A major trend over the last three decades has been the concentration of media-outlet ownership among fewer and fewer large corporations. As you worked through this module, you considered whether or not this growing consolidation has corrupted the media’s ability to properly inform the public.
Agenda setting is a major function of the media. As media scholar Max McCombs puts it, “Elements that are prominent in the media frequently become prominent in the public mind.” The question is what sort of agenda gets propagated, if any? McCombs suggests that there is no overarching agenda and that the mainstream media “pretty much plays it down the middle.” However, other scholars disagree with this characterization. Glenn Greenwald, for instance, thinks the corporate media tends to comfort the powerful, precisely the opposite of the ideal role he sees for journalism in a democratic society.
Chomsky and Herman’s propaganda model lends support for Greenwald’s view and suggests that there are five “filters” that determine what gets treated as “news” by mainstream media. These include (1) the aforementioned concentration of corporate ownership of media outlets, (2) the influence of corporate advertisers that finance news production, (3) the privileging of information from government and corporate sources, (4) “flak” or punitive activities by powerful organizations to counter or manage inconvenient stories—often to the point of discrediting organizations or individuals involved in challenging prevailing assumptions—and finally (5) the hyping of external threats as a means of distracting from and silencing voices critical of elite interests.
As the debate over framing and agenda setting rages on, the rise of social media and changes in the way journalism is financed have presented new challenges, and potentially democratic opportunities, for the production and consumption of information.