Sometimes referred to as the "fifth branch of government," the news media plays an important role in the political process. This is because Americans get their news and understanding of major local, national, and international events from the media rather than from other people or other sources. Media coverage shapes how Americans see and understand their world and what issues and values they see as being important to them. This sense of importance is often called salience and is a major factor in voter and citizen behavior. Citizens and politicians must pay attention to the media and understand its important role in the American political system.
We must also understand that the media perform a number of important roles in the political and democratic process. These include reporting the news, serving as a linkage institution to connect the government and the people, helping determine the public agenda, including which issues should be discussed, and motivating people to become actively engaged in the community both socially and politically.
Perhaps the most important role of the media in politics is to report the news. As noted above, the vast majority of people must trust the media to provide them with information. Democracy requires that citizens be informed because they must be able to make educated voting choices.
Video: The Five Functions of Journalism
Video: A Short History of News Media in America
Video: Journalism and Politics Today
Types of Media Bias
Today, many politicians complain of bias in the media. The common observation is that the media (particularly news reporting institutions) tend to carry a liberal bias against the views of conservative politicians. They also complain that the media demonstrates a partisan "slant" in its decisions about which stories to report. While this may be true to some extent, most major newspapers and television news stations tend to focus their attention on the same stories and professional journalists pride themselves in their abilities to report the news fairly and objectively. But changes in how news media organizations are owned and operated has had an impact on the focus they take on issues around them.
For instance, the three major cable/satellite news organizations tend to be MSNBC, CNN and Fox News. If one were to watch these three stations simultaneously, it would not be unexpected to observe that MSNBC will carry a more liberal bias in their reporting of the issues, with Fox News taking a more conservative approach to its reporting and CNN maintaining a more moderate perspective in reporting the same issue. In the past, bias has been restricted to the media outlet’s commentary and opinion pages but viewers now anticipate and expect these agencies to combine their reporting with editorial commentary. This is a distinct change in the field of television journalism, but it is certainly nothing new when studying how journalists have covered events in the past.
Video: Is There a Liberal Media Bias?
Types of Media Bias
Framing - Framing, as a theory of mass communication, refers to how the media packages and presents information to the public. According to the theory, the media highlights certain events and then places them within a particular context to encourage or discourage certain interpretations. In this way, the media exercises a selective influence about how people view reality. Today, the media can package and deliver a slick product that is designed to attract audiences from specific sectors or markets. By selectively framing the stories and events it reports on, the media can impact the way the public views a particular issue or event. This can be seen in how news channels present the same stories. For example, MSNBC may place a positive "spin" on an announcement by President Obama about health care while Fox News may frame the same story and the same event in a negative light with commentary and experts criticizing the actions of the president. In both cases, the media has framed the story in order to attract a specific audience rather than to report the event with complete objectivity. Framing bias may be accomplished in a number of ways which will be discussed below.
Bias by Omission-leaving one side out of an article, or a series of articles over a period of time; ignoring facts that tend to disprove liberal or conservative claims, or that support liberal or conservative beliefs; bias by omission can occur either within a story, or over the long term as a particular news outlet reports one set of events, but not another. To find instances of bias by omission, be aware of the conservative and liberal perspectives on current issues. See if both the conservative and liberal perspectives are included in stories on a particular event or policy.
Bias by a Selection of Sources - including more sources that support one view over another. This bias can also be seen when a reporter uses such phrases as “experts believe,” “observers say,” or “most people believe.” Experts in news stories are like expert witnesses in trials. If you know whether the defense or the prosecution called a particular expert witness to the stand, you know which way the witness will testify. And when a news story only presents one side, it is obviously the side the reporter supports. (Journalists often go looking for quotes to fit their favorite argument into a news story.) To find bias by use of experts or sources, stay alert to the affiliations and political perspective of those quoted as experts or authorities in news stories. Not all stories will include experts, but in those that do, make sure about an equal number of conservatives and liberals are quoted. If a story quotes non-experts, such as those portrayed as average citizens, check to be sure that about an equal number come from both sides of the issue in question.
Bias by Story Selection - a pattern of highlighting news stories that coincide with the agenda of either the Left or the Right, while ignoring stories that coincide with the opposing view; printing a story or study released by a liberal or conservative group but ignoring studies on the same or similar topics released by the opposing group. To identify bias by story selection you’ll need to know the conservative and liberal sides of the issue. See how much coverage conservative issues get compared to issues on the liberal agenda, or liberals compared to conservatives. For example, if a liberal group puts out a study proving a liberal point, look at how much coverage it got compared to a conservative study issued a few days or weeks earlier, or vice versa. If charges of impropriety are leveled at two politicians of approximately equal power, one liberal and one conservative, compare the amount of coverage given to each.
Bias by Placement - Story placement is a measure of how important the editor considers the story. Studies have shown that, in the case of the average newspaper reader and the average news story, most people read only the headline. Bias by placement is where on a website (or newspaper) or in an article a story or event is printed; a pattern of placing news stories so as to downplay information supportive of either conservative views or liberal views. To locate examples of bias by placement, observe where a media outlet places political stories. Or whenever you read a story, see how far into the story each viewpoint first appears. In a fair and balanced story, the reporter would quote or summarize the liberal and conservative view at about the same place in the story. If not, you’ve found bias by placement.
Bias by Labeling - Bias by labeling comes in two forms. The first is the tagging of conservative politicians and groups with extreme labels while leaving liberal politicians and groups unlabeled or with more mild labels, or vice versa. The second kind of bias by labeling occurs when a reporter not only fails to identify a liberal as a liberal or a conservative as a conservative, but describes the person or group with positive labels, such as “an expert” or “independent consumer group.” In so doing, the reporter imparts an air of authority that the source does not deserve. If the “expert” is properly called a “conservative” or a “liberal” the news consumer can take that ideological slant into account when evaluating the accuracy of an assertion. When looking for bias by labeling, remember that not all labeling is biased or wrong.
Bias by labeling is present when the story labels the liberal but not the conservative, or the conservative but not the liberal; when the story uses more extreme sounding labels for the conservative than the liberal (“ultra-conservative”, “far right”, but just “liberal” instead of “far left” and “ultra-liberal”) or for the liberal than the conservative (“ultra-liberal”, “far left”, but just “conservative” instead of “far right” and “ultra-conservative"; and when the story misleadingly identifies a liberal or conservative official or group as just an expert or independent watchdog organization.
Bias by Spin - Bias by spin occurs when the story has only one interpretation of an event or policy, to the exclusion of the other; spin involves tone – it’s a reporter’s subjective comments about objective facts; makes one side’s ideological perspective look better than another. To check if it’s spin, observe which interpretation of an event or policy a news story matches – the liberal or conservative. Many news stories do not reflect a particular spin. Others summarize the spin put on an event by both sides. But if a story reflects one to the exclusion of the other, then you’ve found bias by spin.
Types of Writing
For much of American history (until the early 20th century), most news media were clearly and openly biased. Many newspapers, for example, were simply the voices of the political parties. This type of journalism is called partisan journalism. Other newspapers practiced yellow journalism, reporting shocking and sordid stories in order to attract readers and sell more papers. Objective reporting (also called descriptive reporting) did not appear until the early twentieth century. Newspaper publishers such as Adolph Ochs of The New York Times championed objective journalism and praised reporters for simply reporting the facts. Although most journalists today still practice objective journalism, more and more are beginning to analyze and interpret the material they present, a practice called interpretive reporting.
Video: Yellow Journalism
The media has influenced politics throughout American history. The most prominent—and notorious—example is the role of William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers in starting the Spanish-American War in 1898. According to the legend, Hearst’s papers ran many stories chronicling the cruelty of Spanish colonial rule. When the American battleship Maine exploded under mysterious circumstances, Hearst seized the moment, alleging that the Spanish had destroyed the ship. War soon followed. Few media moguls have this much direct influence, but with media consolidation, some worry that the media has too much power.
Being the Common Carrier
The media plays a common-carrier role by providing a line of communication between the government and the people. This communication goes both ways: The people learn about what the government is doing, and the government learns from the media what the public is thinking. Political scientists often refer to the news media as a linkage institution because it acts as an agent to link the people to the government and to link government officials back to the people.
Setting the Agenda
Journalists cannot report on an infinite number of stories, so they must choose which are the most newsworthy. By choosing which stories to present to the public, the news media helps determine the most important issues; in other words, the journalists set the agenda. Agenda-setting is crucial because it shapes the issues that will be debated in public. Sometimes political scientists refer to agenda-setting as signaling because the media signals which stories are the most important when they decide what to report.
Video: Agenda Setting in Broadcast News Parts 1 and 2
Critics allege that journalists often copy one another without doing their own investigating. When one newspaper runs a story, for example, many others will run similar stories soon afterward. Critics refer to this tendency as pack journalism.
Acting as the Public Representative
The media sometimes acts as a public representative by holding government officials accountable on behalf of the people. Many people argue that the media is ill equipped to play this role because the media does not face the same type of accountability that politicians face. Serving as the representative of the public, moreover, could undermine the media’s objectivity because the act of representing the people might require reporters to take a position on an issue.
Example: The classic example of watchdog journalism, or activist reporting that attempts to hold government officials and institutions accountable for their actions, is the Watergate investigations of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The Washington Post reporters doggedly pursued allegations of campaign misdeeds and presidential crimes despite the fact that many Americans did not care. Journalists have exposed many other government scandals and misdeeds, including the Iran-Contra affair and the Lewinsky scandal.
Since the Watergate scandal brought down a president, investigative journalism has become more prestigious, and many reporters try to make a career around uncovering scandals. Some people complain, though, that all reporters want to be the new Woodward or Bernstein, interested only in breaking the next big story. These critics say that investigative journalism has become attack journalism: Journalists only care about bringing down a prominent person, not about the truth or the common good. Critics of attack journalism believe that President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 was the result of attack journalism and partisan politics. The rise of attack journalism has brought to light questions about the proper role of journalism.
In the United States, the media plays a big role in socializing people to American society, culture, and politics. Much of what young people and immigrants learn about American culture and politics comes from magazines, radio shows, and television. Many people worry that young people are exposed to too much violence and sex in the media, knowing the effect it will have on children’s views and development.
Providing a Political Forum
The media also provides a public forum for debates between political leaders. During campaigns, opposing candidates often broadcast advertisements and debate with each other on television. Many voters learn a great deal about the candidates and the issues by watching these ads and debates. Even during years without elections, though, the news media allows elected official to explain their actions via news stories and interviews.
How Politicians Use The News Media
Politicians and their consultants, who are often referred to as "spin doctors" have become skilled in the use of the news media as a way of getting their message and agenda out to the public in a variety of ways. These can include press conferences, press releases, media events and media "spin" tactics. Each of these will be briefly discussed in this section.
Press Conferences - One of the oldest and most effective political strategies in the media age has been the televised press conference. We have all become familiar with television and news coverage of press conferences in a variety of circumstances from politicians trying to set their agenda and communicate it to the public, to presidents using pre-planned press conferences to promote a favored piece of legislation or public policy to those same politicians trying to respond in a controlled way to an ongoing crisis or event. In all of these scenarios, the politicians and government officials use press conferences to exert a level of control on the message and level of coverage that news media deliver to the public.
Press Releases - Politicians and government officials often communicate with the media through press releases in order to make the media aware of issues, policies, and events that are of interest or importance to the public. These press releases are generally crafted by people with experience in both politics and public relations in order to meet all legal or regulatory requirements as well as to present the politician, agency or government branch in the best light possible.
Media Events- When a politician or candidate wishes to attract news media in order to deliver a message or gain public attention, staged or planned media events may be used. These are events or press opportunities that are staged solely for the purpose of garnering attention or publicity.
- Why is the news media sometimes referred to as "the fifth branch of government?"
- What roles do news agencies play in the political process?
- What main complaint is made against many news agencies today by politicians? What evidence, if any, is there to support this complaint?
- What is "framing?" Give an example of how the media and politicians frame issues, stories, and messages.
- What are the sources of bias in media reporting? Explain each and give an example.
- What four types of reporting does the text discuss? Explain each.
- How does the media serve as a linkage institution? Give an example.
- What is agenda setting? How can we see examples in the media and in government?
- What is meant by the media's role as a "public representative?" Give an example.
- How do politicians use media "spin" strategies to better control the way in which they are covered by the press? Give an example
http://www.studentnewsdaily.com/types-of-media-bias/ accessed April 1, 2015.
http://www.sparknotes.com/us-government-and-politics/american-government/the-media/section2.rhtml Accessed March 31, 2015.
http://media.about.com/od/mediatrends/a/Media-And-Politics.htm accessed April 1, 2015.
http://www.communicationstudies.com/communication-theories/framing-theory accessed April 1, 2015