Media Law

Emerging issues in Social Responsibility theory of Media in today’s era

Emerging issues in Social Responsibility theory of Media

A project report studying the upcoming and existing issues against the theory of Social Responsibility on Media persons.


Manu Gupta

Symbiosis Law School Noida


Table Of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Attempting a definition of social responsibility
  3. Hutchins Commission
  4. Siebert, Peterson and Schramm
  5. Dr. Nosa Owens-Ibie
  6. Social Reponsibility Theory
  7. Self Regulation
  8. The Indian Scenario
  9. Twisting facts:
  10. Paid news:
  11. Non-issues as real issues
  12. Tendency to brand
  13. Recommendations
  14. Conclusion
  15. Bibliography


Mass media is a two sided sword which, if comes to good can uplift a whole nation and form a strong support for its development and pride and if, it comes to deterioration, has the capacity to cause chaos and disorder in the socio-economic era of today.

According to historians, media has certain obligations to the society. The Social Responsibility Theory of media entails the same concept into existence. This theory was initiated and promulgated in the American set up and the initiative was taken in the late forties. Also, the Hutchison commission on Freedom of the Press, formed during the World War II, provided a model in which the media has to perform some specific obligations towards society like truth, accuracy, objectivity and balance.

Democracy in general terms is understood to be a form of government that is subject to popular sovereignty. It is essentially a rule by the people that is in contrast to monarchies or aristocracies. One of the crowing glories of the democratic system is the freedom of expression and the space that is provided to views from different sections of the society. A democratic system can run to its utmost potential when there is wide participation on the part the general mass that is not possible without people getting informed about various issues. Reliable information sources are an important constituent of any democratic society. This is where the mass media steps in.

Mass media in its different forms have influenced human life in the present times. They have primarily provided information and entertainment to people across countries. Print media, being the leader over a considerable period of time has now got competition from Television, which is reshaping many of the social responses. Radio apart from providing news and views has also developed a flair for entertainment, thereby getting a lot of acceptance. There is also the new media with Internet being its flag bearer. Internet has indeed made it possible to disseminate information and ideas in real time across the globe. However, among all these developments there is a cause of concern questioning the fulfilment of Social Responsibility by the media. There’s an apprehension that booming global mass media posing threats to the democratic way of thinking. There also poses issues as to the expanding role of media.

Research Methodology

The present thesis shall follow a theoretical i.e. a doctrinal research methodology. The primary research question is to ascertain the issues with regard to social responsibility of media with the help of existing research, statutes and case laws in the Indian legal regime.

Attempting a definition of social responsibility

Accountability, Liability & Responsibility

In dealing with media ethics, there exists some confusion among the terms: accountability, liability & responsibility. To understand the meaning of Social responsibility in Media, the meaning of the above-mentioned terms shall be unblemished

Within the expanse of journalism, one could define accountability narrowly and fundamentally as being able to produce records, e.g. evidence to support what has been reported on. However, the meaning of this term is often extended to overlap with the concept of liability and responsibility: in other words, a journalist is also accountable in the sense that he or she is held liable for the consequences of his reporting. Liability in this case can be taken to signify being ethically or legally responsible for one’s actions; the concept of liability of journalists hinges on the question of whether or not their profession entails a social responsibility.

The following assertion can explain the distinction between accountability and responsibility. “Whereas accountability is referred to as the manifestation of claims to responsibility, responsibility is the acknowledged obligation for action or behavior within frameworks of roles and morals”[1]. Responsibility is in this sense the obligation for proper custody, care and safekeeping of one’s audience. More specifically, social responsibility entails the necessity for the journalist to keep society’s interest as a top priority. This can also be seen as a collective responsibility or public interest responsibility.

Holding the press accountable for the level of responsibility of its actions implies having a clear idea of what this “responsibility” entails. In the words of Hodges who has attempted to assemble this kind of definition, “we cannot reasonably demand that the press give an account of it or improve its performance until we determine what it is the press is responsible for doing” (Hodges, 1986).

Hutchins Commission

Defining social responsibility in the media regime traces back to a key landmark in the field. A report produced by the Commission on the Freedom of the Press, more insouciantly known as the Hutchins Commission. The founder of Time magazine Henry Luce requested the project in 1942, during the World War II, at a time when it was believed that fundamental freedoms were being increasingly threatened by the rise of totalitarian regimes throughout the world.

Led by the then-president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins, this commission deliberated for four years before settling in 1947 on certain guidelines for a socially responsible press in a report titled as A Free and Responsible Press. These guidelines can be summarized into the following fundamentals as:

  1. A true, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context which gives them meaning
  2. A forum for the exchange of comment and criticism
  3. The projection of a representative picture of the constituent groups in the society
  4. The presentation and clarification of the goals and values of the society

Although valid, these principles are liable to be criticized for drafted with too much generality and lacking in precision, and in general are not considered to have had a substantial impact on the media industry’s development in subsequent decades.

Siebert, Peterson and Schramm

Siebert, Peterson and Schramm developed the first formal theory of social responsibility of the press about a decade later in 1956. The authors did take into consideration to some extent the Hutchins initiative.

Social responsibility was presented as the third theory in their book Four Theories of the Press, alongside Authoritarian, Libertarian and Soviet theories. One pivotal characteristic of their view is an emphasis on the media’s responsibility to use its powerful position to ensure appropriate delivery of information to audiences; furthermore, if the media fails in carrying out this responsibility, it may be relevant to have a regulatory body enforce it.

In the current theory as well as the Hutchins Commission report, the concept of public interest, inexplicitly, lies at the heart of the definition of social responsibility. This highlights the crucial role of the communications sector in shaping societal processes: the formation of public opinion and civil society movements, social and political development patterns, including more tangible processes such as the unfurling of elections campaigns an their outcome.

Dr. Nosa Owens-Ibie

Dr. Owens-Ibie made an interesting attempt at formulating a concise definition for social responsibility in the media, from the perspective of a developing country. He maintains that as part of its responsibility to serve public interest, the mass media is expected to inform the citizens of what goes on in the government, which, in a way, keeps the rulers in check. Also, the media should be reporting on and promoting discussion of ideas, opinions and truths toward the end of social refinement. Thus, what he believed in was media should be acting as a nation’s bulletin board for information and mirroring the society and its peoples’ comments and criticism, thus exposing the heroes and the villains.[2]

According to this author, the mass media is accountable in the following ways:

  1. To their audiences they owe correct news reportage, analysis and editorializing.
  2. To the government they owe constructive criticism, a relay of popular opinion and adequate feedback from the population.
  3. To their proprietor they owe the survival of the media organization as a business corporation as well as a genuine source of education, enlightenment and entertainment.
  4. To themselves they owe fulfillment in their calling, satisfaction and an entire success story.

When any of these parameters of journalistic responsibility is messed with, accountability is dented and automatically, responsibility is affected adversely.

Social Responsibility Theory

Media being a pluralized set up it reflected the diversity in society and it has access to various points of view and hence it has the social responsibility

The fundamental philosophy behind Social Responsibility Theory of the media is that it is an extension of the libertarian philosophy in the sense that the media recognize their responsibility to resolve conflict through discussion and to promote public opinion, consumer action, private rights, and important social interests. This theory has its major premise that freedom carries allied obligations. The press has an obligation to be responsible to the public. If it is not so, then some agency of the public should enforce it. This theory led to the establishment of Press Councils, drawing up of Codes of Ethics and anti-monopoly laws in many countries.

One of the foremost Communication scholars Denis McQuail[3] in 2005, summarized the basic principles of Social Responsibility Theory as the following:

  1. Media should accept and fulfill certain obligations to society.
  2. These obligations are mainly to be met by setting high or professional standards of information, truth, accuracy, objectivity and balance.
  3. In accepting and applying these obligations, media should be self-regulating within the framework of law and established institutions.
  4. The media should avoid offensive content triggering crime, violence, or civil disorder or harm to minority groups.
  5. The media as a whole should be pluralist and reflect the diversity of their society, giving access to various points of view and rights of reply.
  6. Society and public have a right to expect high standards of performance, and intervention can be justified to secure that right.
  7. Journalists and media professionals should be accountable to society as well as to employers and the market. [4]

Self Regulation

Some philosophers like McQuail advocated for regulation of the media by statutory and legislative means and methods. As this was opposed by the media corporations, and keeping in mind that regardless of the wide range of differing positions on what constitutes an acceptable level or intensity of regulation, most would agree that the media is obligated to carry out ethical practices, it is worth exploring the different ways in which this ethical obligation can be carried out.

The argument against regulation of media follows free market principles. Proponents of this view envision the media as a free marketplace of ideas. In line with this stance, one can argue that the natural tension in journalism, between the media’s need to remain neutral and the pressure from groups within society to exert influence, is not objectionable and simply needs to be well managed by the journalists themselves. According to this view, the existence of regulatory commissions, councils or other frameworks are unnecessary.

The solution could be derived from Self Regulation and introduction of Code of ethics for media persons. Though, self-regulation is more or less effective depending on the individual journalist or media organization, and lies at the mercy of the media professionals’ consciences and the implementation and effectiveness of ethics codes in practice depends on the individual journalists’ attention to the significance of ethical reporting for their society

The Indian Scenario

The political system in India is close in spirit to the model of liberal democracy. In the constitution of India the power of the legislature, executive and judiciary have been thoroughly demarcated. The party system in operation is a competitive one with flexibility of roles of government and opposition. There is also freedom of the press as a matter of right. Indian democracy has always attracted attention worldwide and has made scholars to ponder over the secret of its success amidst considerable odds. In India diversity is almost everywhere and it is not a developed nation.

The role of media in India, the largest democracy of the world is different from merely disseminating information and entertainment. Educating the masses for their social upliftment needs to be in its ambit as well. In a country where there is large-scale poverty, unemployment and underdevelopment, media has a responsibility towards developmental journalism. It has a role to play behind formation of public opinion that can force the political parties to address the core issues haunting the country’s progress.

The problems begin to arise when it comes to light that the public opinion can be manipulated by vested interests to serve their selfish goals. Media can conceal facts and project doctored ideas to influence the electorate and thereby the voting outcome. Values like objectivity and truthfulness in presentation of news and ideas can be totally done away with. Real life examples can be given in this respect.

Justice Markanday Katju gave a speech focusing upon the problems in media and he iterated the following as some of the few issues faced by the society due to media not acting in consonance their social responsibility.


Twisting facts:

One of the defects is that the media often twist facts. E.g., one day, a leading English newspaper published on its front page a photograph of Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra of the Supreme Court with the caption: “Supreme Court Judge says that her daughters are liabilities.” This was a distorted and fallacious item of news, published on the front page.

Supreme Court Judges have to disclose their assets and liabilities. Against the liabilities column, Justice Mishra had written: “two daughters to be married.” Strictly speaking, it was not necessary to mention this because liabilities mean legal liabilities, for example, housing loan, car loan, and so on. Justice Mishra’s intention was obviously to say that she would have to spend on her daughters’ future marriage. She has three daughters (no son), only one of who has been married. Justice Mishra never said, nor intended to say, that her daughters were liabilities. The news was false and defamatory, with the obvious intention of creating a sensation.

Paid news:

A second defect concerns the issue of paid news that has become prominent of late. In the 2009 elections, it was a scandal. Incidentally, action was taken against it by way of enforcing the compliance with an order of the Chief Information Commissioner.

Non-issues as real issues

A third defect is that the media often portray non-issues as real issues, while the real issues are sidelined. The real issues in India are economic, that is, the terrible economic conditions in which 80 per cent of our people are living, the poverty, unemployment, lack of housing and medical care and so on. Instead of addressing these real issues, the media often tries to divert the attention of people to non-issues. Such as that the wife of a film actor has become pregnant, whether she will give birth to a single child or to twins, and so on.

At a Lakme India Fashion Week event, there were 512 accredited journalists covering the event in which models were displaying cotton garments, while the men and women who grew that cotton were killing themselves at a distance of an hour’s flight from Nagpur, in the Vidharbha region. Nobody told that story, except one or two journalists, locally.

No doubt, sometimes the media mention farmers’ suicides, the rise in the price of essential commodities, and so on, but such coverage is at most 5 per cent to 10 per cent of the total. The bulk of the coverage goes to showing the life of film stars, pop music, fashion parades, cricket and astrology.

Tendency to brand

Bomb blasts have taken place near the Delhi High Court, in Mumbai, Bangalore and so on. Within a few hours of such a bomb blast, many TV channels started showing news items that said that the Indian Mujahedeen or the Jaish-e-Mohammed or the Harkatul-Jihad-e-Islam had sent e-mails or text messages claiming responsibility. The names of such alleged organizations will always be Muslim ones. Any mischievous person can send an email, but by showing this on TV channels and the next day in the newspapers, the tendency is to brand all Muslims as terrorists and bomb-throwers.

The truth is that 99 per cent of the people of all communities, whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian or Sikh, and of whatever caste or region, are good. But the manner in which such news is shown on TV screens and published in newspapers tends to create the impression that all Muslims are terrorists, and evil — which is totally false. The person who sends such e-mails or text messages obviously wants to create hatred between Hindus and Muslims, which is the old British divide-and-rule policy continuing even today.

While discussing the dangers associated with the developments in media it needs to be said that media in India has also undertaken roles that have strengthened democracy. The media as a watchdog of the democratic system has unearthed its various shortcomings. Investigative reporting in print and television media has helped in exposing large-scale corruptions swindles that have robbed the nation. The Commonwealth Games Scam, the Adarsh Housing Society Scam, Cash for Vote Scam and the Bofors Scam are the highpoints of the Indian media. Across newspapers and television channels voices have been raised when the bureaucracy, judiciary or other public functionary have crossed the proverbial Laxman Rekha.

There have also been initiatives to promote community media for the citizens to air their concerns. This is a significant leap towards alternative media usage, which is distant from the dominant structure. Here the importance lies more in participatory communication right from the grassroots rather than communication that flows top down. Various television channels have also given the space for ordinary citizens to air their views in the form of citizen journalists thereby promoting democratic participation. Newspapers have educated the masses by informing them of the developments in the field of science and technology. They have also expressed strong views against prejudices that harm the society. Much developmental news has also been aired through the medium of radio. Its comparative low cost and wide acceptance among poorer sections have made it a potent tool for expressing ideas beneficial to the public.

Rightly said by Justice P.B. Sawant focusing upon our Indian Regime, “The relationship between the Press and the people has yet another dimension. Since direct and pure democracy is neither feasible nor practicable except in small habitats like villages, and for limited purposes, the deficiencies and the lacunae of the representative democracy need to be made good. The voice of the unrepresented sections of the society, their problems grievances hopes and aspirations have to be heard and their participation in the governance to be ensured. This is the social purpose of the media”.


Focusing upon the specific defects of the media like paid news and branding tendency, there are largely two ways to remove these defects in the media. One is the democratic way, that is, through discussions, consultations and persuasion. The other way is by using harsh measures against the media, for example, by imposing heavy fines on defaulters, stopping government advertisements to them, suspending their licenses, and so on. In a democracy we should first try the first method to rectify the defects through the democratic method. Introspection and finding out ways and means to rectify the defects in the media, by the media itself rather than by some government authority or external agency shall be preferred.

If the media prove incorrigible, harsh measures may be required. But that should be done only as a last resort and in extreme situations. Ordinarily, issues should be resolved through discussion, consultation and self-regulation. That is the approach that should be first tried in a democracy.

Also recommending that an official commission is the need of the hour to take care of grievances of media professionals. It could be as a broadcast commission or a media commission like agency that needs to address the deviations by practitioners. This suggested body should not just be like the currently instituted communication commission, which is just a licensing authority. The representatives of such a body should necessarily include the people from the profession, from the media and other related academics and responsible citizens, over and above with judicial powers to punish the violators of the norms laid down by such an envisaged body.

Another strengthening aspect is the promulgation of a comprehensive Broadcast Bill or a Telecast Bill that will soon become an Act that could monitor content over the electronic media catering to social responsibility.

Also, a comprehensive policy on Mass Media Education in India is the need of the hour. Ethics, values and serious view of healthy practices of mass media can only be taught, portrayed, projected and imbibed in the aspirants of media careers only when their mind is wet cement and receptive. These can easily be achieved inside the classrooms and the training environments and not in the rougher, tougher, often brutal, merciless field out there. A sensible body has to be constituted towards achieving the objective. Teachers and Academicians involved in teaching journalism, mass communication and such pure social science subjects, along with genuinely interested media practitioners should be involved in framing of the policy.


            Social responsibility theory allows free press without any censorship but at the same time the content of the press should be discussed in public panel and media should accept any obligation from public interference or professional self-regulations or both. The theory lies between both authoritarian theory and libertarian theory because it gives total media freedom in one hand but the external controls in other hand. Here, the press ownership is private. The social responsibility theory moves beyond the simple “Objective” reporting (facts reporting) to “Interpretative” reporting (investigative reporting).

With the formation of the 1947 Commission on the Freedom of the Press the social responsibility of media became a strong debating point. It was formed in the times of wake of rampant commercialization and sensationalism. The report of the Hutchins Commission, as it was called, was path breaking on its take on social responsibility and the expected journalistic standards on the part of the press. The theory of social responsibility, which came out of this commission, was backed by certain principles which included media ownership is a public trust and media has certain obligations to society; news media should be fair, objective, relevant and truthful; there should be freedom of the press but there is also a need for self regulation; it should adhere to the professional code of conduct and ethics and government may have a role to play if under certain circumstances public interest is hampered, advocated McQuail.

In Indian democracy media has a responsibility, which is deeply associated with the socio economic conditions. The present scenario is not quite encouraging and certain areas need to be addressed. Media organizations, whether in print, audiovisual, radio or web have to be more accountable to the general public. It should be monitored that professional integrity and ethical standards are not sacrificed for sensational practices. The freedom of press in the country is a blessing for the people. However, this blessing can go terribly wrong when manipulations set in. The self-regulatory mechanism across media organizations needs to be strong enough to stop anomalies whenever they occur. Agencies like Press Council of India need to be vigilant to stem the rot. Big media conglomerates are a serious threat. To counter this problem, pluralistic media organizations, which are financially viable, need to be encouraged. Community participation is a goal that the media should strive for in a country like India.

India is passing through a transitional period in its history, from a feudal agricultural society to a modern industrial society. This is a very painful and agonizing period. The media must help society in going through this transitional period as quickly as possible, and by reducing the pain involved. This they can do by attacking feudal ideas, for example, caste-ism and communalism, and promoting modern scientific ideas.


  1. K., Ravi. ‘Media And Social Responsibility: A Critical Perspective With Special Reference To Television’. Academic Research International 2.1 (2012).
  1. Biagi, Shirley. Media Impact. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publications, 1988.
  1. Dutta, Soumya. ‘Social Responsibility Of Media And Indian Democracy’. Global Media Journal – Indian Edition (2011).
  1. McQuail, Denis. Mass Communication Theory. London: Sage Publications, 1983.
  1. Owens-Ibie, Nosa. Communication And Development In Nigeria. 2004.
  1. Yadav, Prabhanjan. ‘Is Social Responsibility A Sham For Media?’ Global Media Journal – Indian Edition (2011)


[1] Plaisance, 2000

[2] Owens-Ibie, Nosa. Communication And Development In Nigeria. 2004.

[3] McQuail, Denis. Mass Communication Theory. London: Sage Publications, 1983.

[4] Biagi, Shirley. Media Impact. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publications, 1988.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s