Newspapers Content and Social Responsibility

Peter Ravi Kumar *


India is the world’s largest democracy. Its mass media culture, a system that has evolved over centuries, is comprised of a complex framework. Modernization has transformed this into a communications network that sustains the pulse of a democracy of about 1.2 billion people. India’s newspaper evolution is nearly unmatched in world press history. The newspaper contents are looked from the responsibility point of view as a citizen and a common person in the society. It looks there is much to say about the responsibility in spite of all fascinating reporting style and format our newspaper organizations follow.

Social Responsibility

Information in journalism is understood as social good and not as a commodity. Then the journalist shares responsibility for the information printed or transmitted. The press is thus accountable not only to those controlling the media, but ultimately to the public or readers at large including various social interests. The journalist’s social responsibility requires that he or she will act under all circumstances in conformity with a personal ethical consciousness. This on the whole depicts newspapers’ social responsibility in their services.

Haynes, the scholar of organizational ethics, states social responsibility is an ethical ideology or theory that an entity whether an organisation or an individual has an obligation to act to benefit the society at large. This type of social responsibility can be passive by avoiding and engaging in socially harmful social goals. This can be seen in newspaper reporting style during critical times.

The United Nation Educational Social and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), while addressing universal declaration on Bioethics, describes social responsibility as non-binding or soft law principles. This type of meaning in relation to child and maternal welfare can be compared to the service of newspapers in our society. The Entrepreneur encyclopedia defines the term social responsibility as acting with concern and sensitivity, aware of the input of our actions on others, particularly the disadvantaged.

The question of social responsibility in the media continues to be timely, as highlighted by incidents or controversies on the topic such as scams and terrorist attack in 2008. Coming to terms with cases such as these relies on the task of defining social responsibility and more broadly figuring out which aspects of the newspaper’s social responsibility can be feasibly regulated.

The newsroom definition of media ethics can translate into the broader concept of social responsibility, which is appropriate for the purpose of reasoning in sociological or legal terms. In dealing with press ethics, there is confusion between the different terms like accountability, liability, responsibility, etc. Within journalism one can define accountability narrowly as being able to produce records, the 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 and liable for the consequences of his or her reporting.

Ethical Sensitivity

Apart from the definitions given by the encyclopedia and agencies, the American Society for Quality (ASQ) informs about the need of ethical sensitivity towards the social issues. The Hutchins Commission issues some guidelines helpful towards social responsible reporting and later the Hebermas.

Robert Hutchins commission on the freedom of press defined social responsibility and provided five guidelines for a socially responsible press in a report titled ‘A Free and Responsible Press’ –

  1. A truthful, 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 and
  5. Full access to the day’s intelligence.

Although valid, these principles might be criticized for lacking in precision and in general are not considered to have had a substantial impact on the media industry’s development in subsequent years.

The journalist as a communicator is intrinsically linked to its audience – hence the fundamental principle of the media’s obligation to fulfill public interest, which also lies at the base of social responsibility theory. To complete this analysis, one can reformulate Habermas’ principles of discourse ethics for the purpose of application to contemporary mass media; it may act toward the following goals.

  • The development of symmetrical mutual relations between the ‘speaking actors’ in which none of the groups exercise a monopoly on the communication means.
  • The public sphere may not aim at uniformization: it should stimulate processes of individuation and aim at the recognition of diversification.
  • The public sphere should above all try to create and stir up critical discussion instead of controlling it.

Qualities of Social Responsibility

Social responsibility is a duty of every individual or an organization to protect and uphold interest of the people in society. It also means to behave ethically and with sensitivity towards the social, cultural, economical and environmental issues. To enable people to form rational opinions, one should provide truthful and objective information: should project issues and events in real manner instead of sidelining them. Social responsibility is not to deviate from the guidelines or suggestions given by experienced or influential leaders. Social responsibility includes accountability, providing information with transparency, to enable sustained healthy relations among people and avoid flaring up national security concerns. Further social responsibility should have freedom to criticize and comment on matters related to both individual and organization. In the long run it should preserve the cultural values and the values of the society. It should direct the path like the lighthouse in society for people to walk and highlight the hidden areas to be watchful. With regard to government and politics there should not any bias advocated. Social responsibility stemmed from the press theories.

Press Theories

Authoritarian Theory

According to this theory, mass media, though not under the direct control of the state, had to follow its bidding. People were of the opinion that the truth was in the hands of the ruling group. Only the ruling group gave permission what to print in the newspaper and no individual had any right to print as one wanted. The government had to issue a license to start any newspapers in the society. At times the government directly or indirectly forced the press to publish positive news about ruling group. In case any newspaper wanted to publish any information against the government or wanted to give real news, the ruling group imposed a legal censorship. This form of control has been exercised for two centuries and continues even today.

Libertarian Theory

The best early expression of libertarian ideals is Areopagitica, an essay published by John Milton in 1644. In the essay which was intended for Parliament, Milton argued for intellectual freedom without government control.

The Libertarian model is more popular in Western media than the social responsibility model. In this system, the freedom of the press is endless; it is not constrained by the government, by society or by media ethics. Instead of being a sea of different ideas, opinions and voices however, news reporting in the Libertarian system is indeed restricted. It may not be as limited and biased as the media found in an authoritarian society, which would serve the government’s interests, but it is still constrained by its financial dependence. Along with Milton few others like John Stuart Mill, Thomas Paine, John Erskine and Thomas Jefferson had similar thoughts about libertarianism. They all strongly supported democracy in politics.

Under the libertarian system the press belongs to private groups. Issues and information related to defamation, obscenity, impropriety and wartime sedition were beyond the thought of libertarianism. In United States of America, Britain and other few European countries exists such libertarian system with free press.

Soviet Communist Theory

This theory was derived from the ideologies of Marx and Engel. It reflects the ideas of the ruling classes. It was thought that the entire mass media were saturated with bourgeois ideology. Lenin thought of private ownership as being incompatible with freedom of press and that modern technological means of information must be controlled for enjoying effective freedom of press. The theory advocated that the sole purpose of mass media was to educate the great masses of workers and not to give out information. The public was encouraged to give feedback, as it was the only way the media would be able to cater to its interests.

Social Responsibility Theory

In the social responsibility theory of the press, the media are driven to benefit the public. It expects journalists to answer society’s need for truth, requires an open and diverse debate on public issues and honest updates of current events. In this model, media ethics is automatic because the press is free to serve its purpose for the public, as opposed to special interest groups or advertisers. Another condition of the social responsibility model is that news reporting cannot be dependent on groups that may encourage bias and unethical practices in exchange for financial support. Social Responsibility theory thus became the modern variation in which the duty to one’s conscience was the primary basis of the right of free expression.

Objectives of Journalism

The fundamental objective of journalism is to serve the people with news, views, comments and information on matters of public interest in a fair, accurate, unbiased, sober and decent manner. Towards this end, the press is expected to conduct itself in keeping with certain norms of professionalism universally recognised. The norms enunciated below and other specific guidelines appended thereafter, when applied with due discernment and adaptation to the varying circumstance of each case, will help the journalist to self-regulate his or her conduct.

Duties of the Press

Accuracy and Fairness: The press should eschew publication of inaccurate, baseless, graceless, misleading or distorted material. All sides of the core issue or subject should be reported.

Pre – Publication Verification: The editor should check with due care and attention factual accuracy. Caution against Defamatory Writings: A newspaper should not publish anything which is manifestly defamatory or libelous against any individual organisation unless after due care and checking there are sufficient reasons to believe that it is true and its publication will be for public good.

Truth: There is no defense for publishing derogatory, scurrilous and defamatory material against a private citizen where no public interest is involved.

Right to Privacy: The press should not intrude or invade the privacy of an individual unless outweighed by genuine overriding public interest, not a prurient or morbid curiosity. However, once a matter goes on public record, the right to privacy no longer subsists and it becomes a legitimate subject for comment by the press.

Right to Reply: The newspaper should promptly and with due prominence publish either in full or with due editing, free of cost, at the instance of the person affected or feeling aggrieved or concerned by the impugned publication, clarification or rejoinder sent to the editor in the form of a letter or a note. If the editor doubts the truth or factual accuracy of the contradiction or reply or clarification or rejoinder, he should be at liberty to add separately at the end, a brief editorial comment doubting its veracity, but only when this doubt is reasonably founded on unimpeachable documentary or other evidential material in his or her possession.

Don’ts for Newspapers

Obscenity and Vulgarity to be eschewed: Newspapers should not publish anything that is obscene, vulgar or offensive to public good taste. Newspapers should not display advertisements which are vulgar or which, through depiction of a woman in nude or lewd posture, provoke lecherous attention of males as if she herself is a commercial commodity for sale.

No glorification of Violence: Avoid presenting acts of violence, armed robberies and terrorist activities in a manner that glorifies the perpetrators’ acts, declarations or death in the eyes of the public. Newspapers shall not allow, encourage or glorify social evils like sati pratha or ostentatious celebrations.

Caste, Religion or Community References: Newspapers should not publish any fictional literature distorting and portraying religious characters in an adverse light, transgressing the norms of literary taste and offending the religious susceptibilities of large sections of society who hold those characters in high esteem, invested with attributes of the virtuous and lofty. Commercial exploitation of the name of prophets, seers or deities is repugnant to journalistic ethics and good taste.

Reporting on Natural Calamities: Facts relating to spread of epidemics or natural calamities should be checked up thoroughly from authentic sources and then published with due restraint in a manner bereft of sensationalism, exaggeration, surmises or unverified facts.

Avoid mass commercialization and unseemly cutthroat commercial competition with the rivals.

Paramount National Interest

As a matter of self-regulation, newspapers should exercise due restraint and caution in presenting any news, comment or information which is likely to jeopardize, endanger or harm the paramount interests of the state and society.

Investigative Journalism

Investigative reporting has three basic elements –

  1. It has to be the work of the reporter, not of others he is reporting.
  2. The subject should be of public importance for the reader to know.
  3. An attempt is being made to hide the truth from the people.

The investigative reporter should as a rule base his story on facts investigated, detected and verified by himself and not on hearsay or on derivative evidence collected by a third party, not checked up from direct, authentic sources by the reporter himself. The investigative journalist should resist the temptation of quickies or quick gains conjured up from half-baked incomplete, doubtful facts, not fully checked up and verified from authentic sources by the reporter himself. Imaginary facts, or ferreting out or conjecturing the non-existent should be scrupulously avoided. Facts, facts and yet more facts are vital and they should be checked and crosschecked whenever possible until the moment the paper goes to press.

The reporter must not approach the matter or the issue under investigation, in a manner as though he is the prosecutor or counsel for the prosecution. The reporter’s approach should be fair, accurate and balanced. The tone and the tenor of the report and its language should be sober, decent and dignified and not needlessly offensive, barbed, derisive or castigatory, particularly while commenting on the version of the person whose alleged activity or misconduct is being investigated. Nor should the investigative reporter conduct the proceedings and pronounce his verdict of guilt or innocence against the person whose alleged criminal acts and conduct are investigated, in a manner as if he is a court trying the accused.

Guidelines by the Press Council

The guidelines set by the Press Council in 1991, 1993 and later years and the guidelines given by the Press Commission give more strength to analyse the concept of social responsibility.

The guidelines of 1991 stress the following aspects:

  1. The state government should take upon themselves the responsibility of keeping a close watch on the communal writings that might spark off tension, destruction and death, and bring them to the notice of the council.
  2. The government may have occasion to take action against erring papers or editors. But it must do so within the bounds of law. If newsmen are arrested, or search-and-seizure operations become necessary, it would be healthy convention if such developments could be reported to the Press Council within 24 to 48 hours followed by a detailed note within a week.
  3. Under no circumstances must the authorities resort to vindictive measures like cut in advertisements, cancellation of accreditation, cut in newsprint quota and other facilities.
  4. Provocative and sensational headlines should be avoided by the press.
  5. Headings must reflect and justify the matter printed beneath.
  6. Figures of casualties given in headlines should preferably be on the lower side in case or doubt.
  7. Headings containing allegations made in statements should either identify the person and body making the allegation or at least, should carry quotation marks.
  8. News reports should be devoid of comments and value judgment.
  9. Presentation of news should not be motivated or guided by partisan feelings nor should it appear to be so.
  10. Language employed in writing the news should be temperate and such as may foster feelings or amity among communities and groups.
  11. Corrections should be promptly published with due prominence and regrets expressed in serious cases.
  12. It will help a great deal if in-service training is given to journalists for inculcation of all these principles.

The 1993 guidelines guard against the commission of the following journalistic improprieties and unethical:

  1. Distortion or exaggeration of facts or incidents in relation to communal matters.
  2. Invent grievances or to exaggerate real grievances as these tend to promote communal ill-feeling and accentuate discord.
  3. Publish alarming news, which are in substance untrue or make provocative comments on such news or even otherwise calculated to embitter relations between different communities or regional or linguistic groups.
  4. Exaggerate actual happenings to achieve sensationalism which adversely affect communal harmony.
  5. Make disrespectful, derogatory or insulting remarks on or reference to the different religions or faiths or their founders.

Guidelines in 1996 and in 2008

Regarding Pre-poll and Exit-poll, the Press Council advised that in view of the crucial position occupied by the electoral process in a representative democracy like ours, the media should be on guard against their precious forum being used for distortions and manipulations of the elections. In the event of staggered poll dates, the media is seen to carry exit-poll surveys of the polls already held. This is likely to influence the voters where the polling is yet to commence.

The Press Council of India further in 2008 gave guideline for reporting about HIV/Aids patients. It has said that it would involve stakeholders on evolving guidelines on media coverage of events like Mumbai terrorists attack.

Recommendations of The Press Commission

The recommendations of the second Press Commission have a bearing on the English language press. The Commission has made it clear that it viewed journalism not merely as an industry but as a public service and profession. It observed that public interest should be the criterion to regulate the news and views of the newspaper and not ownership, as is usually the case. Further it is desired that a National Development Commission (NDC) be constituted to promote the entire Indian Press rather than just individual papers in particular language. The NDC was to set up advisory councils for each language with more than one body for languages like Hindi, English, Urdu and Tamil since there are multi state languages. It also recommended about the price page schedule and news to advertisement ratio. The advertisement ratio was fixed at 60:40 for big papers and 50:50 for medium and 40:60 for small newspapers. This was suggested to promote competition and prevent monopoly of a few newspapers. The Commission viewed display advertisement as a wasteful expenditure and called for curtailment of such advertising. While commending the increase in investigative reporting, the Commission pointed out the lack of follow up of such reports. The NDC was to extend support and financial assistance to small and medium newspapers. Besides, it was to appoint an autonomous corporation to oversee the fair and equitable distribution of both government and other advertisements.

Reporting Controversial Events or Issues

The question of social responsibility in the media continues to be timely, as highlighted by recent controversies on the issues referring to Scams in 2008 or the terrorists attacks in 2009. Coming to terms with cases such as these relies on the task of defining social responsibility and more broadly figuring out which aspects of the media’s social responsibility can be feasibly regulated. The goal is to clarify the definition of social responsibility in the media through theoretical grounding of the concept coupled with examples of its applications in practical journalism. By achieving a more comprehensive understanding of what social responsibility means in the field of media, one becomes better equipped to formulate media laws that are effective and hold the potential to result in improving the role of media in society.

Newsroom concept

The newsroom definition of media ethics can translate into the broader concept of social responsibility, which is appropriate for the purpose of reasoning in sociological or legal terms. At first sight, the topic hinges on the question of what is right or wrong, good or bad, acceptable or not, in the ways that the media collects and publishes information. However, discussing the definition of social responsibility runs the risk of falling into a normative or prescriptive framework, which is ultimately of little practical use, given that media ethics principles will be differently relevant, depending on the specific context, journalists and audiences involved.


The concept of social responsibility in relation to the service provided by the newspapers gives a better understanding of the role. The Press Council of India issued guidelines keeping the country social background and diversity among readers, which help the press in reporting and passing on information.

Social responsibility is an omnibus term that covers a wide range of activities. The journalists share responsibility for the information printed or transmitted and the press is accountable not only to the media but also to the society. It has the responsibility to have the ethical consciousness in its services. It has the responsibility to act with concern and sensitivity to the benefit of the society by avoiding and engaging in socially harmful social goals. It is necessary for the Press to have accountability, liability as well the social responsibility. Liability refers to being ethically or legally responsible for its action. Social responsibility means keeping the society’s interest as top priority. Any deviation from the guidelines amounts to breech of social responsibilities.

Seibert, Dennis McQuail as well as other scholars emphasis the need to understand the service and the role of the newspaper in any particular social context. The objectives of journalism are formulated to help self-regulations by journalists. But these guidelines are helpful to gauge and understand the social responsibility of the newspaper.

The press council is an important agency that could formulate guidelines for the press as well as for the press personnel. They have formulated the guidelines from time to time to suit the need of the press. When the journalists and the press deviate or give information which would create conflict in the society or danger to national security, the guidelines caution the journalist and the newspaper.


  • J.V. Vilanilam, Mass Communication in India
  • of Social Responsibility
  • Stefano Roota, Ethics and Human Rights in the Information Society
  • http://www.ethreprenuer. Com/encyclopedia/term/8268html
  • Patrick Lee Plaisance, Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Issue 4 February 2000
  • L.W. Hodges, Responsible Journalism
  • J. Keane, Public Life and Late Capitalism-Towards a Socialist Theory of Democracy
  • S. Sasireha, Tagaval Thodarbu Madirigalum Kotpadugalum
  • Siebert Fred, Four Theories of the Press
  • Press Council of India, Guidelines

1 thought on “Newspapers Content and Social Responsibility

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