Media: What is their impact?

Photo of modified street sign with labels--media, internet, television, radio, magazines, newspapers.

(Credit: WordPress and Dec 5, 2016 // At Fairfield University; “How Are You Involved In The Media?” Brielle Nesto at https://www.theodysseyonline.com/how-are-you-involved-in-the-media)

Learning Objectives

  • Identify forms of bias that exist in news coverage and ways the media can present biased coverage.
  • Explain how the media cover politics and issues.
  • Evaluate the impact of the media on politics and policy-making.

In what ways can the media affect society and government? The media’s primary duty is to present us with information and alert us when important events occur. This information may affect what we think and the actions we take. The media can also place pressure on government to act by signaling a need for intervention or showing that citizens want change. For these reasons, the quality of the media’s coverage matters.

Media Effects and Bias

Concerns about the effects of media on consumers and the existence and extent of media bias go back to the 1920s. Reporter and commentator Walter Lippmann noted that citizens have limited personal experience with government and the world and posited that the media, through their stories, place ideas in citizens’ minds. These ideas become part of the citizens’ frame of reference and affect their decisions. Lippmann’s statements led to the hypodermic theory, which argues that information is “shot” into the receiver’s mind and readily accepted.[1]

Yet studies in the 1930s and 1940s found that information was transmitted in two steps, with one person reading the news and then sharing the information with friends. People listened to their friends, but not to those with whom they disagreed. The newspaper’s effect was thus diminished through conversation. This discovery led to the minimal effects theory, which argues the media have little effect on citizens and voters.[2]

By the 1970s, a new idea, the cultivation theory, hypothesized that media develop a person’s view of the world by presenting a perceived reality.[3] What we see on a regular basis is our reality. Media can then set norms for readers and viewers by choosing what is covered or discussed.

In the end, the consensus among observers is that media have some effect, even if the effect is subtle. This raises the question of how the media, even general newscasts, can affect citizens. One of the ways is through framing: the creation of a narrative, or context, for a news story. The news often uses frames to place a story in a context so the reader understands its importance or relevance. Yet, at the same time, framing affects the way the reader or viewer processes the story.

link to learningFor a closer look at framing and how it influences voters, read “How the Media Frames Political Issues”, a review essay by Scott London.

 

Framing can also affect the way we see race, socioeconomic status, or other generalizations. For this reason, it is linked to priming: when media coverage predisposes the viewer or reader to a particular perspective on a subject or issue. If a newspaper article focuses on unemployment, struggling industries, and jobs moving overseas, the reader will have a negative opinion about the economy. If then asked whether he or she approves of the president’s job performance, the reader is primed to say no. Readers and viewers are able to fight priming effects if they are aware of them or have prior information about the subject.

Network news similarly misrepresents the victims of poverty by using more images of blacks than whites in its segments. Viewers in a study were left believing African Americans were the majority of the unemployed and poor, rather than seeing the problem as one faced by many races.[4]

The misrepresentation of race is not limited to news coverage, however. A study of images printed in national magazines, like Time and Newsweek, found they also misrepresented race and poverty. The magazines were more likely to show images of young African Americans when discussing poverty and excluded the elderly and the young, as well as whites and Latinos, which is the true picture of poverty.[5]

link to learningThe Center for American Women in Politics researches the treatment women receive from both government and the media, and they share the data with the public.

Media coverage of women has been similarly biased, leading to uneven coverage of women candidates for public office. Early coverage was sparse. The stories that did appear often discussed the candidate’s viability, or ability to win, rather than her stand on the issues. Clearly, the coverage of the 2016 Hillary Clinton candidacy reflects a change.[6] Word choice may also have a priming effect. News organizations like the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press no longer use the phrase “illegal immigrant” to describe undocumented residents. This may be due to the desire to create a “sympathetic” frame for the immigration situation rather than a “threat” frame.[7] Likewise word choice has been used to prime readers on the issue of abortion, such as “pro-life” and “pro-choice.” Readers and viewers are able to fight the priming effect if they are aware of the meaning and use of labels.

A key question for students of politics is whether media framing of a news story leads to priming that evidences a political bias. While some argue media framing is the natural consequence of current media environment with its emphasis on reporting news with audience appeal focusing on conflict, sensationalism, and personality–others concede that media framing, when coupled with priming, can lead to political bias.[8]

The topic of priming by the news media and political bias are obviously closely related. Media news stories presented as fact can contain covert and overt politically slanted material. Covert content is political information provided under the pretense that it is neutral. A television broadcast might run a story on climate change by interviewing representatives of only one side of the policy debate and downplaying the opposing views, all without acknowledging the one-sided nature of its coverage. In contrast, when the writer of a publication makes clear to the reader only one side of the political debate, the political message is overt content. Political commentators such as Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow openly state their ideological viewpoints. While such overt political content may be offensive or annoying to a reader, listener, or viewer, all are offered the choice whether to be exposed to the material.

To avoid either covert and overt political bias or priming, news readers, listeners, and viewers frequently self-select what media to watch. A study by University of Texas Communication faculty member, Natalie Jomini Stroud, found that media viewing habits are subject to partisan selective exposure, where the partisan or ideological orientation of viewers, listeners, or readers determines the choices made on news information sources.[9] That is, conservative Republicans will likely avoid MSNBC or any outlet perceived as having either covert or overt political bias, while liberal Democrats will likely avoid FOX News or listening to Rush Limbaugh. Instead, partisan selective exposure leads to individuals listening primarily to news sources that match (or affirm), and therefore reinforce, their existing political beliefs.[10]

Coverage Effects on Governance and Campaigns

The media’s coverage of campaigns and government does affect the way government operates and the success of candidates. In 1972, for instance, the McGovern-Fraser reforms created a voter-controlled primary system, so party leaders no longer pick the presidential candidates. Now the media are seen as kingmakers and play a strong role in influencing who will become the Democratic and Republican nominees in presidential elections. They can discuss the candidates’ messages, vet their credentials, carry sound bites of their speeches, and conduct interviews. The candidates with the most media coverage build momentum and do well in the first few primaries and caucuses. This, in turn, leads to more media coverage, more momentum, and eventually a winning candidate. Thus, candidates need the media.

In the 1980s, campaigns learned that tight control on candidate information created more favorable media coverage. In the presidential election of 1984, candidates Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush began using an issue-of-the-day strategy, providing quotes and material on only one topic each day. This strategy limited what journalists could cover because they had only limited quotes and sound bites to use in their reports. Although candidates were seeking coverage of political issues that differentiated themselves from their opponents, reporters complained this coverage was more free campaign advertising rather than journalism and therefore sought a new model of political coverage.[11] Somewhat tired of the information games being played by politicians, journalists sought ways to take back control of the news cycles.[12] There is a debate about whether this attempt to recapture the ability of framing the media coverage was driven by the structural demands of the modern communication environment to drive audience appeal or whether recapturing framing was motivated by a political bias to prime the audience toward a particular political outcome.[13]

Campaign coverage now focuses on the spectacle of the season, the campaign horse race, rather than providing information about candidate views. Colorful personalities, strange comments, lapses of memory, and embarrassing revelations are more likely to get air time than the candidates’ issue positions. Supporting the argument that news coverage is driven by audience appeal, were those who said citizens wanted to see updates on the race and electoral drama rather than issue positions or substantive reporting.[14] This type of coverage has been dubbed, horse race journalism, and is also the result of some who argued that newspapers and news programs were limiting the space they allot to discussion of the campaigns, which is of high viewer and reader interest.[15]

All these factors have led to the shallow press coverage we see today especially with the focus on personality and conflict rather than substantive issues. The 2016 presidential campaign coverage of the Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton campaigns are two examples.[16]

There can be no doubt that horse race journalism is the dominant approach to media coverage of current presidential campaigns. Television news discusses the strategies and blunders of the election with colorful examples, and newspapers often focus on the polls. In an analysis of the 2012 election, Pew Research found that 64% of stories and coverage focused on campaign strategy, only 9% covered domestic issues, 6% covered candidates’ public records, and 1% covered foreign policy positions.[17]

For better or worse, coverage of the candidates’ statements get less air time on radio and television, and sound bites, or clips, of their speeches have become even shorter. In 1968, the average sound bite from Richard Nixon was 42.3 seconds, while a recent study of television coverage found that sound bites had decreased to only eight seconds in the 2004 election.[18] The clips chosen to air were attacks on opponents 40 percent of the time. Only 30 percent contained information about the candidate’s issues or events.

A bar graph titled Bias in Cable News Coverage of Presidential Candidates, 2012.

Media coverage of campaigns is increasingly negative, with cable news stations demonstrating more bias in their framing of stories during the 2012 campaign.

A September 2014 Gallup Poll, “Trust in Mass Media Returns to All-Time Low” (17 September 2014), found that the perceived political bias in the media has led to a drop in confidence in the media to report “the news fully, accurately and fairly”[19]. While trust in mass media has generally been edging downward from the late 1990s and early 2000s, it stood at an all time low of 40% in the survey.[20] As has been the case historically, Americans more often feel the new media is “too liberal” (44%) than “too conservative” (19%).[21] Conservatives perceive liberal bias in the media, while liberals think news coverage is “just about right.”[22] The perception of balance by liberals is significantly higher than then number who self-identify as independents.[23]

Due in part to the lack of substantive media coverage, campaigns increasingly use social media to relay their message. Candidates can create their own sites and pages and try to spread news through supporters to the undecided. In 2012, both Romney and Obama maintained Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube accounts to provide information to voters. Yet, on social media, candidates still need to combat negativity, from both the opposition and supporters. Stories about Romney that appeared in the mainstream media were negative 38 percent of the time, while his coverage in Facebook news was negative 62 percent of the time and 58 percent of the time on Twitter.[24]

Once candidates are in office, the chore of governing begins, with the added weight of media attention. Historically, if presidents were unhappy with their press coverage, they used personal and professional means to change its tone. Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, was able to keep journalists from printing stories through gentleman’s agreements, loyalty, and the provision of additional information, sometimes off the record. The journalists then wrote positive stories, hoping to keep the president as a source. John F. Kennedy hosted press conferences twice a month and opened the floor for questions from journalists, in an effort to keep press coverage positive.[25]

Cabinet secretaries and other appointees also talk with the press, sometimes making for conflicting messages. The creation of the position of press secretary and the White House Office of Communications both stemmed from the need to send a cohesive message from the executive branch. Currently, the White House controls the information coming from the executive branch through the Office of Communications and decides who will meet with the press and what information will be given.

The presidential press secretary runs the daily press briefing and provides access to a limited number of news media members to ask direct questions about administration policy. While many hundred reporters hold White House credentials, the briefing room holds about 49 seats according to Politico in an article “The White House Press Room Seating Chart” by Hadas Gold (25 March 2015).[26] The seats are occupied overwhelmingly by tradition or mainstream media toward the front, internet based media behind, and all arrangements typically set by the press secretary.[27]

But stories about the president often examine personality, or the president’s ability to lead the country, deal with Congress, or respond to national and international events. They are less likely to cover the president’s policies or agendas without a lot of effort on the president’s behalf.[28]

When Obama first entered office in 2009, journalists focused on his battles with Congress, critiquing his leadership style and inability to work with Representative Nancy Pelosi, then Speaker of the House. To gain attention for his policies, specifically the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), Obama began traveling the United States to draw the media away from Congress and encourage discussion of his economic stimulus package. Once the ARRA had been passed, Obama began travelling again, speaking locally about why the country needed the Affordable Care Act and guiding media coverage to promote support for the act.[29]

Congressional representatives have a harder time attracting media attention for their policies. House and Senate members who use the media well, either to help their party or to show expertise in an area, may increase their power within Congress, which helps them bargain for fellow legislators’ votes. Senators and high-ranking House members may also be invited to appear on cable news programs as guests, where they may gain some media support for their policies. Yet, overall, because there are so many members of Congress, and therefore so many agendas, it is harder for individual representatives to draw media coverage.[30]

It is less clear, however, whether media coverage of an issue leads Congress to make policy, or whether congressional policymaking leads the media to cover policy. In the 1970s, Congress investigated ways to stem the number of drug-induced deaths and crimes. As congressional meetings dramatically increased, the press was slow to cover the topic. The number of hearings was at its highest from 1970 to 1982, yet media coverage did not rise to the same level until 1984.[31] Subsequent hearings and coverage led to national policies like DARE and First Lady Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.

Image A is of Nancy Reagan standing behind a podium. A sign on the podium reads

First Lady Nancy Reagan speaks at a “Just Say No” rally in Los Angeles on May 13, 1987 (a). The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) is an anti-drug, anti-gang program founded in 1983 by a joint initiative of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Unified School District. (Credit: OpenStax included images)

Later studies of the media’s effect on both the president and Congress report that the media has a stronger agenda-setting effect on the president than on Congress. What the media choose to cover affects what the president thinks is important to voters, and these issues were often of national importance. The media’s effect on Congress was limited, however, and mostly extended to local issues like education or child and elder abuse.[32] If the media are discussing a topic, chances are a member of Congress has already submitted a relevant bill, and it is waiting in committee.

Questions to Consider

  1. How might framing or priming affect the way a reader or viewer thinks about an issue?

  2. In what ways do the media protect people from a tyrannical government?

  3. Have changes in media formats created a more accurate, less biased media?

Terms to Remember

beat–the coverage area assigned to journalists for news or stories

framing–the process of giving a news story a specific context or background

horse race journalism–citizens want to see updates on the race and electoral drama rather than issue positions or substantive reporting

pack journalism–journalists follow one another rather than digging for their own stories

priming–the process of predisposing readers or viewers to think a particular way


  1. Walter Lippmann. 1922. Public Opinion. http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/Lippman/contents.html (August 29, 2015).
  2. Bernard Berelson, Paul Lazarsfeld, and William McPhee. 1954. Voting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. George Gerbner, Larry Gross, Michael Morgan, Nancy Signorielli, and Marilyn Jackson-Beeck. 1979. "The Demonstration of Power: Violence Profile," Journal of Communication 29, No.10: 177–196.
  4. Travis L. Dixon. 2008. "Network News and Racial Beliefs: Exploring the Connection between National Television News Exposure and Stereotypical Perceptions of African Americans," Journal of Communication 58, No. 2: 321–337.
  5. Martin Gilens. 1996. "Race and Poverty in America: Public Misperceptions and the American News Media," Public Opinion Quarterly 60, No. 4: 515–541.
  6. Kahn and Goldenberg, “The Media: Obstacle or Ally of Feminists?”
  7. Daniel C. Hallin. 2015. "The Dynamics of Immigration Coverage in Comparative Perspective," American Behavioral Scientist 59, No. 7: 876–885.
  8. Richard Fonte, Austin Community College
  9. Natalie Jomini Stroud, New News: The Politics of News Choice, Oxford University Press, New York, 2011. The study was detailed in this book.
  10. Richard Fonte, Austin Community College
  11. Elizabeth A. Skewes. 2007. Message Control: How News Is Made on the Presidential Campaign Trail. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 79.
  12. Stephen Ansolabehere, Roy Behr, and Shanto Iyengar. 1992. The Media Game: American Politics in the Television Age. New York: Macmillan.
  13. Richard Fonte, Austin Community College
  14. “Frames of Campaign Coverage,” Pew Research Center, 23 April 2012, http://www.journalism.org/2012/04/23/frames-campaign-coverage.
  15. Stephen Farnsworth and S. Robert Lichter. 2012. “Authors’ Response: Improving News Coverage in the 2012 Presidential Campaign and Beyond,” Politics & Policy 40, No. 4: 547–556.
  16. Richard Fonte, Austin Community College
  17. “Frames of Campaign Coverage,” Pew Research Center, 23 April 2012, http://www.journalism.org/2012/04/23/frames-campaign-coverage.
  18. Kiku Adatto. May 28, 1990. "The Incredible Shrinking Sound Bite," New Republic 202, No. 22: 20–23.
  19. http://www.gallup.com/poll/176042/trust-mass-media-returns-time-low.aspx
  20. http://www.gallup.com/poll/176042/trust-mass-media-returns-time-low.aspx
  21. http://www.gallup.com/poll/176042/trust-mass-media-returns-time-low.aspx
  22. http://www.gallup.com/poll/176042/trust-mass-media-returns-time-low.aspx
  23. http://www.gallup.com/poll/176042/trust-mass-media-returns-time-low.aspx
  24. "Winning the Media Campaign 2012," Pew Research Center, 2 November 2012.
  25. Fred Greenstein. 2009. The Presidential Difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  26. The White House press room seating chart, by Hadas Gold, 03/25/15 06:14 PM EDT, http://www.politico.com/blogs/media/2015/03/the-white-house-press-room-seating-chart-204543
  27. Ari Fleischer, former White House Press Secretary from remarks published in the Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2016 and at Politico's "The White House press room seating chart" by HADAS GOLD 03/25/15 06:14 PM EDT
  28. Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha and Jeffrey Peake. 2011. Breaking Through the Noise: Presidential Leadership, Public Opinion, and the News Media. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Gary Lee Malecha and Daniel J. Reagan. 2011. The Public Congress: Congressional Deliberation in a New Media Age. New York: Routledge.
  31. Frank R. Baumgartner, Bryan D. Jones, and Beth L. Leech. 1997. "Media Attention and Congressional Agendas," In Do The Media Govern? Politicians, Voters, and Reporters in America, eds. Shanto Iyengar and Richard Reeves. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  32. George Edwards and Dan Wood. 1999. "Who Influences Whom? The President, Congress, and the Media," American Political Science Review 93, No 2: 327–344; Yue Tan and David Weaver. 2007. "Agenda-Setting Effects Among the Media, the Public, and Congress, 1946–2004," Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 84, No. 4: 729–745.