12.1 The Media as a Political Institution: Why Does It Matter?
The mass media serve as powerful guardians of political norms because the free press should keep the public informed about the wrongdoings of government. Another common way of defining the media’s role is to say that it acts as the fourth estate, or the unofficial fourth branch of government that checks the others. Another term for this role is watchdog. In order for the press to fulfill this important role, however, countries must protect the freedom of the press—and some countries do a better job than others. Protecting the press is also important because it serves as an information conduit between the government and the people. The vast majority of people cannot acquire information on governmental affairs themselves and rely on the press to act as a mediator. However, the media report stories based on their own journalistic values and practices, and this can affect what makes the news agenda and how pieces are framed.
12.2 Types of Media and the Changing Media Landscape
The media can be categorized into four distinct groups: print, radio, television, and the Internet. Each group has its own place in history, and its influence over the audience has ebbed and flowed over time. The majority of the media in the United States and much of Europe is owned by six major firms, and this type of oligopoly can have effects on people’s political lives. Concentration of ownership has resulted in homogeneous content, a move away from both local and international news to more entertainment and national news, and (in some instances) a movement toward more conservative political news content. Though private ownership of the media has resulted in an oligopoly, there are other models of ownership across the globe. Countries such as Britain and Japan have well-respected and widely used state-sponsored media channels, although such state-sponsored media are relatively unpopular in the United States.
12.3 How Do Media and Elections Interact?
The media often focuses coverage on the horse-race aspect of elections, ignoring substantive policy discussion. However, the electorate depends on the media as a source of information that can help them make informed decisions. Countries with fewer democratic freedoms and authoritarian regimes severely hamper the press’s ability to cover elections fairly. Candidates, on the other hand, understand that controlling press coverage is important in terms of electoral success, and they spend substantial time and money to make sure the public hears their version of the story. Most political speech in the United States is protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, and American political candidates spend large sums of money on ads and other attempts to control the media narrative. Many countries around the globe strictly limit not only how much candidates can spend on elections but also how much political advertising they can buy. This notwithstanding, political ads play an important role for candidates as an easy way to reach voters.
12.4 The Internet and Social Media
Social media is ubiquitous. The lowered barriers for entry allow anyone to be a producer of content and purveyor of information, and they also allow people to discuss and coordinate their actions around politics. Citizens in countries with limited political freedom have found the Internet and social media to be powerful and important tools that circumvent both authoritarian regimes and tightly controlled traditional media institutions. The Internet and social media are not without their problems, however. Algorithms play a large part in determining what people see, but individuals still have a significant amount of power to determine what information they seek out, which can create echo chambers and potentially result in political polarization. Misinformation also travels quickly on social media, hampering these platforms’ true utility as a reliable source of information.
12.5 Declining Global Trust in the Media
Maintaining trust in the media is important because people need to rely on the media in order to make informed decisions as citizens. Without the media, citizens fall prey to misinformation or no information, and falling levels of trust signify a troubled relationship. One reason for this falling trust is increasing political polarization. Polarization leads to lower levels of trust, which lead to worse polarization. What can governments and the media do to address this phenomenon? Recommendations from nongovernmental organizations such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe include official corrections and increased representation in the media, measures to address media concentration, and tax incentives for smaller media companies.