The Role of the Media in Politics

Types of Media

Media in the United States has taken multiple forms and grown in power due to its for-profit nature.

Learning Objectives

Evaluate the claim that press freedom is compromised by increasing consolidation in the media industry

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Media in the United States has taken several forms, including television, film, radio and blogs.
  • Media frequently gains power through its support from large corporations, and is often criticized by the public for such alliances.
  • Reporters Without Borders publishes a yearly ranking on the level of free media in each country.

Key Terms

  • blog: A website that allows users to reflect, share opinions, and discuss various topics in the form of an online journal while readers may comment on posts. Most blogs are written in a slightly informal tone (personal journals, news, businesses, etc. ) Entries typically appear in reverse chronological order.

Media in the United States comprises several different types of widespread communication: television, radio, cinema, newspapers, magazines, and Internet-based websites (especially blogs). Many of these networks are controlled by large, for-profit corporations that reap revenue from advertising, subscriptions, and the sale of copyrighted material. American media conglomerates tend to be leading global players, generating substantial revenue, not to mention fierce opposition in many parts of the world. Further deregulation and convergence are under way, suggesting more mega-mergers, greater concentration of media ownership, and the emergence of multinational media conglomerates. Critics allege that localism (local news and other content at the community level), media spending and coverage of news, and diversity of ownership and represented views have suffered as a result of such processes.

Theories on the success of such companies note a reliance on certain policies of the American federal government as well as a natural tendency to produce monopolies in the industry. Many prominent news organizations such as CBS, ABC, and Fox News are often criticized for creating political and corporate monopolies to boost popularity.

The organization Reporters Without Borders compiles and publishes an annual ranking of countries based on its assessment of their press freedom records. A smaller score on the index corresponds to greater freedom of press. Reporters Without Borders is careful to note that the index only addresses press freedom and does not measure the quality of journalism. In 2011-12 the United States was ranked 47th out of 179 countries, which was a setback from the preceding year.


2010 Press Freedom Index Scores: These countries have been ranked on their freedom-of-press laws. A smaller score on the index correspondes to great freedom of press. The United States has a score of 47.

Regulation of Broadcast Media

Broadcasting media has been regulated since the 1920s to ensure balanced and fair coverage, along with coverage of relevant, local issues.

Learning Objectives

Summarize key developments in the history of broadcasting law

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The FCC was created in 1934 to regulate laws about broadcasting on the public airwaves.
  • By 1949, the Fairness Doctrine ensured that networks had to cover opposing perspectives on controversial issues.
  • The Reagan Administration tried to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine, but the policy is still in effect today.

Key Terms

  • broadcasting: transmitting, sending out messages omnidirectionally

In the United States, freedom of press does not necessarily mean an unregulated media.

Some of the more notable aspects of broadcast law include:

  • frequency allocation: The division of the spectrum into unlicensed frequency bands, such as ISM band and U-NII band, and licensed frequency bands, along with television channel frequencies, FM broadcast band, and amateur radio frequency.
  • low-power broadcasting
  • Fairness Doctrine
  • public broadcasting

Today, broadcasting rights fall under the jurisdiction of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), but other legislations set the precedent for this modern day law.

The History of Broadcasting Law

The Radio Act of 1927 was the first major broadcasting law in the country. Among its provisions was the equal opportunity provision, which provided a foundation for the equal time rule. This provision required radio stations, television stations and cable systems, which originated their own programming, to treat legally qualified political candidates equally when it came to selling or giving away air time. This provision was a result of legislators' growing concerns that, without mandated equal opportunity for candidates, some broadcasters might try to manipulate elections.

The Communications Act of 1934 amended the Radio Act, and the equal time provision is located in Section 315 of the Communications Act. This act was another crucial moment in broadcasting law history, because it created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC, ). The FCC's intent was to "regulat[e] interstate and foreign commerce in communication by wire and radio so as to make available, so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, a rapid, efficient, Nation wide, and world wide wire and radio communications service... ". (In this context, the word "radio" covers both broadcast radio and television). The FCC has the authority to "make such regulations not inconsistent with law as it may deem necessary to prevent interference between stations and to carry out the provisions of [the] Act. "


FCC Commissioners inspect the latest in television (1939).: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has promised to ensure fairness in broadcasting.

In 1949, the FCC enacted the Fairness Doctrine for the purpose of ensuring balanced and fair coverage of all controversial issues by a broadcast station. The FCC adopted the view that station licensees were "public trustees," and therefore, had an obligation to broadcast contrasting viewpoints on controversial issues of public importance. It was later established that stations should also actively seek out issues of importance to their community and air programming about those issues. During the 1980s, the Reagan Administration pressured the FCC to eliminate the Fairness Doctrine, but was unsuccessful in its attempts.

Organization and Ownership of the Media

Media consolidation has resulted in fewer companies owning more media sources, thereby increasing the concentration of ownership.

Learning Objectives

Discuss the recent history of media consolidation

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the United States, movies have experienced conglomerate ownership since the early twentieth century, but just recently have news and broadcasting in the United States started to experience it.
  • The Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed for cross media, and since then Clear Channel Telecommunications have acquired many radio stations.
  • The twentieth century has also seen many forms of media merging.

Key Terms

  • conglomerate: A corporation formed by the combination of several smaller corporations whose activities are unrelated to the corporation's primary activity.

Concentration of media ownership, also known as media consolidation or media convergence, is a process whereby progressively fewer individuals or organizations control increasing shares of the mass media. Contemporary research demonstrates increasing levels of consolidation, with many media industries already highly concentrated and dominated by a very small number of firms. Over the years there have been many merger attempts, some successful, and others unsuccessful. Over time the amount of media merging has increased and the amount of media outlets have increased. This means that there are fewer companies owning more media sources, thereby increasing the concentration of ownership.

Examples of Media Mergers and their Potential Effect

In the United States, media consolidation has been in effect since the early twentieth century with major studios dominating movie production. Before that, there was a period in which Edison monopolized the industry. The music and television industries recently witnessed cases of media consolidation when SONY Music Entertainment's parent company merged their music division with Bertelsmann AG's BMG to form Sony BMG. TimeWarner's The WB and CBS Corp's UPN also merged to form The CW. In the case of Sony BMG, there was a "Big Five" (now "Big Four") conglomerate of major record companies, while The CW's creation was an attempt to consolidate ratings and stand up to the "Big Four" of American television (this was despite the fact that The CW was, in fact, partially owned by CBS, one of the "Big Four"). In television, the vast majority of broadcast and basic cable networks, over a hundred in all, are controlled by nine corporations: News Corporation (the Fox family of channels), The Walt Disney Company (which includes the ABC, ESPN and Disney brands), CBS Corporation, Viacom, Comcast (which includes the NBC brands), Time Warner, Discovery Communications, EW Scripps television, or some combination thereof (including the aforementioned The CW as well as A&E networks, which is a consortium of Comcast and Disney, ).


Walt Disney Studies: Walt Disney is a major media conglomerate.

Another example occurred in 1999, when Viacom made CBS an offer of $37 billion to buy them out. This buyout caused a lot of hype and many people were worried that this merge would decrease diversity and the quality of journalism because of the increased political influence.

There are also some large-scale owners in an industry that are not the causes of monopoly or oligopoly. For example, Clear Channel Communications, especially since the Telecommunications Act of 1996, acquired many radio stations across the United States, and came to own more than 1,200 stations. However, the radio broadcasting industry in the United States and elsewhere can be regarded as oligopolistic regardless of the existence of such a player. Because radio stations are local in reach, each station licenses a specific part of spectrum by the FCC in a certain local area, any local market is served by a limited number of stations. In most countries, this system of licensing makes many markets local oligopolies. The similar market structure exists for television broadcasting, cable systems, and newspaper industries, all of which are characterized by the existence of large-scale owners. Concentration of ownership is often found in these industries.

Nationalization of the News

While local news is still available, it is becoming increasingly nationalized and local outlets are being purchased larger, national networks.

Learning Objectives

Describe the phenomena associated with the nationalization of the news

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Local channels are facing challenges such as the advent of new technology and a competitive market.
  • Bigger networks are able to use the technology needed to provide fast-paced news.
  • ABC News, NBC News, and CBS News are three examples that are buying out local markets.

Key Terms

  • cable: (communications) A system for receiving television or Internet service over coaxial or fibreoptic cables

Nationalization of the news refers to the modern phenomenon of the decline of local news networks and the increase in power of national news networks. A few factors are contributing to this trend, including the pressure in generating new and fresh content and the increasing power of conglomerates.

The internet age, digital cable and satellite broadcast have prservices, comes on-demand news programming. News operations have begun to feel the burden of needing to generate news content on a 24-hour news cycle, while keeping material fresh on their regularly scheduled newscasts. This means around-the-clock coverage. Rather than having a certain deadline for scheduled newscasts to meet, reporters have to file stories as fast as they can. Producers, on the other hand, have to find more ways to keep news stories "fresh" to viewers. The larger networks like ABC News, NBC News, and CBS News are able to afford these technologies and are beginning to buy out the smaller, local networks.


ABC News: ABC News is an example of a large networks "buying out" smaller ones.

In the early days, local newscasts were seen more as a public service. The style was straightforward. For instance, a newscast was divided into three blocks: news, sports, and weather. The news block was divided into local, national and international stories. Modern day news is now seen as a competition, and the stations must compete for relevance in the local market.

Agenda-Setting Theory

Agenda-setting is a psychological process whereby the media continuously covers an issue so viewers think its a top-priority issue.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the results of the key "Chapel Hill" study of the media and public opinion

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Drs. McCombs and Shaw did a study based on the 1968 election and discovered the correlation between what news viewers watched and their perception of important events.
  • Mass communication is defined as the process whereby professional communicators use technological devices to share messages over great distances to influence large audiences.
  • The theory of accessibility states that the more the media plays a story, the more accessible that story is to the viewer's mind.

Key Terms

  • agenda setting: A theory in mass-communication stating that the media have the ability to determine which issues are important to the public.

Agenda -Setting Theory

Agenda-setting theory describes the "ability [of the news media] to influence the salience of topics on the public agenda. " That is, if a news item is covered frequently, the audience will regard the issue as more important. In reality, mass media only shows the audience what it comprehends as an important issue. Print or broadcast news will then take away the audience's ability to think for themselves.


OJ Simpson: Media experts contend that the OJ Simpson case was a prime example of media agenda-setting. It captivated the country--and news outlets--for years.

Agenda-setting theory was formally developed by Dr. Max McCombs and Dr. Donald Shaw in a study on the 1968 presidential election. In the 1968 "Chapel Hill study," McCombs and Shaw demonstrated a strong correlation between what 100 residents of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, thought was the most important election issue and what the local and national news media reported was the most important issue. By comparing the salience of issues in news content with the public's perceptions of the most important election issue, McCombs and Shaw determined the degree to which the media sways public opinion.

Agenda-setting is the media's ability to transfer salience issues through their new agenda. This way, the public agenda can form an understanding of the salience issues. Two basic assumptions underlie most research on agenda-setting: (1) the press and the media do not reflect reality; they filter and shape it; (2) media concentration on a few issues and subjects leads the public to perceive those issues as more important than other issues.

Before they attain the presidency status, Presidents are nominees for their own party. Nominees participate in nationally televised debates, and while the debates are usually restricted to the Democratic and Republican nominees, third party candidates may be invited, such as Ross Perot in the 1992 debates. Nominees campaign across the country to explain their views, convince voters and solicit contributions. Much of the modern electoral process is concerned with winning swing states through frequent visits and mass media advertising drives.

American news media are more obsessed than ever with the horse-race aspects of the presidential campaign, according to a new study. Coverage of the political campaigns have been less reflective on the issues that matter to voters, and instead have primarily focused on campaign tactics and strategy, according to a report conducted jointly by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, part of the Pew Research Center, and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Harvard University, which examined 1,742 stories that appeared from January through May 2007 in 48 news outlets.

Mass Communication

Mass communication plays an important role in our society. Its purpose is to inform the public about current and past events. Mass communication is defined in " Mass Media, Mass Culture" as the process whereby professional communicators use technological devices to share messages over great distances to influence large audiences. Within this process, the media (a newspaper, book, television program, etc) takes control of the information we see or hear. The media then uses gatekeeping and agenda-setting to "control our access to news, information, and entertainment". Gatekeeping is a series of checkpoints that the news has to go through before it gets to the public. Through this process, many people have to decide whether or not the news is to be seen or heard. Some gatekeepers include reporters, writers and editors. After gatekeeping comes agenda-setting. One of the most critical aspects in the concept of an agenda-setting role of mass communication is the time frame for this phenomenon. In addition, different media have different agenda-setting potential.

The Cognitive Effects of Agenda-Setting

Agenda-setting occurs through a cognitive process known as "accessibility. " Accessibility implies that the more frequently and prominently the news media cover an issue, the more instances that issue becomes accessible in the audience's memories. When respondents are asked about the most important problem facing the country, they answer with the most accessible news issue in memory, which is typically the issue the news media focus on the most. The agenda-setting effect is not the result of receiving one or a few messages, but is due to the aggregate impact of a very large number of messages all dealing with the same general issue. Mass-media coverage in general and agenda-setting in particular also have a powerful impact on what individuals think that other people are thinking, and hence tend to allocate more importance to issues that have been extensively covered by mass media.

The Rise of Adversarial Journalism

Adversarial journalism, or gotcha journalism, seeks to reveal wrongdoings of public officials through a variety of premeditated methods.

Learning Objectives

Describe the rise of "gotcha journalism" and the legal recourse public figures have against such journalism

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Adversarial journalism includes many interview tactics, such as confronting the interviewee on a confrontational topic and switching topics mid-interview.
  • Editors involved in gotcha journalism often manipulate the texts of stories to their advantage.
  • Many modern politicians have become aware and critical of gotcha journalism, including former Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin.

Key Terms

  • libel: A written (notably as handbill) or pictorial statement which unjustly seeks to damage someone's reputation.

Adversarial journalism, or gotcha journalism, is a form of journalism that seeks to uncover wrongdoings of public officials.

Gotcha journalism can include various methods such as, moving away from the agreed upon interview topic, or switching to an embarrassing subject that was agreed to be out-of-bounds. Interviewers might also confront interviewees with prepared material designed to contradict or discredit their positions. Gotcha journalism is often designed to keep the interviewee on the defensive by forcing them to explain some of their own statements taken out of context, thus effectively preventing the interviewee from clearly presenting their position.

This type of journalism is always premeditated and used to defame or discredit interviewees by portraying them as self-contradictory, malevolent, unqualified, or immoral. This effect is also achieved by replaying selected quotes from public speeches, followed by hand-picked footage or images that appear to reinforce negative images of the interviewee.

For example, a city's mayor might give a speech in which he claims that during his tenure, employment was at a record high in his city. A news outlet may choose to replay that speech and follow it up with footage of desperate men and women at the unemployment office, and perhaps even an interview in which one of these people is asked to comment on the mayor's speech. The interviewee, in this case, may be baited with questions that have obvious answers such as, "The mayor says unemployment is a record low; how do you respond to that? "

Other examples of gotcha journalism include misleading an interviewee about which portions of his or her statements will be aired, or misleading an audience about how an expert opinion is acquired. Take, for instance, a special feature on drug use in schools. To add sensationalism, an "expert" may be given manufactured statistics that imply that a three-fold increase in drug use is occurring in suburban schools, and asked to comment on what it might mean, if this statistic was real. The "expert" may issue a statement such as, "If this were actually happening, this trend would be alarming – thank goodness it's not! " To discredit this expert, upon airing, the narrator might say, "We asked Dr. John Q. Smith to comment on drug use in schools. " Following this, would be the clip in which it appears that Dr. Smith is in denial over drugs in school. Alternatively, if Dr. Smith's quote sides with the reporter 's case, the narrator might state, "We asked Dr. John Q. Smith what he thinks of the increase in drug use and he said, 'this trend would be alarming. '"

Manipulation of quotes, images, and archival footage is typical in the editing process, especially for news magazines, and does not cross over into "gotcha" journalism until there is a deliberate attempt to mislead an interviewee, expert, or the audience. Most commonly, this manifests by finding footage of exceptions to a generalization given by a speaker or interviewee. For example, in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina public officials stated that progress was being made. A number of news outlets transmitted these statements, followed by footage of flooded homes, abandoned neighborhoods, and interviews with many people still affected by the disaster. The officials may or may not have been lying, but showing some continuing problems does not prove lack of progress in general.

In 1964, the pivotal US Supreme Court case (New York Times co. vs. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254) ended most libel protection recourse for public figures in the United States effectively clearing the way for intrusive or adversarial reportage into the public or private affairs of public figures by news media outlets whether newspapers, TV or radio. Public figures could no longer sue for libel, regardless of the bias of news media, without proof that the media had acted maliciously. An early citation indicated that "gotcha journalism" was used by Stuart K. Spencer in the Los Angeles Times in 1987. The full story is given in the book Stick It Up Your Punter by Chris Horrie. The headline was also used in a 1994 movie about the newspaper business,The Paper, which was based in part on Horrie's book.

During the 2004 United State's presidential election, Wall Street Journal columnist Gordon Crovitz suggested that the term "gotcha journalism" was used heavily by Republican campaign managers to diminish the credibility of journalists interviewing about the Iraq war.

Former Alaska Governor, Sarah Palin, has been especially critical of "gotcha journalism". Her 2008 bid for Vice President was marred by numerous misstatements which she blamed on gotcha questions.


Sarah Palin: Sarah Palin was very critical of adversarial journalism during her campaign bid in 2008.

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