A free and open media is essential to a functioning democracy. Its role in politics is to “encourage democratization, strengthen the rule of law and promote institution building” (UN News Center). In order for a democracy to work properly, citizens need to be informed on the issues at hand, in a fair and unbiased manner, so they can make sound decisions as to which candidates to vote for. The role of the media in democracy has been realized since the institute’s earliest inception.
In 1791 the 1st Amendment was made to the Bill of Rights, and it stated that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press; or the right of the people to peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances” (PBS). If free press becomes compromised, such as being taken over and run by biased private corporations, then a country’s democracy is at risk, and it can lead to the country becoming a fascist state. In America, the media plays a decisive role in politics and in determining which agendas are successful and which are not and whether or not it has been compromised by private interest continues to be debated.
Bias in the Media
Whether or not any press can be truly free remains a subject of much debate. Media outlets, just like any other enterprise, rely on a steady flow of funds in order to operate. Thus, they rely on sponsors either through the sales of advertisements or through government funding. Media outlets also much appeal to the demands and tastes of the audience. Various media outlets must compete amongst each other for viewers, so catering to the tastes of that audience becomes a science. “Restricted by the limited tastes of the audience and reliant upon political elites for most information, journalists participate in an interdependent news system, not a free market of ideas” (Entman 3). Since the media depends on private funds and large numbers of viewers, it is possible that its agenda becomes compromised, from giving a fair and unbiased news report to one that caters towards the tastes of viewers and investors.
While media outlets do have the opportunity to be biased, depending on their audience and funding, there are still a wide range of mass media outlets for viewers to choose from. Viewers have a choice as to where to get their news from. If one station seems biased towards one viewpoint, the channel can quickly be changed. Over the decades, technology has increased the ways in which a viewer can get their news. In the 1970’s, television was the main outlet for mass media. There were just seven channels available to the average household, and these captured 80% of all viewing.
However, technology has changed this dramatically. In 2005, 85% of households had access to satellite or cable TV and had on average a hundred channels to choose from. Today, viewers can also choose to get their news not just from TV but also from the Internet and smart phones (Muntz 224). With the wide range of choices as to where to get the news, it would not be presumptuous to expect a wider range of political viewpoints to be expressed from various media outlets. However, this does not appear to be the case.
Journalists themselves are also inherently biased. While the goal of journalism is to give a fair and unbiased representation of the story being covered, a reporter’s personal views, preferences, and identifications with an issue or politician will undoubtedly come into play. As well, journalists themselves are seeking a successful career in media. In order to be successful, and stand out, they must cover stories that “make it onto the front page or get lots of airtime on the evening news” (Zaller 21-22). Those stories that get on the front page are those that appeal to the public. Thus, those journalists are mare most adept at appealing to the interests of the public are those that are the most successful (Zaller 22). Thus, the audience may often times end up receiving information that is more sensational than it is unbiased and informational.
Despite the wide range of choices as to where to get their news, it has been observed that the public’s viewpoints, as well as those of media outlets, have become increasingly polarized over the years (Muntz 224). It has been proposed selectivity is to blame, that is, peoples inherent nature to select those outlets which best represent their own ideals. “Selectivity can take place at several junctures with respect to mass media, including exposure to a particular source of political news, attention to what the source says, and biased interpretation when processing the content of political news” (Muntz 225). It is human nature to want to avoid that information which conflicts with their preexisting ideas and beliefs. Thus, while media outlets may offer viewers information, the audience is not necessarily going to listen to the information in a fair and unbiased manner. Thus, bias in the media is a two-way street between media outlets and the viewer’s themselves.
The Media and Political Campaign Coverage
The media and politics come most closely into play during presidential elections. Every four years, politicians battle it out to see who will win the most favor from the American people to become the next president. It is the job of the media outlets to inform the public about the various political candidates. During elections, the candidates can get quite negative on each other. The media, as it should, covers the stories behind negative campaign advertisements, political speeches and debates. Politicians who run the most negative campaigns, thus, can end up getting the most media coverage. This can lead towards voter bias on both sides.
For example, during the 2012 campaign, the republican candidates received a great deal of media coverage. The candidates – Mitt Romney, Newt Gringrich, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum – were competing for republican nomination. The democratic nominate was assured, as it was the incumbent Barack Obama. So, there was far less media scrutiny on Barack Obama and his issues, such as the success of his healthcare act or his wishy-washy stance on Super PAC’s (Mark). Voters were more informed on the issues, and negative campaigning, of the republican candidates.
Politicians rely on media politics to both win elections and to mobilize public support for causes and the implementation of projects while they are in office (Zaller 1-2). Thus, they rely on journalists and reporters to get their story out to audiences. However, the story that journalists choose to get out may not be the one the candidate wishes. This happens when the press uncovers a skeleton in the closet of a politician, or when a candidate suddenly changes their position on an issue and the media exposes them as wishy-washy (Zaller 13). Depending on the candidate, the media can be either a boon or a bust to their political career.
Citizens also rely on media coverage in order to know who to vote for. The public wants to know what kind of morals and ethics a politician has and what their stance is on issues that are important to them. Individuals all have different issues they want to see addressed during a presidential campaign, ranging from taxes to abortion. Mass media outlets will poll their audiences, and study their demographics, in order to know which types of stories their audience will be most likely to identify with and those are the stories that will be covered in the news.
Media and Government Exposure
The media also plays a strong role in keeping the government honest by exposing scandal and controversy. In the early 1900’s, during what is known as the Progressive Era, a new style of investigative journalism was born. Dubbed by Theodore Roosevelt as “muckrakers”, these journalists “revealed illegal and unsavory practices of capital, labor, and state and local government” (PBS). Fast forward to the 1970’s, and it was the same type of muckrakers who exposed the Watergate scandal. However, while democracy relies on the ability of investigative journalism to expose scandals, this type of investigative reporting can also lead to sensationalism and stories that are overly sordid.
While the media can over sensationalize certain stories, it can also under expose them as well. An example would be the Iran-contra scandal. Before its exposure in late 1986, the Reagan administration has denied that Oliver North had supported the Nicaraguan contra rebels during the congressional ban on its aid. Most members of the media, as well members of congress, simply accepted the denials and failed to investigate the story (Entman 6). Another example is the way in which the media exposed the Watergate scandal. When the crimes actually occurred, in 1972, Nixon was running for re-election. During this time, the media only presented sporadic reports to the public, leaving them ill-informed about the issue. Had the public been more aware of the scandal and its implications, they may have decided not to re-elect Mr. Nixon. Instead, he was re-elected and later impeached, which was an embarrassing scandal for America.
Public Misinformation and Media Responsibility
The public accepts for fact that what they are told by the media. They trust the media to give them the whole story and for that story to be truthful, correct and unbiased. However, despite this, viewers of mass media have been found to still be poorly informed. For example: “Six months into the Iraq war, a study by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland found that FOX News viewers were more likely than consumers of any other major media outlet source to have mistaken beliefs about Iraq. Including the belief that U.S. led forces had already found weapons of mass destruction there. This belief was held by one out of every three FOX viewers at the time, compared to only one out of ten respondents who cited PBS or NPR as their main source of news (Boehlert et al).”
Media Matters, an online news source, has exposed media sources, like FOX, That systematically misinform the public (Boehlert et al). Individuals who are loyal to a specific media outlet trust them to give them the true facts, however, this trust may not be warranted. Viewers must also be held responsible for doing their own research in order to fully understand an issue. Citizens depend on media to be the watchdogs of government, but who then is watching the media? Organizations like Media Matters seek to expose bias in media. Getting this message out to the public has become easier with advances in technology and the emergence of social media.
A new type of media has begun to emerge as a result of the rise of social media and the Internet. Many people get their news today not from a TV or print newspaper but from internet sites, blogs, and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. “The World Wide Web and the accompanying explosion in “new media” have forced an upheaval in U.S. politics in at least four areas, creating 1) innovative ways to reach voters; 2) a radically changed news system; 3) an unprecedented flood of small donors; and 4) newly empowered interest groups on the left and right” (Edsall).
The internet is an inexpensive way for politicians to gain maximum exposure. Even candidates with smaller campaign funds can reach a large audience if they are savvy to the ways of social media and blogging. Since their overhead is lower, small internet based media outlets do not have to rely on advertisers to keep their ventures afloat. Thus, their coverage does not need to bend to the whim of corporate sponsors. In turn, the Internet also allows for constituents to feel more connected to politicians. They can follow their personal Twitter and Facebook pages, which may or, more likely, may not be updated by the actual politician themselves, but more likely a paid staff member. However, the level of intimacy between the candidate and the public is heightened, and this may gain them more favor and, in the end, more votes.
The internet has given a voice and the power to change to even the most marginal players. For example, during the 2008 presidential election, an aide to Senator Barack Obama made a pseudo campaign ad depicting Hilary Clinton as an all-powerful dictator. The ad was played on YouTube and received over 1 million hits. While the ad itself may not have changed the course of the election, it did show just how powerful the Internet can be in coloring public opinion (Edsall).
If it is true that democracy depends on the existence of a free and unbiased media, then it may be argued that the United States if far from a true democracy. Bias is inherent in media: in the media outlets themselves, in the various members of government and politics, in the journalists who report the news and in the way in which viewers and audiences interact with media. However, the ideal that democracy depends on a truly free and unbiased media may be an unrealistic expectation because, in fact, the media will always be biased because that is just part of its nature. We do not live in an ideal world, and ideals quickly fade in the face of everyday reality. Media must change along with its changing society and political environment. In this way, it does represent the ideals and values of the day.
Today, we are witness to a time of great change in terms of technology and the way in which information is disseminated. Just as quickly as the political environment is changing so is the media that covers it. New technology is giving rise to the exposure of political corruption and government incompetence. It is giving a voice to the under paid and underrepresented voices of the public. So in fact, it appears that the media is still doing its job. However, it is still up to the individual to remain informed on the issues at hand and to remain a loyal and informed citizen by scrutinizing the media just as they scrutinize the government.