Lesson Progress:

-The Media and Politics

Lesson Content

Inquire: Is Mass Media Fair or Biased?

Overview

The media plays a vital role as a linkage institution, bringing the people and their issues, problems, and concerns into the public policy cycle. Legislative bodies and government executives at various levels are incredibly sensitive to the media and the voice it gives to the people.

We are also certainly in an era of antagonism between the media and the government, as illustrated by President Obama’s feud with Fox News. Gone are the days when FDR could request that no pictures be taken of him in his wheelchair — so the people would not see him as weak — and the press honor that wish.

So, how does this important linkage institution in American politics — the media — get the people’s message across to the government?

Decorative

Big Question

How does the media impact public policy?

Watch: Newspapers and Print Media: The Once - or Future - King?

Read: The Media Bias - Real or Myth?

Overview

There is always a concern about bias in the news. If the media prefers one party or one candidate over another, it can create a false reality, picking specific stories and sound bites, as well as slanting the reporting, to support one side over the other.

This is especially true in our exploding media system. What started as print journalism was subsequently supplemented by radio coverage, network television, and cable television. Now, with the addition of the Internet, blogs, and social media — a set of applications or web platforms that allow users to immediately communicate with one another — media gives citizens a wide variety of sources for instant news. The Internet also allows citizens to initiate public discussion by uploading images and video for viewing, such as videos documenting interactions between citizens and the police.

DecorativeProvided we are connected digitally, we have a bewildering amount of choices for how to find information about the world. In fact, some might say that compared to the tranquil days of the 1970s, when we might read the morning newspaper over breakfast and take in the network news at night, there are too many choices in today’s increasingly complex world of information. This reality may make news media all the more important to structuring and shaping narratives about U.S. politics. On the other hand, the proliferation of competing information sources like blogs and social media may actually weaken the power of the news media, relative to the days when news media monopolized our attention.

Media Basics

The term media defines a number of different communication formats from television media, which share information through broadcast airwaves, to print media, which rely on printed documents. The collection of all forms of media that communicate information to the general public is called mass media, including television, print, radio, and Internet. One of the primary reasons citizens turn to the media is for news. We expect the media to cover important political and social events and share information in a concise and neutral manner.

To accomplish its work, the media employs a number of people in varied positions. Journalists and reporters are responsible for uncovering news stories by keeping an eye on areas of public interest, like politics, business, and sports. Once a journalist has a lead or a possible idea for a story, he or she researches background information and interviews people to create a complete and balanced account. Editors work in the background of the newsroom assigning stories, approving articles or packages, and editing content for accuracy and clarity. Publishers are people or companies that own and produce print or digital media. They oversee both the content and finances of the publication, ensuring the organization turns a profit and creates a high-quality product to distribute to consumers. Producers generally oversee visual media like television, radio, and film.

DecorativeConcerns about media’s effect on consumers and the existence and extent of media bias go back to the 1920s. Nearly every decade since has seen a new theory emerge regarding the media’s effect — or lack thereof — on the political beliefs, thoughts, and opinions of the American public.

In the end, the consensus among observers is that media has some effect, even if the effect is subtle. This raises the question of, “How?” How can the media, even general newscasts, affect citizens and their political beliefs, thoughts, and opinions? One way the media can influence viewers is through framing: the creation of a narrative, or context, for a news story. The news often uses frames to place a story in a context so the reader understands its importance or relevance. Yet, at the same time, framing affects the way the reader or viewer processes the story. Using framing to create sympathy for one side of an issue or another is frequent in today’s mass media.

Regardless, it is clear that the media’s discussion of campaigns and politicians has also grown increasingly negative. Although biased campaign coverage is not new, the increase in the number of cable news stations has made the problem more visible. Stations like FOX News and MSNBC are overt in their use of bias in framing stories. During the 2012 campaign, 71 of the 74 MSNBC stories about Mitt Romney were negative, while FOX News’ coverage of Obama had 46 out of 52 stories with negative information. The major networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — were somewhat more balanced, yet the overall coverage of both candidates tended to be negative.

Decorative
Media coverage of campaigns is increasingly negative, with cable news stations demonstrating more bias in their framing of stories during the 2012 campaign.

Due in part to the lack of substantive media coverage, campaigns increasingly use social media to relay their message. Candidates can create their own sites and try to spread news through supporters to undecided voters. In 2012, both Romney and Obama maintained Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts to provide information to voters. Yet, on social media, candidates still need to combat negativity, from both the opposition and supporters. Stories about Romney that appeared in the mainstream media were negative 38 percent of the time, with his Facebook news coverage being negative 62 percent of the time and Twitter coverage being negative 58 percent of the time.

In the 2016 election cycle, both party nominees heavily used social media. Donald Trump’s scores of tweets became very prominent as he tweeted during Clinton’s convention acceptance speech and sometimes at all hours of the night. Clinton also used Twitter, but less so than Trump, though arguably staying better on message. Trump tended to rail on about all topics and at one point was even drawn into a Twitter battle with Senator Elizabeth Warren. Hillary Clinton also used Facebook for longer messages and imaging.

In the end, it is up to the consumer to be aware of the issues and to draw their own conclusions. Some people will try to watch multiple news sources and meld them together for a less biased view. Regardless, simply being aware of the bias can help the viewer resist the bias and ask their own questions; hopefully, one can become a more informed voter.

Reflect - Where Do You Get Your News?

Poll

Most high school and college students do not spend a lot of time watching TV news or listening to news on the radio. However, many still do acquire their news, “the old fashioned way.”

How about you? Where do you learn about the news?

Expand: Media Power in Public Policy

Investigate

Does the media primarily report politics, or does it shape political events? Does it shape public opinion, or just provide information? Certainly, the media has power to determine the course of major political events. However, when politicians play to the media, does the media then control politics? Many people today criticize television, radio, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet for unfairly using their power as major linkage institutions between citizens and their government. Does the media fairly explore issues, or do they impose their own positions?

The Political Influence of the Media

The media can shape government and politics in many ways. Here are a few:

1. By influencing political opinions of voters. Not surprisingly, the voting behavior of people who are actively interested in politics is probably not changed by the media. Committed Democrats and Republicans selectively learn what they want to from media sources. However, the media can sway people who are uncommitted or have no strong opinion in the first place. Since these voters often decide elections results, the power of media in elections can be substantial.

2. By determining the behavior of candidates and officials. Many good politicians have learned that they can succeed — in getting elected and in getting things done — if they know how to use the media. President Franklin Roosevelt was famous for his “Fireside Chats,” in which he soothed the pain of economic depression and war by talking to citizens over the radio. President Ronald Reagan’s skills as a film and television actor enabled him to also communicate very effectively with American voters. Government officials and candidates for office carefully stage media events and photo opportunities. Critics believe that too much attention is focused on how politicians look and come across on camera, rather than on how well they are doing in public service.

Decorative3. By setting the public agenda. Most Americans learn about social issues from print or electronic media. The media may not always tell the public what to think, but they certainly tell the public what topics to think about, and this is probably the most powerful impact the media has in politics. How media focuses on some issues and ignores others helps set what gets done in the government. Media sources have often been accused of emphasizing scandal and high-interest issues at the expense of duller, but more important, political problems. The government’s priorities can be rearranged as a result.

For example, in the spring of 2018, there were two serious school shootings, one in Florida and one in Texas. The media drove the focus of the issue to guns and gun control and students at both schools led demonstrations and marches to change the laws and hopefully make schools safer.

DecorativeThe 25 combined deaths were horrible, and the loss and pain suffered by those who lost friends and loved ones should not be minimized. Yet in 2016, 5,723 people ages 15-24 committed suicide in the United States. In no way is one loss worse than another, but if one looks at sheer numbers, the suicide rate should be as large a concern, if not larger. However, there were no teen marches to stop suicides and no teen protests to change policies that might help children at risk. This isn’t because the students don’t care or would not be concerned with the issue, but because the media sets the focus, and thus sets the agenda.

The media clearly has a great deal of power in American politics today. Is this good or bad for government? From one point of view, the media abuse their power, especially since they are driven by a profit motive to give people what they want, and not necessarily what they need. On the other hand, perhaps the media serves as an important player in a modern “checks and balances” system. Reporters function as watchdogs to ensure that presidents, representatives, and justices do not abuse their powers. The media in turn is checked by government regulations, skilled politicians, and people’s own good judgment.

Check Your Knowledge

Use the quiz below to check your understanding of this lesson’s content. You can take this quiz as many times as you like.

Lesson Resources

Lesson Toolbox

Additional Resources and Readings

Media Institution: Crash Course Government and Politics #44

A Crash Course video covering the media’s role in politics

Shaping Public Opinion: Crash Course Government and Politics #34

A Crash Course video covering the things that shape public opinion in the U.S., including media

Social media’s role in the 2016 election

A quick video showing the huge influence social media had in Trump’s 2016 win

Lesson Glossary

Terms

AJAX progress indicator
  • framing
    the process of giving a news story a specific context or background
  • mass media
    communication that is consumed by a mass (or large) audience, through a variety of sources such as radio, television, theater, movies, newspapers, books, and the internet

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Jay Reynolds J.D. for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0

Video and Activity authored by the TEL Library. CC BY SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: American Government – 8.1 What Is the Media?, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: American Government- 8.4 Impact of the Media?, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: American Government – 8.2 The Evolution of Media, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Title: The Media; Source: American Government Online Textbook. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

 LinkAuthorPublisherLicense
Decorativefacebook instagram networkyourschantzPixabayCC 0
DecorativeMobile Phone SmartphoneGeraltPixabayCC 0
DecorativeHigh school students protest for gun law reform Fibonacci BlueWikimedia CommonsCC BY 2.0
DecorativeFDR-April-28-1935-sideHarris & EwingWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeBias in cable News coverage of presidential candidatesOpenStaxOpenStaxCC BY 4.0
DecorativeWoman Talk Livemohamed_hassanPixabayCC 0