Role of Media in Making Public Policy on Indias Criminal Justice System: A Study of News Reporting on Actor Salman Khans Acquittal in A Murder Case
Associate Professor, Department of
Electronic Media and Mass Communication
Pondicherry University, Pondicherry 605014,
- *Corresponding Author:
- Arulselvan S
Associate Professor, Department of
Electronic Media and Mass
Pondicherry University, Pondicherry,
Received date: March 19, 2016; Accepted date: June 15, 2016; Published date: June 25, 2016
Citation: Arulselvan S. Role of Media in
Making Public Policy on India’s Criminal
Justice System: A Study of News Reporting
on Actor Salman Khan’s Acquittal in A
Murder Case. Global Media Journal. 2016,
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It is widely assumed that media's role in a democratic polity is to provide transparency and accountability, and to raise the public awareness and to facilitate a forum for public discussion. Earlier studies have confirmed that the media can effectively set the public agenda by consistently featuring issues in news coverage. Media coverage of crime helps to set the agenda for the criminal justice system and reinforce support for punitive policies. On December 10, 2015, Bombay High Court dismissed a trial court's conviction and acquitted popular Bollywood Actor Salman Khan of all charges in a 13 year long case related to his drunken drive over the people sleeping on a pavement, on the night of 28 September 2002 that resulted in killing of one person and injuring four others. Using the framework of agenda setting, the study analyses the news stories published in mass circulated Tamil and English Language newspapers on the reportage of this judgement. The study discusses the discourse of Tamil and English Language newspapers on this judgement and its contribution towards the making of public policy on criminal justice system in India.
Media; Criminal justice; Public policy; Salman khan
The relationship between crime and mass media’s perception
about it are essential to formulate criminal justice system.
Mass media play a crucial role in public policymaking and the
media coverage of crime news stories helps to set the agenda
and reinforce support for punitive policies.
Review of research literature suggests that there is an
interchange between media representations of crime,
criminal behaviour, and the public policy on criminal justice
system. Crime stories are commonly presented as dramatic
entertainment, and infrequently one can read an in-depth
analysis of the legal, criminal justice, or societal problems that
are concerned . Once the media places its issues in prominent
positions and set the agenda, the media subsequently primes
audiences to believe that those issues merit more attention.
Two notable studies that offer critique on representations
of crime in the media, and their impact on public policy: R. Surette’s Media, Crime and Justice1 and K. Beckett and T. Sasson’s The Politics of Injustice2. Media are the primary source of political
information for most of the Indian citizens. Media’s role in a
democratic polity is to provide transparency and accountability,
and to raise the public awareness and to facilitate a place for
Two apprehensions about media representations of crime are:
the ‘respectable fear’  and that they are a means of ‘social
control’ and discipline. The connection between representation
of crime in the mass media and augmented fear has links to
punitive attitudes. A significant study related to the fear and
panic constructed is Stanley Cohen’s research that studied the
influence of the media in either creating or cultivating a moral
panic. The concept of moral panic was articulated by Cohen in his
study of the ‘Mods and Rockers’ phenomenon . Mass media
helps to maintain social order and police ideological boundaries, through demonizing offenders, the process that Cohen labelled
the creation of ‘moral panics’.
There is a long history of moral panics about the effects of
exposure to popular media and cultural forms. There are two
perceptions about the moral panics constructed by media: for
conservative, the media glamorizes the crime and trivializes
public insecurities; whereas for liberals, the media exaggerates
the crime and produces moral panics to justify an authoritarian
crime control policy.
The kinds of punishment given are subjective to the political
climate of a society. It’s often argued that the law aims to punish
the guilty mind and not the individual. Punishment is used as
a method of reducing the incidence of crime by deterring or
preventing the repeat of offences.
Emile Durkheim  asserts that all societies have crime, since all
societies involve a variation between that are allowed and that
are outlawed. The outlawed acts are labelled as crime. Durkheim
argued that crime is a natural social activity and ‘an integral part
of all healthy societies’. Human crimes are not punished too
heavily because one person's injury does not threaten the entire
society, stated Durkheim in one of his study.
Malinowski  believes that all the legal institutions are platforms
for controlling illegal affairs, and for giving vent to the feelings of
oppression and injustice unleashed against the individuals. Michel
Foucault (1979) points out that by the eighteenth century the
masses could sympathize with the accused and ‘the people never
felt closer to those who paid the penalty than in those rituals
intended to show the horror of the crime and the invincibility of
power exercised without moderation or restraint’.
Agenda setting role of media
Agenda-setting theory is concerned with how the media
constructs representations of the world and in turn how this
influences the people to see the world. Berelson, Lazarsfeld,
and McPhee’s  influential study on voting notes that media
prioritize specific stories over others, or by airing a significant
volume of news reports related to some policy domains, ignoring
others. McCombs and Shaw’s  Chapel Hill study concludes that
the media can effectively set the public agenda by constantly and
blatantly featuring a few issues in their news coverage. Cobb and
Elder’s  work focuses on the sources of the policy agenda, that
is, the ‘general set of issues that are communicated in a hierarchy
of importance at a point in time’.
By covering news on one issue while ignoring other issues, the
mass media draw attention to certain aspects of politics at the
expense of others . Legitimacy for governing is reliant on
the consensus of the ruled, and it is believed that policymakers
generally should not envision actions that are outside of the
limits placed upon them they serve. Hence, public opinion
is a legitimate consideration for policymakers when making
Soroka  suggests a typology making the difference between
sensational, prominent and governmental issues. Sensational
issues are manifest by dramatic events and thorough media
coverage, difficult to ignore by politics. Prominent issues are those where people and politicians have their personal experiences
and media coverage has a moderate effect on policy agendas.
Governmental issues are highly technical with very limited
interest for the media or the public.
Kurt Lewin  pointed out that ‘reality for the individual is
determined by what is socially accepted as reality’. There are
three arguments that are to be discussed from Lewin: 1. Media
set the agenda and designed the significance of certain news,
affecting Governments’ decisions and policies, and it guides
people’s attitude and trust towards government. 2. Media agenda
setting would shape the public perception about social issues
that media set them as important. 3. Government and people’s
attention would be drawn by agenda setting of specific positions
on economic news, and their attitudes might be transformed
The media shapes societal perspectives
on criminal justice
Studies show that the mass media shapes social perspectives of
the criminal justice through molding public opinion, and public
policy. Eamonn Carrabine  observes that the 24X7 round
the clock news coverage of criminal issues contribute to the
cultural climate of fear. In the process, media representations
can negatively influence perceptions on crime-related issues, and
interfere with the implementation of crime prevention policies.
‘The representation of violent crime by the media leads to larger
understanding of crime and justice that translates into public
policies’ . Crime prevention practitioners emphasize the
prominence of prevention strategies characterized by long-term
action, and based on a solid diagnosis that takes into account the
complexity of the crime. James C. Hackler  refers to the types
of crimes disregarded by the media in Canada, such as white collar
and environmental crimes. He points out the cautious absence of
these crimes in the media is primarily due to the politicization
of crime, which results in inaccurate perceptions on crime and
inappropriate policy decisions, which results in ineffective crime
control policies. Public attitudes towards crime and punishment
play an acute role in constructing criminal justice policies .
Public confidence in the Criminal Justice System is critical for the
effective functioning of justice . Public attitudes on crime
and punishment are shaped by the media . Misconceptions
of crime and punishment generated by the media create a lack
of confidence in the Criminal Justice System. Consequently, the
public demand harsher punishment for offenders .
According to Hayward and Young , the media and the public
are always obsessed with crime. The crime news coverage ensures
a ready audience and it has been a persistent theme in popular
culture throughout the twentieth century. The advancement of
a public policy begins with the recognition that a problem exists.
The pre-policy stages are: issues formation, policy demands,
and agenda formation. By entertaining people with crime by the
media, newspapers sales figure rises up, but ultimately it distorts
the public understanding of crime as a serious social problem .
The proportion of media content that is filled with crime stories
depend on the definitions of crime used by a community. Richard
Ericson and his colleagues studied ‘the social deviance and how journalists participate in defining and shaping it’ . Deviance
refers to ‘the behavior of a thing or person that strays from the
normal organizational procedures and violations of common-sense
knowledge’. Deviance is the defining characteristic of
what journalists regard as newsworthy. The news media parallel
the entertainment industries in their focus on stories of crime,
and this is true with the reality television and other forms of
infotainment . Crime narratives and representations are a
prominent part of the content of all mass media .
Medthodology: With the backdrop of the above literature
review and the theoretical framework evolved, this study aims
to understand the contribution of Tamil and English Language
newspapers, in shaping the public policy to the Indian criminal
justice system, by analyzing the news stories related to the
acquittal of Actor Salman Khan in the hit-and-run case. News
reports, editorials and op-ed page news analysis appeared the
Tamil and English Language newspapers (both online and offline)
were the primary sources for analysis. The news stories, editorials
and the opinion pages were analyzed and discussed qualitatively
Case history of Salman khan’s hit-and-run
Based on the news reports appeared in the popular Tamil and
English language newspapers, the following sequence of events
were compiled on the Salman Khan hit-and-run-case:
On September 28, 2002, Salman Khan’s Toyata Land Cruiser
(Registration No.MH 01DA32) crashed into the pavements
at Bandra, killed one person and injured four others. Salman
Khan’s bodyguard, deputed by the Maharastra State Police,
Ravindra Patil, filed the First Information Report at the Bandra
Police Station, without any delay. Police took the blood samples
of Salman Khan and he was arrested by the Bandra police and
booked him under provisions of Indian Penal Code (IPC), Motor
Vehicles Act, 1988 and Bombay Prohibition Act, 1949. He was
granted bail. In October 2002, Mumbai Police invoke section 302-
II of IPC, (culpable homicide not amounting to murder), which
would attract a punishment of 10 years of imprisonment, if
In March 2003, Salman Khan challenged the application of IPC
302-II, in Mumbai Sessions court. In May 2003, the Sessions court
rejects his plea, asks Magistrate court to frame charges against
him. In June 2003, Salman Khan moves Bombay High Court,
which felt that section 302-II of the IPC will not be applicable to
Subsequently, in October 2003, the Maharashtra Government
challenged Bombay High Court order in Supreme Court. In
December 2003 the Supreme Court ruled that the magistrate
court may decide whether 302-II could be applied or not. In
October 2006 the Magistrate court framed charges against
Salman Khan. In May 2007, chemical analysis report suggested
that Salman Khan was drunk on the date on which the accident
took place [36-40].
In October 2007, Salman Khan’s bodyguard Ravindra Patil died and
the cause of death was declared as Tuberculosis infection. After
four years, in October 2011 the Prosecution demands Salman Khan must be tried under harsher sections. On March 25, 2012
the Prosecution closes evidence after examining 24 witnesses. On
December 23, 2013 the Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate
V.S. Patil slaps the charge of ‘culpable homicide not amounting
to murder’ on him and referred the case to sessions court for
trial as Magistrate’s court does not have powers to try this kind
On November 24, 2014 the Sessions court started retrial of
Salman Khan. On March 27, 2015 Salman Khan’s statement
was recorded under section 313 of Cr.PC by Additional Sessions
Judge D.W. Deshpande. On March 28, 2014 Salman Khan’s family
driver Ashok Singh gave testimony in the trial court owning the
responsibility of accident.
On May 6 2015 the Mumbai Sessions court sentenced Salman
Khan to five years rigorous imprisonment. Salman Khan got two
days interim bail granted by Bombay High Court. On May 8, 2015
the Bombay High Court admitted a plea against conviction. On
September 21, 2015 Justice A R Joshi commences daily hearing
of Salman Khan’s appeal and on November 17, 2015 the defense
counsel Amit Desai wraps up the case.
On December 4 2015, Justice A.R. Joshi posted appeal for dictation
of verdict from, December 7, 2015. On December 10, 2015
Salman Khan was acquitted of all charges in the case (Criminal
Appeal No. 572 of 2015)3: Justice A.R. Joshi, in his judgment said:
“The order by the Sessions Court [convicting Salman for 5 years
of rigorous imprisonment] has been quashed and set aside. The
bail bonds stand cancelled, all fine amounts paid by the appellant
[Khan] shall be refunded to him4” [41-45].
English language newspapers’ reporting
on the judgement
Most of the English language newspapers published in India
critically reviewed the December 10, 2015 judgment, starting
from pointing out the loopholes in the prosecution, the criticism
went up to the level of calling it failure of judicial system and the
diminishing of the majesty of law. DNA in its editorial commented
that the nation has missed an opportunity to build significant
deterrence against drunken driving and hit-and-run incidents.
“…..from being touted as a high-profile case which would build
significant deterrence against drunken driving and hit-and-run
incidents, it turns out that Salman Khan was not drunk and was
not driving the Toyota Land Cruiser that killed one labourer and
injured four others sleeping on the pavement”5. Anil Dharkar, in
his news analysis appeared in the Indian Express, pointed out
the loopholes in the prosecution and concluded that the Indian
justice system is the loser in this case. “…All this does not absolve
Mumbai Police or the prosecution. Justice Joshi did point out
several examples of a botched investigation: They couldn’t find
the cop, now retired, who took Salman’s blood sample to the lab, and the prosecution did not call Kamaal Khan as a witness.
Surely the fact that the defence didn’t summon Kamaal as their
witness is clear indication that his testimony would have favoured
the prosecution, perhaps confirming that Salman was driving the
car? And so it goes: Ineptitude on one side, wrong interpretation
on the other. The beneficiary: Salman Khan. The loser: Our justice
The Economic Times in its editorial pointed out that “….this
particular verdict makes anyone who should be fearful of the law
be more fearful of not being well connected as insurance7” The
Free Press Journal in its editorial raised the same issue of missing
an opportunity to hold it as a lesson on drunken drive:
“….we should have thought that the State would make a test case
of Salman Khan’s drunken driving and hold it as a lesson to every
citizen who is prone to drive under the influence of liquor. But, it
turns out that throughout, the police and the prosecution were
entirely lackadaisical in their approach8”.
The editorial also has warned ‘that the majesty of law definitely
diminished with the acquittal of Salman Khan’… and concluded
with a firm note that ‘without the rule of law, anarchy awaits in
the wings. Let that be the first lesson of Salman Khan’s acquittal’.
The Mid-Day in its Editorial has also made it clear that the nation
has lost an opportunity to benefit out of a high profile case on
The Salman Khan hit-and-run trial had the potential to serve as
an example to deter drunk drivers across the nation. Instead, it
has so far only served as an example of different ways to bungle
The Mid-Day has also pointed out in its editorial that the glaring
loopholes in the probe, as pointed out by the Judge, which had
helped Salman Khan walk free.
The Hindu in its news report carried the statement of the Public
Prosecutor, Sandeep Shinde, who has apprehension at the tone
of the judgment: “…the fact remains that an innocent man was
killed and four others were injured. Who is responsible for that?
What kind of message are we sending out to society? Are we
saying any high-profile person can hijack the system?10”
The Hindu, on its editorial, “The Day of the Citizen”, appeared
on 7 May 2015, published soon after the Mumbai Sessions Court
Judgment pronounced that ‘deaths caused by drivers under
the influence of alcohol should attract the charge of culpable
homicide, and not merely that of negligent driving11’. In the same
editorial The Hindu also pointed out that the Supreme Court
directions to the trial courts that the negligent and rash driving
should not give the benefit of doubt to the drunken drive cases:
“…..though the Supreme Court upheld the three-year sentence
given [in Alistair Pereira case] by the Bombay High Court, it said
that was too “lenient” a punishment for an offence of culpable
homicide not amounting to murder. The Supreme Court indicated
that trial courts should not give the benefit of the doubt to those
driving drunk and instead convict them under 304 II (punishable
with 10 years imprisonment) than the lesser offence of 304 A
that provides for a jail term of two years for negligent and rash
The Hindu in one of its op-ed page analysis jointly written by
R.K.Raghavan, a former CBI Director, and D. Sivanandhan, a
former Commissioner of Police, Mumbai, has critiqued the
“….we are intrigued why the testimony of the principal witness-
PSO Patil-who filed the FIR within hours of the incident, did
not carry enough weight with the High Court.…PSO Patil had
deposed unequivocally, before the investigating officer and the
Metropolitan Magistrate who conducted the initial trial, about
how Mr. Khan was guilty of rash and negligent driving. To dismiss
his version of the incident as inconsistent or unreliable seems
grossly unfair to the prosecution, especially when there is nothing
to suggest that he was motivated….Mr. Khan has only been given
the benefit of the doubt, and not a clean acquittal12”.
Tamil language newspapers’ reporting
on the judgement
This study further analyses the Tamil Language Newspaper
reports on the December 10 2015 judgment of Bombay High
Court on Salman Khan’s hit-and-run case. Headlines of the news
reports related to this judgment appeared in the highly circulated
Tamil Language newspapers and the BBC Tamil Radio, and an
online news magazine are given below, as translated from Tamil
1. Actor Salman Khan Acquitted in Car Hit and Murder Case:
High Court Pronounces Sensational Verdict13
2. Drunken Driving Case on One Killed: Actor Salman Khan
3. Actor Salman Khan Acquitted In A Platformer Murder
4. Car Drive Accident Case In Mumbai: Salman Khan
5. Actor Salman Khan Acquitted: Case related to One Killed
Due To Bad Car Drive17
6. Case On Drunken Car Drive related Accident: High Court
Acquitted Salman Khan18
7. Drunken Drive Case: Salman Acquitted.19
8. Car Accident Case: 5 years Imprisonment For Actor Salman
9. Drunken Drive And Murder Case: Salman Khan Acquitted21
The quality of reporting in Tamil Newspapers, barring a couple
of cases, generally varies significantly from the English language
newspapers published in India. While most of the English
language newspapers have squarely critiqued the judgment
and pointed out the failure of prosecution, the Tamil press has
reported this story as if it was an accident of negligent driving. The
highly circulated newspapers such as Daily Thanthi, Dinakaran ,
The Hindu Tamil and Dinamalar have reported it just like a road
accident where, as if someone was hit during the drive. Dinamani,
BBC Tamil, and Ippodhu.com (an online news magazine) have
reported that the actor was charged in a murder case where he
killed a person sleeping on a platform on a drunken drive and he
has been acquitted in the case [45-48].
Generally, Tamil news reports have not attempted to explain
the issues like culpable homicide amounting to murder, or the
Supreme Court’s direction to the trial court on not passing
the benefit of doubt to those driving drunk, or the difference
between driving drunk and negligent and rash driving etc. The
Tamil language newspapers have also not attempted to discuss
about the issues related to conviction under the Indian Penal
Code 304 II, where 10 years imprisonment for driving drunk is
possible, or under 304 A that provides for imprisonment of two
years for negligent and rash driving, when convicted.
English Language Newspapers publish news analysis in the oped
pages that helps the readers to understand the nuances and
niceties of the issues in hand. Particularly the Hindu’s different
perspectives on the judgment is helpful to the reader to make an
informed opinion on this issue. But in Tamil language newspapers,
the lack of in-depth analysis of the issue to make the readers
understand the issue and to have different perspectives to evolve
an opinion has created a vacuum in public policy making.
The analysis on Salman Khan hit-and-run-case related judgment
shows that there is a lack of in-depth analysis of the issues related
to the legal, criminal justice in the Tamil language newspapers.
The Tamil language media invariably glamorizes the crime and
trivializes issues related to the criminal justice system. In order to
avoid an authoritarian crime control policy, the Tamil Language
newspaper should facilitate a professional way of approaching
crime reporting and thereby contributing to the national criminal
12nd edn, Belmont: Wadsworth, 1998
2Thousand Oaks: Pine Forge, 2000
3Judgment copy available online at: http://bombayhighcourt.nic.in/libweb/recentinfo/Salman.pdf
10“Salman wins appeal, walks free”, reported by Sonam Saigal, The
Hindu, Mumbai edition, dated 10 December 205
12R. K. Raghavan, D. Sivanandhan, “The case against Salman Khan”, The Hindu, dated 14 December 2015, accessed online at: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-case-against-salman-khan/article7983569.ece
13Actor Salman Khan in a case of car-crash victims released: a judgment
of High Court http://www.dinakaran.com/News_Detail.asp?Nid=183685
14One of the victims of drunk driving the car in the case of actor Salman
Khan's release http://makkalkural.net/news/blog/2015/12/10/
15Actor Salman Khan released nataipataivaciyaik murder http://www.bbc.com/tamil/india/2015/12/151210_salmankhan
16Drove the car accident in the Mumbai case in which actor
Salman Khan released http://www.dailythanthi.com/News/CinemaNews/2015/12/10141040/Salman-Khan-acquitted-of-all-chargesin-2002-hitandrun.vpf
17Actor Salman Khan lifts , car lift in case of causing death http://www.dinamani.com/india/2015/12/11/
18Drunk driving case: Salman freed
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