MASS MEDIA: SETTING THE POLITICAL AGENDA
Definitions of media have changed dramatically during the twentieth century. Moving from
written communication to the public, today the word media encompasses a variety of
communication forms that impact on all of our senses. The volume of media has expanded to such
a degree that it surrounds us and provides each of us with most of our information, about almost
With this expansion, media have evolved into mass media in a variety of forms. With these
developments, mass media has acquired power to influence almost all aspects of our daily lives,
including what information we will receive, the manner of its presentation, the frequency of
receipt of the information, and ultimately influencing if not “what” we think, at least “if” we
think about something.
This ability to influence our daily lives expands into the public arena, associated with political
opinions, values, and actions toward political leaders and issues. Persons with this power are
rather few in number, and are associated with even fewer owners and corporations producing,
directing, editing, and selecting topics and issues deemed “newsworthy.” Given media’s extreme
power to influence, study of the media is most critical to understanding how political behavior is,
or can be influenced.
• Mass media has evolved into a major influence on Americans’ lives.
• Media’s power is derived from their ability to choose the information to be communicated, by
whom, when, and how often.
• Political behavior of both candidates and voters are today largely associated with influences
of the media.
• Campaigns, candidates, and issues are all aspects of daily political arenas influenced by
media’s presentations to the public.
• Media have some limits, though few.
• Today’s mass media have a responsibility to monitor themselves in light of their extensive
power, and this requires the media themselves to practice fairness, though it is rarely a legal
• The Internet has affected political dynamics I n the nation.
• To inspire students to evaluate sources of the majority of their information
• To understand how media influences all aspects of our lives
• To be able to identify sources of media’s power
• To recognize relationships among political candidates, issues, and the public
• To know the obligations of media to practice fairness, while using the freedom of the press to
keep the public informed
• To be able to identify the variety of media and the changes that have occurred in the twentieth
• To be able to explain the impact of the Internet upon political life in the nation
*(Including chapter “Features” appropriate to outline topics.)
I. The power of the media
A. Politics is largely carried out in the mass media.
1. Media includes television, newspapers, magazines, radio, books, recordings,
motion pictures, and the Internet.
a. Public information about people, issues, and all political interests is
acquired from media.
b. Few people have access to inside information or experiences, and media
capitalize on the public’s lack of direct access to political experience.
2. Because the media is the primary source of political information, power
accrues to those with control of the information.
a. The media not only provides arenas for politics; they may become players
in the arenas.
b. Media have long been recognized as America’s “fourth branch” of
B. Media power is concentrated in relatively few major players.
1. There are four major television networks: ABC, CBS, NBC, and CNN (though
FOX is trying to become a player, too).
2. There are three dominant newspapers: New York Times, Washington Post, and the
Wall Street Journal.
3. Broad-circulation news magazines include only three major influences:
Newsweek, Time, and U. S. News & World Report.
4. There are a limited number of prestigious news anchors, reporters, editors, etc.,
associated with political information.
C. Most politically associated media persons assert that they are unbiased.
*Features: “Media is a Plural Noun” (p. 168)
Figure 6–1: The National News Media (p. 158)
Figure 6–2Where Americans Get Their News (p. 159)
Up Close: Media I s A Plural Noun (p. 160)
II. Sources of media power
A. Government and media have had an adversarial relationship throughout
American history, as observed by Thomas Jefferson.
B. Media professionals perceive themselves as active participants in the political
process, using a variety of media techniques to challenge, report, and predict political activities.
1. The decision of what is news, or newsworthy, is the media’s major source of
a. Media people select from among millions of news options to move them
from obscurity to public knowledge.
b. Exposure of political news forces political leaders to respond.
c. Political leaders relish media attention, at the same time as they fear
d. Getting good media coverage is a major enterprise of political leaders.
2. Agenda setting is the power to decide what will be decided and resolved by
a. The real power of the media is in their power to decide what is news.
b. Media are crucial to development of issues.
3. The media aids in socializing audiences to political culture.
4. Media not only decide what will be news, but also interpret the meaning of the
news to the public.
5. Some media, particularly newspapers, use editorials to directly persuade the
*Features: People in Politics: “Stars of the Network News—Rather, Jennings, and
Brokaw.” (p. 163)
Up Close : What The Public Watches on the News. (p. 167)
III. The politics of the media
A. Politics of the media are shaped by their own economic interests.
1. Bad news tends to attract viewers.
2. News must hold interest of people with short attention spans.
B. Media politics are influenced by the professional environment.
1. Activists journalism, once called “muckraking,” delves into the wrongs of
leaders and society.
2. Many journalists see their roles as that of “watchdogs.”
C. Ideological leanings of media persons may influence the politics practiced in
1. Political values of the media are clearly liberal and reformist.
2. News and entertainment leaders are more likely to support socialist ideas
about income and jobs than are businesspersons.
IV. Mediated elections
A. Political campaigning is conducted mostly through use of media, especially
B. Media shape the national electoral politics.
1. Political party organizations were the way campaigns were conducted until
the new media evolved, largely associated with television.
2. Today, media serve to link candidates with voters, and because of this linkage,
requirements for candidates and issues are different from those in past years.
a. Candidates must have excellent communication skills.
b. Policy positions are not as important as are candidates’ images.
c. Television affords viewers opportunity to not only know the words, but to
hear how the speaker presents the words.
3. Media influence early selection of candidates.
a. Media sort out serious candidates, using presentations of “frontrunners”
and expectations of early candidates, campaign successes.
b. The early projections of winners (and losers) influence financial support (or
not) which, in turn, aids in further projections’ accuracy.
c. With media coverage today, emphasis is placed on early primary
d. With increased financial aid, frontrunners also receive further media
attention and the pace accelerates.
4. “Horse-race” coverage by media report on who is ahead or behind in
a. Such stories account for more than one-half of all news coverage of
b. Policy issues account for less than one-quarter of television election news
c. The balance of news coverage focuses on candidates’ campaign and
character issues, such as their sex life.
5. Media coverage of elections tends to have a bad news focus.
a. Negative news stories about all presidential candidates outnumber
positive stories about 2 to 1.
b. Media tend to see their job to point out failures of candidates, emphasizing
their role of revealing candidates’ character!
c. Policy issues typically account for fewer than one-quarter of television
news stories on the presidential campaign.
6. The media are accorded political bias positions.
a. Some believe the media present more negative stories about Republican
b. Media tend to favor underdogs—those behind in political races.
C. Media coverage of modern presidential campaigns emphasizes frontrunner and
negative reporting biases.
*Features: What Do You Think? Are the Media Biased? (p. 169)
A Conflicting View “Hollywood I s Corrupting America” (p. 170-171)
Figure 6–3: Sources of Political Campaign Information (p. 181)
What Do You Think? “Should the Media Report on the Private Lives of
Public Officials?” (pp. 182–183)
Figure 6–4: Presidential Campaign Coverage by TV News in 1996 (p. 184)
V. Freedom versus fairness
A. The Constitution protects freedom of the press; it was not intended to guarantee
1. The First Amendment guarantee of press freedom was designed to protect the
press from government silencing.
2. In the 1920s and 1930s, journalistic professionalism began to stress fairness
B. The Supreme Court has interpreted freedom of the press to mean that no prior
restraint on speech or publication may be placed.
1. Today the no prior restraint doctrine prevents government from censoring
2. If government needs to keep secrets, it must not let them into hands of the
C. In 1934, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was established to
allocate media frequencies and license stations.
D. The FCC requires radio and television stations to provide equal air time to
political candidates; the same amount of time at the same price.
1. Equal time requirements do not apply to news specials, documentaries, or talk
2. Biased news presentations do not require equal response time from opposition
E. The Fairness Doctrine, in which broadcasters were required to provide
“reasonable opportunity” for opposite views, was abolished in 1986.
VI. Libel and slander
A. Communications that wrongly damage an individual are known as libel when
written, and slander when spoken.
1. Persons injured by either of these communications must prove actual damage.
2. The communication must be either false or defamatory.
B. Public officials are not able to sue for libel or slander damages, as decided in the
1964 New York Times v. Sullivan case.
C. The Constitution protects the right of the press to be unfair.
1. Damaging falsehoods may be printed as long as media demonstrate the story
was not done with malicious intent.
a. In 1982, Mike Wallace, with CBS, charged General Westmoreland with
conspiracy concerning activities associated with Vietnam.
b. CBS suffered little damage in the lawsuit, as it showed a “reasonable
bias”—believing what was presented!
c. CBS acknowledged “minor procedural violations of CBS news standards.”
2. Media argue that the First Amendment allows them to keep secret names of
their information sources.
a. The Supreme Court has not given blanket protection in its decisions.
b. Some states, however, have passed shield laws to protect reporters’
secrecy about their sources.
*Feature: People in Politics “Larry King Live” (p. 177)
Compared to What? “America’s TV Culture in Perspective” (p. 178)
VII. Politics and the Internet : The Internet has a unique impact on public affairs by
providing for “interactive mass participation” in politics.
A. Chaotic by Design: The Internet was designed (Note: Rand Corporation) “to
operate without any central authority or organization. " In 1999, there were 92
B. Political Websites Abound: WebSites exist for federal agencies, cabinet
departments, members of Congress, political parties, political campaigns, and all
major interest groups.
C. Internet Uncensored: Internet allows unrestricted freedom of expression.
Legislation tried to control “indecent material,” but the Supreme Court gave the
Internet First Amendment protection in Reno vs. American Civil Liberties Union
D. The Privacy Problem: Internet information can be easily accessed. Websites can
track visitors and even send out “cookies.”
VIII.Media effects: Shaping political life
A. Media have three primary means of effecting political life.
1. Information and agenda setting are means of influencing what media audiences
think about, though not how they will think.
2. Effects on values and opinions are associated with media’s ability to influence
what should be felt about issues and events.
a. Rarely do media change preexisting values and opinions.
b. Influence on values and opinions is reduced by selective
perception—screen out those disagreed with.
c. Television malaise—viewers turned off by negative reports—appears to
have increased citizens’ alienation.
3. Direct effects on public opinions because of media impact suggest that changes
4. Media effects on behavior appear to be more associated with reinforcement,
rather than on change.
B. The impact of political ads are associated with prompting voters to vote, but they
are not as influential in swinging a voter’s choice—one direction or another.
*Features: Up Close: “The Media Age” (pp. 182-183)
Figure 6.5: Growth of Internet Users (p. 179)
Looking Ahead: Twenty-first Century Drections (184)
The power of the mass media has expanded dramatically since the beginning of the twentieth
century. In large measure, the expansion is associated with technological changes that today
allow the public to read, see, and hear a barrage of information almost instantly and constantly.
The major influence today is television, providing the majority of citizens with the majority of
their information on all newsworthy subjects. Recently though, the Internet has gained a wider
audience and has the advantage (over print) of speed. Questions have also arisen about the
quality of Internet material. The issue of "decency" on the I nternet became a court test of the
In fact, “newsworthy” is a term defined by the very groups associated with its receipt and
distribution. Because the media can select what is “newsworthy” and transmit their values, they
influence the viewing public’s values. Indeed, media power is concentrated in a few television
networks, newspapers, magazines, and Internet sites. Further, a limited number of producers,
anchors, editors, and reporters make final decisions on what the public will be exposed to as
With the first tool of selecting newsworthy presentations, power expands to influence how the
public will be exposed to the subjects selected. This comprises a difficulty associated with
fairness and nonbiased presentations. Today, there is little that can be done by political figures
to force fairness, as there are few legal means to resolve unfair presentations by media. Media
can be biased in some areas, including talk shows, editorials, documentaries, and a variety of
other non-news shows, though news can be made by political leaders and issues, which the
media, through bias, may or may not decide is newsworthy.
1. How do you [students] acquire most of your news information?
2. How many of you [students] read at least one newspaper per day? A weekly magazine?
3. How many hours of TV do you [students] watch each day? How much of the watching is in
4. Why does the text assert that there tends to be a bias toward liberalism by media? How
can/is this reflected in reporting you have seen, in any media format?
5. What recent political activities or individuals have captured your [students] attention?
6. If it is true that media do not generally change minds, but rather reinforces opinions,
attitudes, or values about political concerns, why do media practice biased presentations? Is the
assumption that reinforcement of liberal values is all that occurs with media’s influence?
7. News anchors, editors, reporters, producers, and others involved in presentation of
political information state that they are only “mirrors” of reality; they are not presenting their
biases in the productions. Do you believe this to be an accurate assessment? Why, or why not?
8. Selection of subjects deemed as “newsworthy” may certainly exclude a good deal of other,
less worthy, news from presentation. If you [students] were to be assigned responsibility for
selecting “newsworthy” presentations, what would your criteria be for such selections?
9. Why is agenda-setting power so important as to how Americans will respond to political
concerns, issues, and candidates?
10. If, tomorrow, mass media were unable to have the influence they do today in political
campaigns, how would campaigns have to be conducted?
11. What issues today do you [students] believe have been developed by media, more than the
public might otherwise have developed them? Is this issues development and expansion a subject
that could or should be better understood, or overlooked entirely?
12. Hollywood’s influence on political activities today is said to be at a high level. Considering
the positions of Hollywood leaders as quite different from either the American public or
American college graduates, why is it believed such “leaders” are important to political
13. Recently, the Internet has become an important source of news for many citizens. Is
information on the Internet likely to be as reliable as that of print media? Why or why not?
1. Create a survey of students’ media habits. Include the numbers of hours spent reading,
listening, and watching media. What media are involved? Compare these figures to other
students’ media time responses, as well as to other student-selected comparisons with the
2. Using self-identification by students, break the class up into liberal, conservative, and
moderates/independents. Using each group—and depending on the school, some of the groups will
be very small or large—identify which media they regularly watch, hear, or read. What impact
does this have on your opinions, values, attitudes?
3. Using survey techniques, with each student filling out a questionnaire, identify how many
different media sources are available in each student’s primary home. Numbers of televisions?
Radios? Magazines? Newspapers? Compiling the survey, identify the average of accesses for
each student in the class. (If possible, this could work well with a schoolwide similar survey, and
comparisons between majors, levels of study, etc., for “school paper” publication.)
4. Political events can be structured to receive the best coverage as a “newsworthy”
subject/person/issue. Have the students identify a “worthy” event and structure how it will have
the best local coverage.
5. Dividing the class into two groups, identify one student, a volunteer, as Rush Limbaugh-
like and another as Larry King-like. Selecting a real news event, have one of the two groups aid in
each of the selected student’s presentation of the subject. Discuss the different impacts of the
two different interpretations of the same subjects.
6. Using various Internet sites, ask your students to look at the lead story on ABC, CBS, NBC,
and CNN and explain their findings. Then examine differences in coverage in one story that they
1. Identify and discuss the local area’s major media. What interpretations do you perceive to
be most prominent? Conservative, liberal, or moderate? Give examples to support your
2. Why have the media acquired such political power, in your opinion? What do you believe to
be the relationship between education and the mass media’s ability to influence individuals in
their personal beliefs, opinions, or values?
3. Identify three (3) television, radio, newspapers, and magazines that are available in your
local area. What major topics are each of them currently presenting as newsworthy? Is this
coincidence? How can this pattern be so universal across all of your media?
4. In the 1996 presidential election, the media influenced how the candidates would be
presented. What did you come to understand about the major candidates from the media? Apply
the same query to the 2000 presidential election.
5. Sensationalism can be used to influence the public’s perception of an issue and/or a
candidate. Identify and discuss at least three (3) events sensationalized by the media.
6. Identify an event you want to have “make the evening news.” Outline the steps necessary
to accomplish your goal.
7. Since 1992, television and radio talk shows have become a major means to inform and
influence the public’s perception of candidates and/or issues. Why is this medium so suited, in the
public's eyes, to politics?
8. Identify and discuss at least three (3) effects media have on political life. Use specific
examples of each in your presentation.
CHAPTER “QUICK” QUIZ
1. “Media is a (plural) noun,” according to a feature in your text.
2. (Newsmaking) is the term used about the decision of what events, topics, presentations,
and issues will be given coverage in the news.
3. The power to decide what will be decided is referred to as (agenda setting) .
4. Each night nearly (28 million) television viewers watch one of three men: Dan Rather, Tom
Brokaw, or Peter Jennings.
5. The Internet is ( chaotic ) by design.
6. A (photo op) is a staged opportunity to allow media to obtain visuals of political or
7. Economic liberalism is far less frequent in the (business) sector of society.
8. (Prior restraint) is the power of government to prevent publication or to require approval
before publication, generally prohibited by the First Amendment.
9. Communications that wrongly damage an individual are known in law as (libel) when
written and (slander) when spoken.
10. Media coverage of election campaigns concentrating on who is ahead and behind is referred
to as (horse-race coverage).