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Mass Media and the Internet in the United States

Evolution of the Mass Media in the United States

Mass media has evolved over time in terms of types of media and the way news is presented. In response to the development of new media types, public figures have developed new methods for reaching the public.

The earliest newspapers in America were partisan. The partisan press refers to media outlets that openly support a political party or cause. At the time of the American Revolution and in the years of the early republic, the goal of many publications was to sway public opinion in favor of a particular leader or policy. Journalists took sides, and the presentation of the news was hardly objective. As the United States grew, newspapers became big business. The Industrial Revolution made printing faster, contributing to the rise of the cheap broadside newspapers called the "penny press." As a result of compulsory education, literacy increased, which expanded potential readership. In the late 19th century, as newspapers vied for readership, many focused on what came to be called "yellow journalism." Yellow journalism is sensationalized news placed in a newspaper to attract readers and increase circulation. This style of journalism was at its height in the 1890s, though some modern Internet sites employ the tactics of yellow journalism, such as eye-grabbing headlines and arresting visuals, often to promote highly partisan causes.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, growing corporate power and political corruption spurred the reform-minded Progressive movement. Progressive journalists engaged in what came to be called muckraking, a type of journalism that chronicles detailed accounts of political and economic corruption. Muckraking changed mass media in the United States. Today, most mainstream media outlets strive to remain nonpartisan and provide correct and factual information in news coverage. The work of modern investigative journalists reflects the muckraking tradition. These reporters provide in-depth stories on complex issues that often reveal questionable actions by public officials, business leaders, or prominent members of society.

Until the 1920s, when radios became widely available, newspapers were the main form of reporting the news. With radio, news coverage changed from lengthy pieces to brief summaries of major events. Public figures could speak directly to the people. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933–45) took advantage of the changing media environment to address the American people through the radio without his comments being filtered through the press. Each one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's periodic national radio talks known as a fireside chat.
Starting with his first fireside chat fewer than 10 days after his first inauguration in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt proved a master of the radio medium.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-hec-47304
In the 1950s and 1960s, televisions became common fixtures in people's homes. Presidents began giving televised press conferences, and television news organizations began televising congressional hearings and the political parties' national conventions. News organizations could use powerful visuals as well as sounds to tell a story, which had a profound impact on how Americans interpreted events such as the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the Vietnam War of the 1960s and 1970s. How public officials looked on screen became a tool of public appeal—or a disadvantage. In the 1980s the number of television channels available skyrocketed with the advent of cable networks. This gave Americans access to 24-hour-a-day news coverage.
With a superb sense of timing and delivery, Ronald Reagan was nicknamed "the Great Communicator." Here, in 1986, he tries to heal the shock and dismay Americans felt when the space shuttle Challenger exploded in a deadly accident.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 75854575 (White House Photographic Collection, 1/20/1981 - 1/20/1989)
The information revolution brought on by the Internet changed the news media further. Individuals gained even more access to news—or commentary on the news—from a vast array of sources. Political movements and campaigns were changed by social media. Social media refers to all the online communication options that enable users to share ideas and information with their social networks. Social media enables individuals to communicate with nearby neighbors or strangers across the world and helps groups build far-flung support networks. These media also pose some disadvantages. People can find themselves in a filter bubble, the viewpoint isolation a person can experience based on Internet browsing and device history and social media connections. Social media can also create an echo chamber, a situation in which certain ideas and beliefs are reinforced through repetition and without the inclusion of competing ideas. In this way, the information a social media user receives reinforces existing points of view.
Americans' use of media has changed over time. In the 2010s newspaper circulation declined, cable TV news viewership remained small, and growing numbers of people found their news online.