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THEY READ. THEY HEARD. THEY ROSE. (Mass Media and Nationalism)

Mass media possesses the ability to not only shape public discourse but also determine the nature and direction of such discussions. This, however, is subject to contextual factors which give rise to an ‘audience’ and upon which the effect of the message is gauged. In this article, Atharva argues that the ability of mass media to create a sense of nationalism is dependent upon the liberty that it enjoys. (Breaches on such liberties can radically alter the arguments that have been put forth in this essay)


Mass Media in its varied forms; possesses the ability to disseminate information across multiple segments of society. It is true that the internet has taken this ability to new heights. However, even when such marvels did not exist, the media (mostly in print form) still played a crucial role.

If one were to carefully deconstruct the power of this 4th pillar of democracy, it can be argued that its ability to shape public discourse around a common understanding of the nation cannot be ignored. In this context, this essay shall attempt to understand how the media is able to do so. It shall begin my exploring what we mean by the ‘mass media’. It shall then create an understanding of ‘nationalism’. Thereon, it shall dig deep into some of the features of mass media that might explain how the media contributes to nationalism. Then, as a case study, the essay shall discuss the role played by mass media during the Indian freedom struggle.

Mass Media and its Characteristics

Before 1960, presidential debates in the USA were limited to the number of people present at the venue. However, by 1984, 100 million people participated in presidential debate. The change in numbers can be attributed to the rise of what is referred to as ‘Mass Media’ (Alger, D. 1989). Television, radio, print and broadcast media had changed the pace and the extent of mass communication.

In the realm of politics, such methods of communications accrued massive attention (Alger, D., 1989).  From a historical lens, the seeds of effective mass communication had been sowed in the 15th Century when the printing press spread through Europe and the fruits were just beginning to be reaped in the 20th Century when radio and television changed the shape and scope of mass communication.

However, it is also crucial to understand the characteristics of these mass communication techniques that furthers their ability to influence and shape public choice and opinion.


It can be argued that the media is born out of liberal democracies. (Alger, D. 1989). Liberal democracies embolden the value of freedom by protecting (among other freedoms) the freedom of expression. Further, a feature of such democracies is that the public is in possession of all the necessary information that is required to instigate a rational political choice. If this goal is to be achieved, the rise of mass media becomes an inevitable phenomenon.

In addition, mass media is often defined on the basis of the intended audience. It is challenging to arrive upon a universal definition of this ‘audience’ owing the dynamic nature of societies around the globe. However, an estimation can be hinted upon. The nature of the audience varies with the medium of communication.  Magazines that carry extensive articles and political opinion pieces appear to be read, more often than not, by the upper middle class and elites (Alger, D. 1989). On the other hand, newspapers (with notable exceptions) appear to have national audiences depending on their distribution networks. Broadcast media is a similar case. Assuming that there is widespread information and broadcast infrastructure in a nation, broadcast media has a largely national audience. Radio tells an interesting tale. Radio as a medium of communication has an audience that is local. From this starting point, many radio channels set up subsidiaries in other regions and thereby multiply their reach and their audience. (Alger, D. 1989).  However, national radio channels such as ‘All India Radio’ in India, do exist.

Nationalism, its definition and the Mass Media

Hans Kohn, who many place at the forefront of academic discourse over nationalism (Baron, S. W. 1944), refers to the term ‘nationalism’ as a ‘form of integration that is passing and beneficial’. He also places it within the broader framework of liberty. He brings into play the definitions of the term that arose in Jerusalem and Athens. These definitions, in his view, fostered the value of deep rooted liberty and a higher form of integration.

In the context of this essay, these values of deep rooted liberty play a decisive role in the effect that mass media can have over its audience. It can be hereby argued that this liberty, when provided to mass media, provide it with the capacity to spread its message amongst a receptive audience without restrictions. Kohn also argues that the commonality of variables such as language, descent and religion do play a role in shaping the idea of ‘nationality’, however, there may be factors beyond these that are equally applicable. These factors, in his view, are largely contextual. After all, nationalism has ‘a different meaning, with different peoples and in different ages’. (Kohn, H. 1944). Kohn, himself makes escapes from the demands to come up with standard to classify a movement as driven by ‘nationalism’.

What we can incur from his writings is that a movement that is to be classified as one driven by ‘nationalism’, must have as a part of its features, an attempt to find and cement solidarity within society that creates a space for integration. Whether this solidarity is on the basis of political beliefs or ethnic and religious values, one cannot say. (Baron, S.W. 1944).

So the question boils down to; can mass media create a sense of solidarity amongst its audience?

If one were to answer this question with certainty, one must familiarize oneself with the features of mass media and its audience that can collectively enforce solidarity. The next part of this essay shall do precisely that.

Media Literacy and the Creation of an Audience

It is worthwhile to dive into the depths of factors that shape the audiences that receive information provided by mass media. One such factor is media literacy. The term ‘media literacy’ refers to the ability to ‘access, analyze and evaluate’ the information that is supplied by the complex web of mass media mechanisms. [1]

The skills that are required for the attainment of media literacy are inculcated in young minds through the educational systems in most nations. By incorporating subjects relating to social science, life skills, history and culture, the ability to critically scrutinize information is promoted in these young minds. [1].

This media literacy has created an ‘audience’ that is starkly different to mere receptors of information. This audience, appears to be one that pays close attention to and is thereby motivated by the nature of the information that is presented to them. One may refer to them as ‘audience-citizens’ (Harindranath, R. 2009)

The creation of an audience then points to active political participation. Which in turn points to the phenomenon where citizens make sense of the information that is presented to them. Factors such as cultural and political context and nature of information presented also shape the meaning that is attributed by citizens.

Thus, there is a space created within which the meaning-making process can motivate and influence political behavior. (Harindranath, R. 2009). This allows for the birth of the argument that mass media possesses the ability to shape movements based on political sentiments such as nationalism.

The Agenda-Setting Function

The question,”How do you know?”, is often answered by, I read about it somewhere’ or I saw it on television’ and in rare cases, I heard it on the radio’. Mc.Combs and Shaw (1972) found that we tend accrue a majority of our information through a complex web of mass media. The way the information is presented to us is as decisive as the information itself. The media determines the perception of political and social issues. (Mc.Combs, M. & Shaw, D. 1972)  In that capacity, mass media determines what issues the public grants paramount importance to. Mass media thus, may not tell the masses what to think but they have a privileged status in their efficacy in shaping how people think.

Public opinion polls play a decisive role in deciding which issue the media would grant front page coverage or sequential priority in newscasts to. These polls, which are conducted periodically on the basis of a randomly chosen sample, help analyze which issue is most important to consider across the nation at the given moment. News coverage has been known to change post such polls which clearly shows the importance the media grants to its function of `Agenda-Setting’. (Mc.Combs., M. & S haw., D. 1972)

The government too is appreciative of this function. At any given day, it must choose the topic of debate. Here, issues that have gathered a status of `general public importance’ are given preference. Determining what these issues are is under the sphere of influence of the mass media.

The government is then driven toward paying heed to such issues.  Mc.Combs, M. (2003) observed that in the 1997 legislative elections in Argentina, public agenda and the agenda of the top tier newspapers showed a high correlation coefficient of +80. Both displayed trends that were suggestive of maximum importance being granted to the issue of corruption in the days that preceded the election. Thus, it can be argued that the media is an agency that controls the minds of the masses and the agenda that is thereby determined.

Media and Public Discourse

A discourse may refer to any exchange of ideas, views and beliefs which creates the basis for conversation and thought processes. This exchange, when applied on a macro-scale, may be referred to as public discourse’. The substance of such a discourse is largely controlled by the media. Mass Media holds within its frameworks, power that is built upon mind control’. The freedom of speech’ that the media is endowed with can translate into power of speech’ and by extension, `power of media’. [4]

The most interesting example of such phenomenon can be found in the works of Pakistani media. The vernacular print media of Pakistan has shaped the popular perceptions of India across the nation. Manzoor Turabi,[2] a researcher with the Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis’ (IDSA) , India, argues that the hostility across the border can be attributed to the distorted perceptions of each others’ cultures and masses. The Pakistani media has often defames Indian culture and Indian political figures irrespective of whether the reality has produced evidence of the same to not. Prime Minister Modi is referred to as the butcher of Islam’ and India is often blamed for terrorist activities in Pakistan. In the light of the recent Pathankot attacks, Pakistani officials have used the print media to write pieces that blame actors within India. Such writings then shape the thought processes of Pakistanis thus defining the discourse among the nation’s masses. [2]


This fairly proves the proposition that mass media, besides shaping public discourse, possesses the ability to determine the nature and direction of such discourses subject to certain factors. This holds true, especially, with respect to the Indian Freedom Struggle and the on-going conflict between Pakistan and Kashmir where the customised definition of nationalism boosted the effectiveness of newspapers, journals and magazines; Continuing to sway the mindset of the masses for better or for worse.

Atharva is a student at Jindal School of International Affairs.

List of footnotes and references:

Alger, D. (1989). The Media and Politics

New Jersey: Prentice – Hall, Inc.

Kohn, H. (1944) The Idea of Nationalism. A Study in its Origins and Background.

New York: The Macmillan Company.

Chakrabarty, B. (2006) Social and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi

Oxon: Routledge.

Mukhopadhyay, A. (2008). Nationalism and History. Economic and Political Weekly, 43(16), 86-87.

Post, R. (1990). The Constitutional Concept of Public Discourse: Outrageous Opinion, Democratic Deliberation, and Hustler Magazine v. Falwell. Harvard Law Review, 103(3), 601-686.

Baron, S.W.  (1944) Reviewed Work: The Idea of Nationalism: A Study in its Origins and Background. Jewish Social Studies 6 (4). 408-11.

Mc. Combs, M. & Shaw, D. (1972) The Agenda Setting Function of Mass Media. Public Opinion Quarterly.  36 (2). 176 – 187.

[1] Source:

[2] Source:




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