Chapter 7 Essay: The Media
The word “media” is defined by the textbook as “print and digital forms of communication, including television, newspapers, radio, and the Internet, intended to convey information to large audiences” (Ginsberg 251). The media is everywhere in our society from TV, radio, apps on our smartphones to pop-up ads in browsers and often they are reporting on current events, namely politics. The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press and most would agree this is important so they are able to accurately report on stories that are important to citizens, especially voters, so they can make informed decisions about their political choices.
The way Americans receive the news today is quite different from 20 years ago when TV and newspapers were the primary source, these days, 75% read news online. Despite this statistic, print media still have a huge influence on the nation’s political focus as they cater to the elite; many print papers have also developed a significant online presence and generate revenue through ads and paid subscriptions. Since the use of print paper has declined so drastically in recent years, so too has investigative journalism. This is a sad truth because there was a time when many of the secrets brushed under the rug by politicians, elected officials and potential candidates were revealed by reporters who determinedly followed leads and worked to uncover the truth. Broadcast (TV) media reaches the most people but typically covers only a few topics and nothing in-depth. They also tend to cover stories which have already been “broken” by other outlets, such as newspapers or online websites. They are also frequently manipulated by political candidates who want to either promote themselves or bash a competitor.
But are the media outlets always reporting the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Well considering the majority of American media is owned (controlled?) by a small number of giant corporations, that is a valid question. This can also be referred to as a “media monopoly” and it has led some to speculate that there is not enough competition within this group to prompt diversity of political coverage. Many also choose to report on the “hot” events or people as opposed to covering a wide range of stories. Also, as the textbook states “Ultimately, media are private corporations whose business is to sell audiences to advertisers, not to supply news or protect democracy.” (Ginsberg 257) This means at the end of the day, they care about increased viewership (or listener-ship, or readership) because that ties directly into their revenue. When you have such a small group responsible for the majority of news that is reported, it is a valid concern that they are not covering stories of every type but rather the ones that will generate the most buzz. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 paved the way for much of this consolidation and caused a decline in independent media. This monopoly, when combined with party polarization like we are currently experiencing, can further erode the public’s trust for mainstream media.
While older Americans turn to TV and newspapers for their news, the younger generation (aged 50 and under) are more likely to receive their political information from digital media. Sites such as Google News, Reddit and others cover thousands of stories daily and online media are more diverse and enable users to search and filter for stories that interest them. A staggering 62% of the population gets their news from social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) These avenues also spark more interaction since users can post comments and share opinions with their friends, friends of friends or even the political figures themselves. This trend has been dubbed the most important in “news and political communication”. It has also opened a door for online-only publications such as Politico which was founded by former Washington Post reporters, and citizen journalists (regular citizens who contribute to event reporting through eyewitness accounts or video/photos shot from their smartphones). Online news provides many benefits such as convenience, ability to share breaking stories in real time, and elaborate on more details than other sources. Some disadvantages are the loss of investigative journalism, which includes less strict fact-checking, the diversity of such a large group leading to hate-speech, lack of tolerance and rumors, and the potential promotion of violent extremist groups. Online media can also lead to confusion between factual stories and someone’s blog or opinion column.
The media can absolutely influence the public’s opinions. Although they may not necessarily “edit” the stories, they can certainly choose how to phrase and present certain things while adding their own spin. Many blindly place their trust entirely in news outlets and don’t realize they are more about ratings than news. How and when the media cover stories or campaigns can greatly affect a person’s perception of the events and people involved. The media are able to influence what citizens focus on (agenda setting) and also how they view the issues at hand (framing). There are so many press releases that come out as reported news stories it can be hard to tell what is actually news and what has been written and edited to either remove or place blame on someone/something, or promote something else. According to the text: “A well-designed press release can be nearly impossible to distinguish from an actual news story.” (Ginsberg 274) One-way people can work to sort out the news from these staged communications is to review multiple sources, if they are all worded the same it can signal one source. Additionally, citizens can look up the information on multiple outlets (i.e. print media, social media and online sources) to see if the details are consistent.
As political scientist Cass Sunstein argues, we may be “customizing” our political information to our tastes and interests and are therefore not being exposed to a wide variety of stories that could impact and change (or at the very least challenge) our views causing us remain within our comfort zone and the level of political knowledge to remain unchanged. To counter this, I propose a challenge. Try and look up at least one piece of information that deals with something you are unfamiliar with and, no matter how much you find yourself disagreeing with the writer/content/etc., read it in its entirety. At the very least, it will provide you with knowledge you did not previously have.
Ginsberg, Lowi, Weir, Tolbert. We The People. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. , 2017.