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Democracy and the news Essay

This paper will look at the different ways the media reflects and affects society by examining the various relationships that exists between the media, the state and the citizens. It will firstly define key terms, allowing for controversial words to have a specific and continuing definition throughout the paper. Three key ideas, centering around the relationships between the media and the state, will make up the major part of this paper; namely how the media affects the state, how the state affects the media and failed attempts by the media to affect the state. Examples of each concept being discussed will be included, showing the notion in practice. Relationships between the media and citizens will also be examined and discussed, again using examples to show each in action. The relationship between the media and citizens will be discussed, examining the ability of the media to influence the public, the public’s ability to influence the media and failed attempts of the media to influence the public. The conclusion of this paper will detail the role of the media within society, how it operates and different functions it both performs, and attempts to perform.

The media is a constantly changing medium. It includes television, newspapers, magazines, journals, radio, cinema, advertisements, and interactive multi-media. It can also include the Internet, video games, mobile phones and computers ( O’Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2002 ). No undisputable definition of the term ‘media’ exists, however, for the purpose of this paper the following definition given by O’Shaughnessy and Stadler ( 2002 ), will be understood as conclusive.

The media are technologically developed and economically profitable

forms of human communication, held either in public or private ownership,

which can transmit information and entertainment across time and space to

large groups of people ( O’Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2002; Pg 4 ).

A democracy is ” the notion that power and authority is vested in the people, ” ( Singleton et al, 2000; Pg 4 ). In Australia, citizens vote for representatives that make up the parliament, and the party holding the majority form Government. Government operates at three levels; Commonwealth, state and local. Parliamentary members are held accountable and responsible for their actions, and numerous institutions designed to check and balance power exists to ensure this occurs.

Citizen is defined in The Macquarie Dictionary ( 1994 ) as being “a member, native or naturalized, of a state or nation, ” ( Pg 187 ) and will adopt this definition throughout this paper.

The print and electronic media’s ability to broadcast information both quickly and widely across society allows the media to successfully enact the role of ‘ public watchdog ‘ ( Wheeler, 1997; Pg 238 ). The media feeds citizens information. The public is informed of what occurs around them and abroad, who their politicians are, how they look and sound and important issues being suggested, debated and implemented within government.

” Politician – journalist relationships are inherently collusive. Each needs the other to achieve their objectives ” ( Franklin 1998 ). Politicians require the services of journalists for their messages to reach the general public and journalists need politicians in order to cover politics ( Ward 2002 ). The relationship between the state and the mass media can quickly become vulnerable. The media holds a particular power, which can see it become an agenda setter for society.

Not only politicians realise the importance of the media as a platform from which to speak. Pressure groups seek out the media in order to publicize their objectives. Those that successfully use the media acquire a community status, which has the potential to morph into a political status, from which opposition to political ideals, occurrences or similar can be passed on to citizens. Examples of such groups include Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace and Amnesty. These groups can become oppositional spokesmen to government policy, sources of information and social commentators on legislation or policy ( Negrine, 1989; Pg 163 ). The media uses these groups as an official authority, as they are recognized and respected organisations within the greater community, a status gained through use of the media itself.

Examples exist where journalists can be seen as ‘ propaganda agents ‘ for politicians. The term ‘ manufacturing consent ‘ is described by Robinson ( 2002 ) as the ” power of the government to set the news media agendas, ” ( Robinson, 2002; Pg 12 ). Entman ( 1991 ), examines an example of this with two incidents from the 1980’s. The media’s contradictory handling of two aircraft shoot-downs, the Korean Airline and Iran Air, despite case similarities, proved the presence of political persuasiveness.

Both resulted in a large loss of civilian life, and both were the result of military mistakes. The Iran Air shoot-down for which the US was answerable, was described ” in terms of a technical failure, ” ( Robinson, 2002; Pg 13 ). The Korean Airline shoot-down, effected by the USSR, was ” framed as a moral outrage, ” ( Robinson, 2002; Pg 13 ). The US media covered these two incidents as instructed to by US administrations and, says Entman ( 1991 ), chose to neither challenge nor criticize the facts presented to them by the state ( Robinson, 2002 ).

The combination of Western governments intervening during humanitarian crises, and the considerable media attention given to dire circumstances abroad, saw the relationship between the media and the state linked as contributing factors, namely with the media encouraging the state to intervene ( Robinson, 2002 ). This trend became known as the ‘ CNN effect ‘ ( Robinson, 2002; Pg 1 ). Media coverage was proclaimed to influence policy-makers, resulting as ” either a necessary or sufficient factor in producing a particular outcome, ” ( Robinson, 2002; Pg 37 ). The ‘ CNN effect ‘ ( Robinson, 2002 ) adheres to the fact that definitive policy decisions lie with the policy makers, but media coverage can encourage policy makers to see that a decision is attained ( Robinson, 2002 ).

An example of media coverage contributing to humanitarian intervention is that which became known as ‘ Operation Deliberate Force ‘, an action led progressively by the US into Bosnia between 1992 and 1995. The war in Bosnia was the biggest conflict resulting from the dissolution of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia ( FRY ). Bosnia broke away from the undermined FRY and fighting began in 1991 between Bosnian government forces on one hand, and Bosnian Serb nationalists and Yugoslav army on the other. The latter two intent on creating ‘ethnically pure ‘ regions in Bosnia ( Robinson, 2002; Pg 73 ). Pressure mounted in the US for intervention and as the war continued, US involvement increased, culminating in 1995 when the US became directly involved with the Bosnia war. This occurred after the 1994 Sarajevo market place bombing.

The media expelled a ” do something ” ( Robinson, 2002; Pg 82 ) attitude and it came at a time when US policy-makers were unsure of just how much force they should exude. Holbrooke ( 1999 ) believes a CNN effect ultimately persuaded the US to act. The eventual response that came from the US was a threatened use of massive force, should the Serb nationalists fail to cease actions against civilians. ” The reason the West finally, belatedly intervened was heavily related to news media coverage, ” ( Holbrooke, 1999; Pg 20 ). Media influence, however, cannot entirely be held responsible for the US intervention. Avoidance of a humiliating UN withdrawal, along with the credibility and competence of the US can also be considered contributing factors. ( Robinson, 2002; Pg 85 )

The media can also attempt to set an agenda and fail. When politicians are certain of their policy, media coverage can have virtually no influence in encouraging a policy change ( Robinson, 2002 ). The war in Kosovo, also a result of the FRY dissolution, proved an area of much controversy between US administrations and the media. Albanian Kosovars, disheartened with a lack of international support, supported a Kosovo Liberation Army ( KLA ). KLA attacks on Serb forces were answered with considerable force, which included civilian targets ( Robinson, 2002; Pg 94 ). Two contingency plans were decided upon; the deployment of ground troops, and the use of air strikes, and were to go ahead should Serb forces continue attacks against Albanian civilians. US air strikes prevailed, but appeared to have little affect on the Serbian military.

The US media became critical of the actions undertaken, and it became clear that the general community consensus lent toward a group campaign into Kosovo. It was concluded by Robinson, ( 2002 ) that although a large section of media coverage in the US encouraged the deployment of ground troops, it added little pressure on the government to do so ( Robinson, 2002 ). Not all media outlets chose to criticize the policy-makers however, and a minority were seen supporting air attacks, ( Robinson, 2002; Pg 109 ). This example shows that although a CNN effect was clearly present, it failed in its attempt to influence policy change.

Two theories suggest ways of understanding the relationship between the media and society. Firstly, it is suggested ” the media reflect the realities, values, and norms of a society. … The media act as a mirror of society ( O’Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2002; Pg 28 ). Secondly, it can be said that ” the media affect how people think, believe, and behave. The media construct our values for us and have a direct effect on our actions ” ( O’Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2002 ). Both theories will be discussed.

The media role includes both identifying issues of public concern, as well as acting as check on the abuse of power, this generally being political power.

Journalists describe society to itself. They seek truth. They convey information, ideas and opinions … They search, disclose, record, question, entertain, suggest and remember. They inform citizens and animate democracy ( White, 1996; Pg 288 ).

It is important to note that journalists, similarly to politicians, are held accountable for what they report. ” Accountability engenders trust, ( White, 1996; Pg 288 ). Journalists in Australia are answerable to a self-regulatory and industry funded board known as the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

The media often influences’ and reflects the priorities of communities or societies.

The media is reliant on advertisements for revenue. In order to attract businesses to advertise, the outlet must attract consumers. This sees media outlets selling the news, opinions and human-interest pieces that appeal to the values, opinions and sense of the greater market, namely, the readers and viewers.

Increasingly, it is impossible to discuss the media without broaching the subject of public relations. Public relations professionals are most apt at using the media to suit their needs. They create the stories and feed the media with them, highlighting those facts they wish known, and keeping the undesirable ones hidden. If a cause requires the attention of the general public, it is possible to entice the media to cover it by creating newsworthy conditions. Politicians employ public relations professionals, who are often professional journalists, to liaise with the media.

Obligations of the media to the citizen are to represent, interpret and evaluate ( O’Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2002 ). The majority of citizens receive their knowledge of global issues through media outlets. The media explains these occurrences to the general public, giving them an understanding of what they may not otherwise know. The media can be seen as an educational tool, giving understanding of the norms, values and realities of society to citizens ( O’Shaughnessy & Stadler, 2002 ). The real power of the media lies in its ability to ‘ agenda set ‘ ( Ward, 2002; Pg 404 ). ” The media may not be able to tell people what to think but ….. they are remarkably successful in telling audiences what issues to think about, ” ( Cohen, 1963; Pg 13 ). The media can act as society’s definer, giving meaning and understanding to situations and occurrences.

Although the definitions and explanations may not necessarily reflect the attitudes of the subject ‘ experts ‘, the power of the media can quickly see misinformation become the general consensus. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the term ‘ terrorism ‘ has been misinterpreted within the media, and used to describe what academics in the field would not label as terrorism. Debate is strong regarding the issues of media censorship, with allegations, arising more and more frequently, regarding violent, sexually explicit and disturbing films, comics, song lyrics, Internet sites and books. Misdemeanor behaviour is often said to have been motivated and inspired by such mediums.

In Australia’s republic referendum held in 1999, ” 18 of Australia’s 20 daily newspapers supported a ‘Yes’ vote, ” ( Ward, 2002; Pg 404 ). Despite this, the majority of Australian’s voted against Australia becoming a republic. Media scholars are aware that media campaigns will not alter political views of those with existing political opinion and loyalties. An increasing minority however, are influenced by media propaganda and media content may prove valuable during elections in the more marginal seats ( Ward, 2002; Pg 404 ). The example of the republic referendum could be seen as an attempted, and ultimately failed, use of the CNN effect on society.


The above discussion is in reference to situations within western democracies. Other political systems, including dictatorships and less democratic regimes, eg. Zwimbabe, USSR, and China use the media differently, tending to control opinion and political views, and thereby dictating public viewpoints. Prior to the recent elections in Russia, many of the non-government television stations were taken over or shut down, and had to change their influence and affiliations before being allowed to broadcast again. This saw the public denied access to media that presents a point of view different to that which the government wants citizens to have. Hitler shut down all newspapers during his leadership and produced his own, preaching his messages to the masses, this undoubtedly contributing to the large number of Germans that became Nazis.

Media ownership is an essential element in this debate, and it is vital to recognize the regulations regarding media ownership in Australia. The federal government of 1986 sought to ensure that media ownership remained as diverse as possible. ” A person owning a television license cannot at the same time own more than 15 per cent of a newspaper published in the same city ” ( Singleton et al, 2000: Pg 308 ). 1992, however, saw legislation altered to allow more than 15 per ownership, provided the owner is deemed ” not to be in control ” ( Singleton et al, 2000: Pg 308 ). In a democratic society it is always possible for the alternative point of view to be presented, and for the most part, all sides of debates are considered.

The media affects and reflects. It can act as an agent of propaganda and it can set the agenda. It can influence, or be influenced. The media, the state and the citizens are interdependent, each needing and using the other to inform and be informed. Western democracies will continue to see a balance within the media and the information it contains, as media ownership laws ensure the media remains democratic.


Cohen, B. 1963. The Press and Foreign Policy. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Entman, R. 1991. ‘ Framing US Coverage of International News: Contrasts in Narratives of the KAL and Iran Air Incidents ‘. Journal of Communication 41(4):6 – 27.

Holbrooke, R. 1999. No Media – No War. Index on Censorship, 28(3): 20-1.

Negrine, Ralph. 1989. Politics and the Mass Media in Britain. London: Routledge.

O’Shaughnessy, Michael & Stadler, Jane. 2002. Media and Society, An Introduction. 2nd Edition. Victoria: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, Piers. 2002. The CNN Effect: The myth of news, foreign policy and intervention. London: Routledge.

Singleton, Aitkin, Jinks & Warhurst. 2000. Australian Political Institutions. 6th Edition. Malaysia: Pearson Education Australia Pty Limited / Longman.

Ward, Ian. 2002. Media Power. Government, Politics, Power and Policy in Australia. Summers, John ( Ed ). NSW: Pearson Education Australia Pty Limited / Longman.

Wheeler, Mark. 1997. Politics and the Mass Media. Oxford: Blackwell
Publishers Ltd.

White, Sally. 1996. Reporting in Australia. 2nd Edition. South Yarra: MacMillan Publishers Australia Pty Limited.

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