Chapter Study Outline

One of the principal reasons politics is everywhere is that so much media attention is focused on political issues or events. Examining who the media are, what stories the media report, and how they report it are crucial components to understanding what Americans know about their government.

The News Media in America

  • History of the News Media in America

    Since their inception, American newspapers have pushed political ideologies, from urging colonists to defy English rule to determining a new government for the new nation. The post–Civil War period saw the rise of yellow journalism, which used bold headlines and entertaining writing to appeal to a wider audience. In addition, muckrakers or investigative journalists openly criticized politicians and policies to raise public concern. The idea of journalistic impartiality and accuracy began in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when journalism schools were first formed, and also when Arthur Ochs purchased the New York Times.

    Post–World War I America utilized radios and eventually TVs to receive information from national media sources. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was initiated in 1934 to regulate the new technologies, called broadcast media. The chief purpose of the FCC was to ensure no single broadcast corporation could monopolize a community and only provide their point of view. The FCC enacted the fairness doctrine, which is now no longer in place, to ensure all broadcast stations presented multiple political points of view. Also, the FCC mandated the equal time provision, which required stations to give equal amounts of airtime, outside of news reports, to competing candidates.

    In 1996, Congress enacted the Telecommunications Act in order to deregulate media and communications. The Telecommunications Act accelerated two trends:

    • Concentration: corporations are permitted to own more than one media source in a single community.
    • Cross-ownership: corporations are permitted to own multiple kinds of media sources in a single community (i.e., TV and print).

    These trends gave rise to media conglomerates like NBC, ABC, CBS, and so on, which relay information in multiple forms.

    The FCC is increasingly moving to deregulation, though it still enforce penalties and fines for broadcasting “obscene material” (i.e., radio “shock jock” Howard Stern, Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl “wardrobe malfunction”).

  • Media Sources
    • Print Media: Newspapers, Magazines, and Books
      1. National newspapers, such as the New York Times or Wall Street Journal tend to have a large, worldwide staff. By contrast, smaller papers tend to emphasize local events and rely on wire services like the Associated Press or Reuters for their coverage of national or international news. The Internet is forcing the newspaper industry to dramatically revamp its business model, but newspapers are still the most widely used source of information.
      2. Magazines, such as Time, Newsweek, or the Economist have widespread circulation and offer in-depth, coverage of the news. By contrast, most expressly political magazines, such as the Republic and the Nation have very small audiences.
      3. Political books are generally very popular. Sarah Palin’s autobiography and Al Gore’s book on global warming dominated the New York Times best-seller list in 2009.
    • Television

    Broadcasts range from simple, fact-based reporting as on NBC, CBS, and ABC to radical, one-sided, and humorous as on The O’Reilly Factor, The Daily Show with John Stewart, and The Colbert Report.

    • Radio

    Programs are often centered on a single, strongly opinionated individual who fields questions and comments from listeners and offers his or her own insights. The majority of politically based radio programs are conservatively oriented.

    • Internet

    Offers every kind of previously mentioned media, though usually in limited fashion. There are many blogs that report on politics, but they tend to rely on information collected by outside sources, rather than doing their own reporting. The Internet also provides a forum for the average citizen with a connection to voice his or her opinion for the world to hear.

  • Key Differences in Sources
    • Information in print sources like books or newspapers is difficult to change on short notice.
    • Different sources offer different depths of analysis (i.e., a 30-minute TV broadcast covers a topic broadly compared to a 12-page article from a magazine).
    • The availability of resources shape what news is passed on to the consumer (many Internet sites, local media, and other smaller operations use major TV and newspaper sources to base their reporting).

What Difference Does the Internet Make?

  • The Internet offers the widest array of factual and analytical information of any source. In addition to the information discussed on air, most major media networks run blogs written by their reporters for further information.
  • The Internet allows ordinary citizens to report their political experiences firsthand, rather than forcing them to go through an intermediary, like the editorial board of a newspaper. It also encourages the development of the “home-grown media” for aspiring political reporters to publicize their analysis.
  • Despite the wealth of information available online, there is no conclusive evidence that citizens are better informed politically than they were before the rise of Internet-based news.
    • Thirty percent of adults are not regular Internet users.
    • Information is so plentiful that crucial information often remains hidden.
    • Misleading information can be posted easily on the Internet, and not a lot of fact-checking organizations exist that can strike down information of questionable reliability.
    • There is a general lack of demand for information. Despite the wealth of information available and the ease of accessing it, most Americans are not interested in reading “boring” stories about politics.

How Political Reporters Work: Sources, Leaks and Shield Laws

Reporters and politicians share a complex relationship. Reporters want complete and accurate information, while politicians only want their version of events to be reported. Reporters that do a good job of cultivating relationships with government officials often get the best information. Occasionally, highly classified information, can leak to major media outlets if a government official provides it, generally on the condition of anonymity.

  • Preventing Leaks

    Governmental organizations have two main tactics to prevent classified information from being leaked:

    • There are laws to prevent the publication of classified information, and if information is published, to allow the prosecution of those responsible for leaking the information.
    • Officials can try to persuade reporters to voluntarily omit sensitive and specific information while still publishing the story.
  • Staging the News

    Politicians often try to shape the information given to the media so that it suits their personal goals. Often, government officials will hold a press conference to inform the public of important happenings.

    These press conferences are often “staged,” meaning the official will only provide very select information or will only allow a particular list of questions to be asked.

  • Revealing Sources

    When discussing sensitive or potentially incriminating information, officials generally speak off the record with reporters, meaning that their identity is protected by the reporter. While many states have shield laws that allow the reporter to withhold information or names of their sources or “leaks,” reporters and editors can occasionally be compelled by the courts to identify their sources.

    • In particular, there is no shield law on the federal level, which means that federal prosecutors can require a source’s information be made available. Reporters that refuse to divulge the information are often held in contempt of court.

How Do Americans Use the Media to Learn about Politics?

Americans have an abundant source of political information readily available to them, with radio, Internet, print media, and television.

  • For the most part, Americans acquire political knowledge and opinions unintentionally rather than seeking it out. This is called the by-product theory.
  • Media Usage Trends

    The use of TV and newspapers for political information has significantly dropped in the past fifteen years while the use of Internet sources has dramatically increased.

    • A person’s preferred source of media often reflects their overall understanding of modern politics: those who rely on morning or local news shows for their political information are far less informed than those who listen to NPR or watch PBS.
    • Individuals who turn to comedy-based political shows, such as the Daily Show and one-sided talk radio shows, like The O’Rielly Factor for political coverage appear to be the best informed politically.

Studying the Impact of Media Coverage on American Citizens

The influence of the media’s political coverage on the average citizen is called media effect.

  • Much of the media’s impact is centered on what is omitted from reports and news stories, rather than what is presented.
  • There are four main media effects that largely shape a citizen’s viewpoint:
    • Filtering: journalist’s and editor’s decisions about what information to report
    • Slant: giving favorable coverage to one candidate or policy without providing a balanced perspective
    • Priming: the altering of the public’s image or a candidate caused by negative or positive coverage of the candidate
    • Framing: influence caused by the way a story is presented, including or excluding details, explanations or context

    These media effects do not imply that all reports are deliberately spun and intended to sway the audience one way or another. Rather, space or time limitations in print or broadcasts will often result in unintended media effects.

  • Is Media Coverage Biased?
    • In general, conservatives think the media is liberally biased, while liberals think the media is conservatively biased.
    • The hostile media phenomenon occurs when people view balanced coverage as biased against their preferred policy or candidate.
    • Many publications or broadcasts, like Countdown with Keith Olbermann or The O’Rielly Factor, make no secret that they are left- or right-leaning.
    • In the aggregate, however, there is little evidence to suggest the American media is left- or right- leaning.
  • Media Coverage of American Politics

    In a democracy, the media’s job is to transmit relevant news to the public, so they can make decisions based on full information. Often, media coverage falls short of this goal.

    Many scholars suggest that the distrust Americans have with the government is due to the presentation of information by the media rather than the government actions themselves.

    • Attack journalism, in which “bad news makes for good news,” focuses on scandals and controversies.
    • Campaign coverage often over examines the horse race qualities of the campaign, in which poll results and questions of who is leading take precedence over substantial issues and stances of the opposing candidates.
    • Media coverage also emphasizes soft news, the use of sensational and entertaining reporting over hard news, the presentation of important information, figures, and facts.

    This over-emphasis on soft news, horse races and attack journalism reflects the interests in the news industry to not only inform the public, but also make money. Sensationalistic news stories are far more popular and sell better, than policy-centered news.