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Mass Media and the Internet in the United States

Media and Elections in the United States

Use and Impact of Media Coverage

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.

Media outlets provide extensive coverage of political campaigns in the United States. News stories in print and broadcast media cover campaign events. Reporters may also provide in-depth looks at candidates' background and experience. Controversies generally get wide coverage. Broadcast outlets often show debates between candidates for the same office or public meetings in which candidates take citizens' questions. Editorial boards of major newspapers typically interview candidates and may publish an endorsement of particular candidates before the election. Media coverage of campaigns has come under criticism for a lack of focus on issues and too much attention paid to polls and the relative prospects of competing candidates. Broadcast news stories about candidates' campaign appearances and speeches are considered "free media" by campaigns because they do not have to pay for the airtime.

In addition to news and analysis, campaigns figure prominently in broadcasters' airtime through campaign ads. Ads become more frequent in the weeks leading up to an election. Independent groups not tied directly to a party or campaign can also place advertisements. Under the rules of the Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. FEC (2010), government rules limiting such ads during a campaign infringe on the advertisers' 1st Amendment rights. Following Federal Election Commission rules, ads must have a disclaimer notifying the public about who paid for the advertisement and—for those paid for by a candidate—include a statement that the candidate approved of the message. A large portion of campaign funds are spent on advertising.

Social media, the online communication options that enable users to share ideas and information with their social networks, has had a huge effect on campaigns. Campaigns typical construct a social media strategy on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as a way of demonstrating support. They also use it to promote campaign appearances and in get-out-the-vote efforts in the waning days of a campaign. Campaigns have also increasingly turned to the Internet as a way to raise funds, particularly in small amounts from large numbers of donors.

Social media came under intense scrutiny after the 2016 presidential election. U.S. intelligence agencies found that operatives tied to the Russian government used social media to attempt to influence American voters. The way social media algorithms continue to feed content that the user is most likely to agree and engage with has also come under fire for increasing the divisiveness of campaigns. Reform efforts subsequent to the election focused on Internet companies trying to find ways to identify and block postings made by foreign agents.

Noncampaign News

The media has great influence on public opinion even in noncampaign years but is criticized for focusing on sensational stories.

Journalists continue to cover issues and events that they believe will draw the most readers or viewers when it is not campaign season. This can mean overemphasis on scandals and dramatic events and giving less attention to more mundane stories.

Critics charge that the attention paid to the dramatic overlooks more important, more complex stories. They also say that this coverage can skew citizens' perception of reality. For example, reports of crimes by the news media likely play a major role in the perceptions of crime by average Americans. Violent crimes often receive more coverage than other crimes. The average consumer of news may come to believe based on these reports that violent crime is more frequent than in fact it is. While cable TV and Internet sites provide continuous coverage of news, critics say that they focus too much on pushing the same story without delving into other important stories. At the same time, media coverage of issues, events, or trends can focus citizens' attention on matters they would otherwise be unaware of. Heightened awareness can result in calls for change that can influence government policy.