There are three main forms of the mass media: print media, such as magazines, newspapers, books; electronic media, such as television and radio; and what is often termed “new age” media, which refers to internet access via mobile phones and computers (Tapscott, p. 1, 1996). Many may not realize it, but not only are they exposed to it, mass media is arguably an integral part of life for the vast majority (Schramm and Porter, 1982). Reading the newspaper, watching television, and checking social media accounts are all ways that we see and interact with mass media. These are the ways that we stay connected with family, friends, and our communities, and how we stay up to date with current events. Without mass media platforms to share what goes on in the political world, the general public would be largely in the dark. Relying almost entirely on these sources — which, it is important to note, are all run by people — has its negative effects. The media is capable of influencing public opinions and, therefore, voter agendas through agenda setting, priming, framing, yellow journalism, and advertisement.
Most, if not all, of what United States citizens know about the political world comes from what they see in the media (Schramm and Porter, 1982). With the rise of digital and social media, people can now receive and share information faster than ever. Americans rely on media for keeping up with local, state, and national politics. While it is possible to attend things, such as rallies or debates, in person, the vast majority of people watch them through their television, computer, or phone screens. Media outlets are the easiest and most readily available sources of information, and that is why people reply on them. However, the media does not always present information for what is and often purposefully attempts to sway their audience’s opinion.
One way that the media influences the public is through the use of a method called agenda setting. Those in a position of power, such as news stations, choose what information is broadcasted and to what degree. Agenda setting essentially tells the public what issues are important by determining how frequently they are shown (“Agenda Setting Theory”). According to a study conducted by Iowa State University student, Angela Caulk, this method was used in the 2016 presidential election to place more importance on a specific candidate, Donald Trump. “This study looked at 36 cable news broadcasts that equaled 285 segments in total. Of these segments, 48% of the coverage focused on Donald Trump and his campaign, while 19% focused on the race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders” (p. 16, 2016). It was nearly impossible to watch television or go online without seeing Trump’s face during the election. In giving him so much screen time, Donald Trump was the center of the election and at front of everyone’s minds.
Another method, similar to agenda setting according to Ewoldsen et. al., is priming. They are similar in that they both deal with what issues and events get covered; however, priming is more long term and goes a step further. By repeatedly exposing the public to certain things, the media can place importance on particular aspects of an issue. This ultimately influences how their audience makes judgements on and about the issue, while not directly telling them what to think (Ewoldsen, et al., 2002). This is at times accidental. In an article by Matthew Mendelsohn, he argues that it is the priming of electoral candidates’ character that causes vote instability during elections. The media often focuses on specific aspects of a candidate when reporting on them, such as trustworthiness, morality, compassion, and knowledge. While this may be unintentional, it is capable of swaying the public and has been shown to be the cause of inconsistent or continually changing opinions of candidates over the course of elections (p. 115-117). The media ultimately depicted the aspect of candidate character more salient than other aspects. This is a common occurrence. In the 2016 election in particular, Donald Trump’s morals were called into question quite frequently. It was then the question arose if supporting him in his candidacy, regardless of his stances on certain policies, was justifiable considering his depicted deplorable character (Gerson, 2018).
Framing is more direct than priming (“Framing Theory”). It is also referred to as second-level agenda setting. Framing not only places importance on a particular issue by presenting it more frequently than others, but also dictates how it is presented. By providing a “frame” of reference, the media can more directly influence how people think about a particular issue (“Framing Theory”). For example, following the decision of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, there were very polarized opinions. An article posted to MSNBC.com says, “those invested in the symbiotic relationship between politicians and their biggest donors are using the aftermath of Citizens United as an excuse to weaken campaign finance laws even further. For the sake of our democracy, we can’t let that happen,” (Vandewalker, par. 1, 2010). Another article posted to Foxnews.com a two days later states, “The Supreme Court’s action in striking down the worst censorship provision of McCain-Feingold restores vital free speech protection in America. The First Amendment does not allow the government to silence its critics, and Thursday’s decision would make our Founding Fathers applaud…” (Klukowski, par. 1, 2010). The exact same topic was covered in both of these articles, however there is a clear difference in the way they were presented to their respective audiences.
Yellow journalism refers to stories put out by media sources often with attention-grabbing aspects, such as bold headlines, but little to no credibility. According to an article published by the U.S. Department of State, yellow journalism favors “sensationalism over facts.” An example, as well as its origin, was the feud between competing newspaper publishers Joseph Pulitzer and William Hearst in the 1890s. Their false reporting of the happenings in Cuba are often attributed to the start of the Spanish-American War (“U.S Diplomacy”). This showcases the dangers of false reporting and misinformation. Yellow journalism is more modernly referred to as fake news, which was popularized by president Donald Trump. However, the things that Trump calls into question are almost exclusively negative towards him, “The Fake News is working overtime. Just reported that, despite the tremendous success we are having with the economy & all things else, 91% of the Network News about me is negative (Fake). Why do we work so hard in working with the media when it is corrupt? Take away credentials?” (qtd. in Keith, 2018). In some ways, accusations such as his can be just as dangerous as false reporting. A person with as much power and influence as Trump making these accusations delegitimizes media sources he deems “fake” in the eyes of his followers regardless of their credibility. This results in closemindedness and ignorance.
The media also employs the use of advertisement. Advertisement is a public notice with the purpose of informing the public about a product, service, etc. (“Advertisement”). Advertisements often employ the before mentioned strategies, and therefore are capable of skewing their content a certain way in order to influence their audience. You often see commercials for mundane things, such as hair products or skincare, that use positive language, short slogans, vivid images, or even celebrity endorsement to make you want to buy their products. While this may not seem particularly relevant, these same tactics can be in political advertisements as well. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s television ad, “Daisy,” was so influential and now iconic that it is often credited with assuring his win over Barry Goldwater. It shows a young girl counting as she plucks the petals from a daisy. Once she reaches ten, a harsh male voice begins counting down. As the countdown reaches zero, you are faced with the stark image of a nuclear explosion (Mike, 2010). The ad was short but clear and persuasive despite never mentioning him by name: supporting Goldwater was dangerous. While Johnson was already leading in the election, “Daisy” is considered to have stamped any chance Goldwater might have had in overcoming him.
A more subtle way that advertising is capable of influencing the public is through targeting, or what most companies call “ad personalization.” This is a method used by companies and organizations like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google, etc. that collects data about their users in order to provide ads that they might be interested in. Google users may go the Ad Settings page of their accounts and see how their ads are “personalized” via a list if supposed interests and communities. While some information is what you have given directly in your account, such as age or gender, most other things are based entirely off of assumptions. For example, categories such as “Politics,” “News,” and “Journalism & News Industry” appear in my list due to my recent searches for this paper. Facebook in particular assumes your political affiliation (Johnson, 2018). This means that people are more likely to be targeted by political propaganda of a certain kind. This can potentially be politically polarizing. Donald Trump used this tactic during the 2016 election. According to an article posted in The Guardian, “The Trump presidential campaign spent most of its digital advertising budget on Facebook, testing more than 50,000 ad variations each day in an attempt to micro-target voters, Trump’s digital director, Brad Parscale, told CBS’s 60 Minutes in an interview,” (Beckett, par. 1, 2017). In doing so, Trump was able to reach various smaller audiences with specific advertisements that would have been more expensive and less relevant had he shown them elsewhere.
In the current day and age when the general public relies almost entirely on the media to stay informed on things outside of their daily lives, it is exceedingly important to be aware of everything we see. It is evident that mass media is highly capable of influencing the public in many different ways. Common methods such as agenda setting, framing, priming, yellow journalism, and strategic use of advertisements are all ways that the media is capable of manipulating information. This is especially true during election cycles, because certain outlets are often vying for a certain political outcome. When considering politics and ultimately how you may vote, it is important to be well-rounded in your education. When taking in new information, consider what the agenda might be and the frame you may being viewing it through. Being unaware can lead to misinformed opinions and potentially result in harmful policies and people being put into power. With current technology, people can access information almost instantly and are often bombarded by it; there is no excuse for being unaware of current events. Only by staying informed can you make the best decisions for yourself and your communities when it comes to voting day.