8.1 What Is the Media?
The media encompass all communications that transmit facts or information to citizens and includes the mass media in print and on the radio, television, and Internet. Television takes many forms, such as local, network, cable, or satellite. Historically, programming was transmitted from networks to local stations and broadcast via the airwaves, while fiber-optic cables now allow for national programming to transmit directly. Technological advances allow on-demand and streaming access for programming, leading to changes in advertising and scheduling practices. Conglomerates are large media corporations that own many stations and other companies; therefore, they can create a monopoly and decrease the flow of information to the public. The media serves to entertain the public, watch for corruption, set the national agenda, and promote the public good. In each of these roles, the media informs the public about what is happening and signals when citizens should act.
8.2 The Evolution of the Media
Newspapers were vital during the Revolutionary War. Later, in the party press era, party loyalty governed coverage. At the turn of the twentieth century, investigative journalism and muckraking appeared, and newspapers began presenting more professional, unbiased information. The modern print media have fought to stay relevant and cost-efficient, moving online to do so.
Most families had radios by the 1930s, making it an effective way for politicians, especially presidents, to reach out to citizens. While the increased use of television decreased the popularity of radio, talk radio still provides political information. Modern presidents also use television to rally people in times of crisis, although social media and the Internet now offer a more direct way for them to communicate. While serious newscasts still exist, younger viewers prefer soft news as a way to become informed.
8.3 Regulating the Media
While freedom of the press is an important aspect of the Bill of Rights, this freedom is not absolute and may be regulated by the U.S. government. The press cannot libel or slander individuals or publish information about troop movements or undercover operatives. The Federal Communications Commission can enforce limits on television and radio programming by fining or revoking licenses. Broadcast material cannot be obscene, and indecent programs can be broadcast only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Stations must also give political candidates equal time for advertising and interviews.
The media help governments maintain transparency. Sunshine laws require some governments and government agencies to make meeting documents public. Some presidents have encouraged journalists and allowed questioning while others have avoided the press. Lack of openness by government officials leads journalists to use confidential sources for important or classified information. The Supreme Court does not give the press complete freedom to keep sources confidential, though the government can choose whom it prosecutes for hiding sources.
8.4 The Impact of the Media
Writers began to formally study media bias in the 1920s. Initially, the press was seen as being able to place information in our minds, but later research found that the media have a minimal effect on recipients. A more recent theory is that the media cultivates our reality by presenting information that creates our perceptions of the world. The media does have the ability to frame what it presents, and it can also prime citizens to think a particular way, which changes how they react to new information.
The media’s coverage of electoral candidates has increasingly become analysis rather than reporting. Sound bites from candidates are shorter. The press now provides horse-race coverage on the campaigns rather than in-depth coverage on candidates and their positions, forcing voters to look for other sources, like social media, for information. Current coverage of the government focuses more on what the president does than on presidential policies. Congress, on the other hand, is rarely affected by the media. Most topics discussed by the media are already being discussed by members of Congress or its committees.
The media frame discussions and choose pictures, information, and video to support stories, which may affect the way people vote on social policy and in elections.