion, and not vice versa.


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