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Mass Media and the Internet in the United States



Freedom of the press is an essential ingredient of American democracy, with the press filling the roles of provider of reliable information and government watchdog. Media in the United States is not government run, and competition within the media promotes independent reporting, but the financial interests of media corporations can influence story decisions. Laws protect journalists from prosecution on some grounds. The media has played a role in American government since the Revolutionary period, when it was an integral source of information for citizens. Since then, the media has evolved in directions the founders could never have imagined. Political leaders have been able to enhance their position and influence through their ability to use new technology effectively. New technology, particularly the advent of the Internet and social media, has enabled the number and types of news outlets to proliferate dramatically and news to disseminate quickly, and algorithms even select the stories to which individuals are exposed. This automatic filtering of the news can result in the news consumer living in a bubble of self-reinforcing ideas. Bias always has been and continues to be part of media coverage, as people who control the media control what kinds of stories are covered as well as the content of those stories. In terms of news and public affairs, regulation of broadcast media lessened when the FCC abandoned the fairness doctrine, but the equal-time rule still tries to ensure comparable amounts of airtime given to competing candidates in an election campaign. In terms of Internet regulation, net neutrality has been a controversial issue but protections for children using the Internet are widely accepted. The media plays a vital role in keeping voters informed during election campaigns, though it comes under some criticism for focusing on poll results predicting the outcome and less on candidates' positions on issues.

At A Glance

  • The media plays a vital role in American democracy by acting as a source of reliable information about the actions and plans of government officials. While the press is independent of government control, reporting can be influenced by powerful corporations, though competition provides a check on concentrated media power.
  • 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.
  • While some media outlets show bias in news reports, research has not found a consistent ideological bias to media coverage of government. Media outlets can shape public debate through agenda setting and influence points of view through framing techniques.
  • In 1987 the Federal Communications Commission stopped enforcing the fairness doctrine, a long-standing regulation that required broadcast media to provide equal time to opposing points of view on controversial issues. The equal-time rule, which requires some effort by broadcast media to provide equal time to candidates, remains in force.
  • Efforts to regulate content on the Internet have largely focused on making Internet content safe for children. The issue of net neutrality has been more controversial.
  • The media plays a central role in election campaigns through news coverage, analysis, and advertising. Social media is playing an increasing role in campaigns, though messages are susceptible to manipulation.
  • The media has great influence on public opinion even in noncampaign years but is criticized for focusing on sensational stories.