Media: What is their function?

An image of Bernie Sanders on a stage. Bernie is standing to the right and several people are standing in front of a podium.

On August 8, 2015, activists for Black Lives Matter in Seattle commandeered presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ campaign rally in an effort to get their message out. (Credit: modification of work by Tiffany Von Arnim)

Learning Objectives

  • Explain what the media are and how they are organized.
  • Describe the main functions of the media in a free society.
  • Compare different media formats and their respective audiences.

Freedom of the press and an independent media are important dimensions of a free society.

If people are connected digitally, they have a bewildering number of choices for finding information. Compared to the days of the 1970s, when a person might read the morning newspaper over breakfast and watch the network news in the evening, there are now an extreme number of choices in today’s increasingly complex world of information. This reality may place even greater responsibility on the news media to help Americans achieve increased understanding of U.S. politics and government. The proliferation of competing information sources like blogs and social media may actually weaken the power and ability of the news media relative to the days when formal news media monopolized our attention. One of the primary reasons citizens turn to the media is for news. Ideally, we expect the media to cover important political, economic, and social events and information in a concise and neutral manner. However, journalists’ achievement of neutrality, free from political bias, along with balance in news coverage is challenged by both partisans as well as reasonably objective analysts; and, the proliferation of fake news stories poses an additional challenge to media outlets and the general public alike.

Consider the Originals

Excerpt from Thomas Jefferson to William Branch Giles, 17 December 1794…
[…] The attempt which has been made to restrain the liberty of our citizens meeting together, interchanging sentiments on what subjects they please, and stating these sentiments in the public papers, has come upon us, a full century earlier than I expected. To demand the censors of public measures to be given up for punishment is to renew the demand of the wolves in the fable that the sheep should give up their dogs as hostages of the peace and confidence established between them.[1]
Excerpt of Letter To Adamantios Coray, 31 October 1823…
[…] Freedom of the Press, subject only to liability for personal injuries. this formidable Censor of the public functionaries, by arraigning them at the tribunal of public opinion, produces reform peaceably, which must otherwise be done by revolution. [I]t is also the best instrument for enlightening the mind of men, and improving him as a rational, moral, and social being.[2]
Excerpt from Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 9 September 1792…
[…] [N]o government ought to be without censors: & where the press is free, no one ever will. [I]f virtuous, it need not fear the fair operation of attack & defence: nature has given to man no other means of sifting out the truth either in religion, law, or politics. I think it as honorable to the government neither to know nor notice its sycophants or censors, as it would be undignified & criminal to pamper the former & persecute the latter.[3]

Media Basics

The term media defines a number of different communication formats including television, print magazines and newspapers, radio, and internet. Each form of media has its own complexities and uses. Television offers a variety of formats from scripted dramas to unscripted reality programs and from new programming at local affiliate stations to cable networks. The internet has also created opportunities for news outlets including niche journalism like The internet also facilitates the flow of information through social media, allowing for instant communication. Media editors work in the background of the newsroom, assigning stories, approving articles and editing content for accuracy and clarity. In fact, this editorial function is sometimes called gatekeeping, with editors having considerable influence over what news stories are eventually seen by the public and the tone and frame of the story. Publishers are people or companies that own and produce print or digital media. They oversee both the content and finances of the publication, ensuring the organization turns a profit and creates a high-quality product to distribute to consumers. Producers oversee the production and finances of visual media such as television, radio, and film.

Media Types

Each form of media has its own complexities and is used by different demographics.

A graph titled Where do you get your news

Age greatly influences the choice of news sources. Baby boomers are more likely to get news and information from television, while members of generation X and millennials are more likely to use social media.

Television alone offers viewers a variety of formats. Programming may be scripted, like dramas or comedies or unscripted, like game shows or reality programs, or informative, such as news programming. Most local stations are affiliated with a national network corporation, and they broadcast national network programming to their local viewers.

Affiliates, by agreement with the networks, give priority to network news and other programming chosen by the affiliate’s national media corporation. Local affiliate stations are told when to air programs or commercials, and they diverge only to inform the public about a local or national emergency.

Most affiliate stations will show local news before and after network programming to inform local viewers of events and issues. Network news has a national focus on politics, international events, the economy, and more. Local news, on the other hand, is likely to focus on matters close to home, such as regional business, crime, sports, and weather.[4]

Cable programming offers national networks a second method to directly reach local viewers. As the name implies, cable stations transmit programming directly to a local cable company hub, which then sends the signals to homes through coaxial or fiber optic cables. Because cable does not broadcast programming through the airwaves, cable networks can operate across the nation directly without local affiliates. Instead they purchase broadcasting rights for the cable stations they believe their viewers want. For this reason, cable networks often specialize in different types of programming.

The on-demand nature of the Internet has created many opportunities for news outlets. The proliferation of online news has also increased the amount of poorly written and inaccurate material with little editorial oversight, and readers must be cautious when reading internet news sources. There are virtually no gatekeepers for many internet sites. For example, Buzzfeed allows members to post articles without editorial review leading to articles of varied quality and accuracy. This has given rise to fake news entirely inaccurate and often spread quickly by rumors over the internet.

The Internet also facilitates the flow of information through social media, which allows users to instantly communicate with one another and share with audiences that can grow exponentially. Social media changes more rapidly than the other media formats. A growing number of these sites also allow users to comment anonymously, leading to increases in threats and abuse. The site 4chan, for example, was linked to the 2015 shooting at an Oregon community college.[5]

Consider the Originals

On the Issue of “Fake” News…

Police: Man who fired rifle in Comet Ping Pong in name of ‘Pizza Gate’ held without bond

The man who was arrested for allegedly carrying an assault rifle and firing off a round in Comet Ping Pong restaurant in Northwest Washington DC — the same pizza place that has become the target of an online conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and child sex trafficking — was also found in possession of a handgun and a shotgun, DC police said Monday.

According to the police report, two of the guns were found on the scene in Comet Ping Pong and the third gun was found in the man’s car. No injuries were reported in the incident.

The suspect, identified as 28-year-old Edgar Welch, from Salisbury, North Carolina, told police he was investigating “Pizza Gate”, a conspiracy theory based on a fake news article, which surfaced before the election. The “Pizza Gate” theory claimed that Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief were running a child trafficking ring in the restaurant’s back rooms.”[6]

Josh Earnest and the White House Press Corps Q&A Session on December 5, 2016…

The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release

Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 12/5/16

12:28 P.M. EST


Q    Thanks, Josh.  I want to know if the White House has any reaction to the arrest that was made yesterday at Comet Pizza up in Northwest.  I’m asking because the President has spoken out a number of times on the corrosive effect that fake news has had on the political discourse, and I know that a lot of the rumors surrounding that establishment was spread by fake news online.

MR. EARNEST:  Well, let me start by complimenting and crediting local law enforcement here in the Washington area who responded with a lot of professionalism to that situation in preventing any bloodshed.  So this is just another example of how our men and women in blue never take a day off from keeping us safe.  We owe them a debt of gratitude, and that certainly applies to the brave men and women who serve in the Metropolitan Police Department here in Washington, D.C.

The second thing I can tell you is that those law enforcement officials are continuing to investigate this situation.  I know there have been some interviews that have been conducted with the subject and I think there’s some interest in trying to learn more about what exactly his motives were.

I think more generally it’s — even without knowing precisely what those motives were, I think there’s no denying the corrosive effect that some of these false reports have had on our political debate.  And that’s concerning in a political context. It’s deeply troubling that some of those false reports could lead to violence.

So, again, it’s unclear if that’s exactly what happened in this situation.  I’ll let local officials speak to that.  But this is something that I think everybody is going to spend some time thinking about, particularly people in this room and the people who represent news organizations in this room.  How people understand what’s happening in the world is important to the functioning of our democracy.  And this is something that I assume the next administration is going to have to spend some time thinking about and working on as well.[7]

Regardless of where we get our information, the various media avenues available today, versus years ago, make it much easier for everyone to be engaged. The question is: Who controls the media we rely on? Most media are controlled by a limited number of conglomerates. A conglomerate is a corporation made up of a number of companies, organizations, and media networks. In the 1980s, more than fifty companies owned the majority of television and radio stations and networks. Now, only six conglomerates control most of the broadcast media in the United States: CBS Corporation, Comcast, Time Warner, 21st Century Fox (formerly News Corporation), Viacom, and The Walt Disney Company.[8]

The Walt Disney Company, for example, owns the ABC Television Network, ESPN, A&E, and Lifetime, in addition to the Disney Channel. Viacom owns BET, Comedy Central, MTV, Nickelodeon, and Vh2. Time Warner owns Cartoon Network, CNN, HBO, and TNT, among others. While each of these networks has its own programming, in the end, the conglomerate can make a policy that affects all stations and programming under its control.

A chart that demonstrates the decline in number of media companies within the U.S. On the left, there are 50 small TVs in a 10 by 5 table, labeled

In 1983, fifty companies owned 90 percent of U.S. media. By 2012, just six conglomerates controlled the same percentage of U.S. media outlets.

Conglomerates can create a monopoly on information by controlling a sector of a market. When a media conglomerate has policies or restrictions, they will apply to all stations or outlets under its ownership, potentially limiting the information citizens receive. Conglomerate ownership also creates circumstances in which censorship may occur.

Newspapers too have experienced the pattern of concentrated ownership. Gannett Company, while also owning television media, holds a large number of newspapers and news magazines in its control. Many of these were acquired quietly, without public notice or discussion. Gannett’s 2013 acquisition of publishing giant A.H. Belo Corporation caused some concern and news coverage, however. The sale would have allowed Gannett to own both an NBC and a CBS affiliate in St. Louis, Missouri, giving it control over programming and advertising rates for two competing stations. The U.S. Department of Justice required Gannett to sell the station owned by Belo to ensure market competition and multi-ownership in St. Louis.[9]

link to learningIf you are concerned about the lack of variety in the media and the market dominance of media conglomerates, the non-profit organization, Free Press, tracks and promotes open communication.


These changes in the format and ownership of media raise the question whether the media still operate as an independent source of information. Is it possible that corporations and CEOs now control the information flow, making profit more important than the impartial delivery of information? The reality is that media outlets, whether newspaper, television, radio, or Internet, are businesses. They have expenses and must raise revenues.

Functions of the Media

We expect the media to report news that informs and alerts us with information to help us form our opinions about political issues and candidates. The media may also serve as a point of access for the public. The media must provide some public services, while following laws and regulations. Reconciling these goals may not always be possible. The media exist to fill a number of functions, some of which are absolutely essential for the functioning of a representative republic. We expect the media to inform and alert us and provide us with news and information to help us form our opinions about political issues and candidates. The media should also function as watchdogs of society and of public officials. Some refer to the media as the fourth estate, with the branches of government being the first three estates and the media equally participating as the fourth. This role helps maintain the republic and keeps the government accountable for its actions, even if a branch of the government is reluctant to open itself to public scrutiny. As much as social scientists would like citizens to be informed and involved in politics and events, the reality is that we are not. So the media, especially journalists, keep an eye on what is happening and sounds an alarm when the public needs to pay attention.[10] By informing the public about what government is doing and encouraging citizens to express their concerns over public issues, the media perform an essential function of two-way communication between citizens and their representatives. In totalitarian governments, citizens receive only one-way communication, haring only what the government wishes to tell and say.

One additional function in which the media engages is agenda setting, which is the act of choosing which issues or topics deserve public discussion. For example, in the early 1980s, famine in Ethiopia drew worldwide attention, which resulted in increased charitable giving to the country. Yet the famine had been going on for a long time before it was discovered by western media. Even after the discovery, it took video footage to gain the attention of the British and U.S. populations and start the aid flowing.[11]

Before the Internet, traditional media determined whether citizen photographs or video footage would become “news.” In 1991, a private citizen’s camcorder footage showed four police officers beating an African American motorist named Rodney King in Los Angeles. After appearing on local independent television station, KTLA-TV, and then the national news, the event began a national discussion on police brutality and ignited riots in Los Angeles.[12]

The agenda-setting power of traditional media is often appropriated by social media and smartphones. Tumblr, Facebook, YouTube, and other Internet sites allow witnesses to instantly upload images and accounts of events and forward the link to friends. Some uploads go viral and attract the attention of the mainstream media, but large network newscasts and major newspapers are still powerful at initiating or changing a discussion.

Questions to Consider

  1. What does it mean to have a free news media?

  2. What regulations limit what media can do?

  3. How do the media contribute to informing citizens and monitoring politicians and the government, and how do we measure their impact?

  4. How can conglomerates censor information?

  5. In what ways is media responsible for promoting the public good?

  6. Why is social media an effective way to spread news and information?

Terms to Remember

agenda setting–the media’s ability to choose which issues or topics get attention

fake news–false stories spread mainly via internet, social media and texting

mass media–the collection of all media forms that communicate information to the general public

media–different forms of communication from television and radio to newspapers and the internet

print media–newspapers, news magazines, news you may hold in your hand

public relations–biased communication intended to improve the image of people, companies, or organizations

  1. Monticello, December 17, 1794; National Archives: Founders Online at
  2. Monticello, October 31, 1823; National Archives: Founders Online at
  3. Monticello, VA, September 9, 1792; National Archives: Founders Online at
  4. Jeremy Lipschultz and Michael Hilt. 2003. "Race and Local Television News Crime Coverage," Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education 3, No. 4: 1–10.
  5. Daniel Marans, "Did the Oregon Shooter Warn of His Plans on 4chan?" Huffington Post, 1 October 2015.
  8. Vanna Le, "Global 2000: The World’s Largest Media Companies of 2014," Forbes, 7 May 2014.
  9. Meg James, "DOJ Clears Gannett-Belo Deal but Demands Sale of St. Louis TV Station," Los Angeles Times, 16 December 2013.
  10. John Zaller. 2003. "A New Standard of News Quality: Burglar Alarms for the Monitorial Citizen," Political Communication 20, No. 2: 109–130.
  11. Suzanne Ranks, "Ethiopian Famine: How Landmark BBC Report Influenced Modern Coverage," Guardian, 22 October 2014.
  12. Erik Ortiz, "George Holliday, Who Taped Rodney King Beating, Urges Others to Share Videos," NBC, 9 June 2015.