Mass Media: How powerful are they?

by Ioanna Mpala,

Introduction

 Communication is the base of human existence. As people, we are social animals and we need any kind of communication.  Communication is the transmission of information, ideas, emotions, and thoughts. Since the last century, mass media has a very important role in our lives. Mass media spreads messages across countries and across the entire world.  The value, that each message carries, is altered depending on the socio-political and economic situations of the country that receives the message. The peak of mass media was in the 20th century and its success is undeniable. The development of technology had a massive impact on all fields of society and provoked rapid changes. Mass Media is the base of the contemporary world. We get informed rapidly from the media on a daily basis. At any time, we can find news, articles, and opinions about every subject that human existence may be interested in.

We are bombarded by vast amounts of information daily but much of this information can mislead us. People are based on media in order to make informed decisions about matters of importance. A domain that is very crucial for many reasons, that are going to be placed in the present article, is Politics. We live in a mediatized world that influences cultural production and identity formation, thus the character of political life has changed. In times of rapid political changes, the great power of the media is questionable.

What may be the role of media in these political changes? In this article, we examine the partisan media bias, how the ideas are constructed and how people are not really selecting by themselves. The present article supports the opinion that media is important to widespread information but sometimes may misdirect society. To prove the aforementioned argument, in this article, there will be mentioned, how media works in the pre-election period and its powerful role in political results.

Construction of Opinion & Power

 As individuals, we are getting influenced constantly. It’s common, due to the fact that we are social animals, to be formed by society and its objectification while at the same time, we also form the society by our individual actors based on our subjective reality. Subjective and objective realities are always connected. The theory of Berger and Luckmann about the social construction of reality (1989) helps us to understand better, how society works. (Sage,2019) At this point, it is important to add another theory that will help us substantiate our article. As the theory of symbols by Alfred Schultz’s correctly said,  everyday transcendent realities are established through symbols. As a form of signs, symbols are part of the pragmatic world and of daily communication. Everything begins with the symbols, they have high importance because of their use in human communication and they are linked in a complex content of reality. Words, as part of symbols, are powerful and according to Bourdieu, the power of words is “nothing other than the delated power of the spokesperson” (Bourdieu, 1991 a: 107). (SAGE,2019)

 The high importance of symbols and the power, that they possess,  has been proved. Power is present in any kind of communication and relation that we have. As social animals, we are also social products, formed in relation to power. Power structures are human products, which are perceived as objective reality. The communication, that we receive from the media, has a specific power, it creates our opinion.

According to the deliberative model, the legitimation process should pass through a public sphere that fosters considered public opinions. The deliberative model is the epistemic function of discourse and negotiation. The expected impact of deliberation on the formation of considered political opinion. (Habermas, 2006)

The media has general access to mass audiences, to the public sphere, with the power to select and shape the presentation of messages, words, symbols. They, also, help us to understand better the complexity of the world, by giving different meanings in pieces of information that are given to the audience. But the media has the ability to prime particular issues in the minds of the audience, for example, it can affect the political judgment of the audience. The agenda-setting theory by McCombs and Shaw began from the elections campaigns. Media has the power to determine the main issues of the day, indicate to the public what is “important”. However, the influence of public opinion is easier as the media is persuasive in focusing public attention on specific events, issues, and persons and in determining the importance people attach to public matters.  People tend to include or exclude from their cognitions what the media include or exclude from their content. (Mc Quail, 2009)

Also, the framing effect is important, the way that media are framing public issues and the way that the public reacts. (Mayer and Rozell, 2008). Broader perspectives, specific and clearer definition of issues “guide” the citizens. Mediated communication shapes the view of the citizens and constructs public opinion. Actors like politicians, lobbyists, entrepreneurs, and journalists, coming from the center of the media or from the background, they all influence the citizens. Through that, public opinion is constructed by political elites, too. It is useful to add one last theory, which emphasizes the powerful role that the media can have on shaping political outcomes, by supporting specific policies. The CNN effect by Piers Robinson is an image-based theory, that presents television news stories in which the depictions are often unilateral and misleading. Often driving the political process and determine the political outcome. The importance of the image on media is very high, as it can present the facts in its own way and even manipulate society. (Robinson, 2001). The last theory shows us the powerful role that media plays in shaping political outcomes.

Politics

Nowadays, the high importance of technology is indisputable, it helps the societies to create content at high speed that appears authoritative. The amount of information is overloaded, we can not sort out the reliable from the fabricated, and this is a consequence of the number of communication channels that exist. But there is a conflict between speed and accuracy.

So far, television has been the main medium of mass media. In recent years, after its privatization, television has become a medium for politicians. The power of the image has high importance to politicians, as it allows them to communicate in an intimate way with the citizens and shape public opinion. More channels, more advertising, more politics.

 People are exposed systematically in one partial opinion that tends to cultivate beliefs and values. Taking into consideration what Mills said, that individuals have universal dependence on media, which is based on their sense of identity and desires. Television news is an important key factor in influencing the electorate. The commercialization of the media market and the professionalization of politicians have changed the politics game overall. Often journalists prefer to focus on events sponsored by powerful and incumbent politicians. As a result, the political actors, who hold the power, are more prominently covered than the opposition. (Hopmann, Vreese, and Albaek, 2011)

 It is true that election coverage is strategic. The partisan is the dominant journalistic mode of this era. Of course, the impact of strategic news is not the same for all citizens. It depends on the individuals’ characteristics and on the attitude that they have towards politics. So, the relation is between individuals, politics, and democracy. It is apparent that the influence of the media on citizens with a profound level of cognitive skills and knowledge about politics is weaker. They hold persistent attitudes towards politics. In contrast, people with a low level of political awareness are easily influenced by political campaigns and their political judgment can be clouded by new incoming information. ( Schuck, Boomgaarden, and de Vreese, 2013). The media are trying to carve the political attitude of the audience and use the news as a tool to achieve it by utilizing strategic consideration and a specific style of presentation of politicians. The role of the media should be to educate the audience and lead it to the common good, not to propagate specific ideas, parties or politicians for their own individualistic interest. The media should be unbiased.

Changes in political communication

 The political communication has been transformed by liberalization, and by the diffusion of technology. In modern times, communicative action is the concept that many scientists and analysts are interested in because it is the driving force of politics as an expression of collective action. Communication is presented in this way, as an essential political condition for any political campaign.

 Media commercialization, for example, has altered the way in which social issues and politicians are presented in mass media. The channels of communication, where politicians can reach potential supporters, are more than enough. (Mayer and Rozell, 2008) Especially in periods of intense political contention, like the election period, the political affiliation of media is always manifested. In intense periods, parties and politicians are the main theme of the news. In this new era, social media has become a considerable advocate for political advertisement. Political parties can communicate with the public from every channel of possible communication. The media has moved on the center stage of the election, campaigning as it has a basic role in the daily practices of the government and of political parties. The role of media is not neutral at all. Even though the main function of the media in politics is to provide information to the audience, various media outlets prefer to present stories that are useful for their own self-interest. Television is still the most popular form of political information. The broadcast media has massive reach. The information that we get from television is not always complete, it presents one part of the story. In the last decade, the growth of the internet and of social media provided new avenues for politicians, campaigns and parties to get their information to the masses. (Taylor & Francis, 2019)

Broadcast and print media are primarily financed by advertising, so critical information is buried because of sponsors. It’s common, especially during the elections period, for media, to manufacture information with misleading coverage and to be shared widely by big selling tabloids, the fake news. Nowadays, social media contribute to the spreading of misinformation, as they are industry and they have main advertising benefits. The information that the citizens are exposed to, during the election campaign, is overwhelmingly produced by the “barons” of media.

Journalists adapt fake news and present it in through every channel of communication. Fake news has proliferated beyond the network and has been normalized by the mainstream media. This is why the role of “gatekeeping” is so important and information should be filtered before dissemination. The media in Greece, for example, never stop to be partisan and the journalists don’t hesitate to talk and support openly their political preferences. To this extent, journalism ethics are not applied. (Columbia Journalism Review, 2019)

 Media as a business is operating in a competitive economic marketplace. Public service broadcasting is less affected by forces of commercialization than commercial broadcasting. The media market is the driving force in election news coverage. “Gatekeeper” journalists have to select specific news when there is a wealth of news overwhelming the world. But media is a business, after all, although writers and editors may hold liberal opinions, the viewpoints of the medium can change if the publishers and the owners of the media benefit from conservative candidates. If journalists refuse, they can be replaced by writers and editors who will demonstrate such biases. The duty of the journalist is to be independent and serve society, to take a critical standpoint and say the whole truth. ( Hopmann,, de Vreese and Albaek, 2011).   

Another important aspect, that is critical to add here, is polling. Media outlets rely on their own abilities to construct, conduct, analyze and report survey research on public attitudes. Public opinion polling has high importance because it represents society. Media presents polling, especially during campaigns, to show the mass audience what is happening and what the predominant beliefs are. But polling may be biased by the media or by the sponsors, to lead the audience in the direction that they want. The control of the polling process is not always easy. Firms that accept the responsibility to conduct a survey for media, can control the topics of surveys and the questions and so the results. The use of public opinion polling can either, simply, report newsworthy information or it can create news for the benefit of both the news organization and the sponsor of the poll. The media can use a certain source of public opinion and present in as the main mindset, all that in order to influence the public towards adapting that certain opinion. We should always keep in mind that not all media sponsored polls are credible. ( Axford,  and Huggins,  2001)

Conclusion

To sum up, media has an autonomous political role, and it is vital because is responsible for informing people. Media, actually, is the main channel of communication between politicians and citizens, especially in election periods. The behavior of media illustrates the unity and clarity of the government and the level of consensus in the society as it has a key role in political formulation. ( Axford,  and Huggins,  2001) The role of media should be active; to promote democracy and defend the general interest as it formulates the electorate and influence elected representatives.

We should always keep in mind the importance of public opinion because it shows how a nation’s population collectively views vital policy issues and evaluates political leaders. A healthy civil society can exist, only if the public is well informed with accurate information. As a society, we need to develop our critical thinking skills, like news literacy, to be able to analyze the quality of the evidence and the reliability of the sources. Political awareness is a key factor, as it can reduce the impact that media effects have.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

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Hopmann, D., Vreese, C. and Albaek, E. (2011). Incumbency bonus in election news coverage explained. p.267.

 

Mayer, J. and Rozell, M. (2008). Media power, media politics. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publ., pp.205-208.

 

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Robinson, P. (2001). Theorizing the Influence of Media on World Politics. European Journal of Communication.

 

Mc Quail, D. (2009). Mass communication theory. 6th ed. London: Sage, pp.1118-1230.

 

Schuck, A., Boomgaarden, H. and de Vreese, C. (2013). Cynics All Around? The Impact of Election News on Political Cynicism in Comparative Perspective. Journal of Communication, 63(2), pp.287-290.

 

Watts, D. (2019). “Don’t blame the election on fake news. Blame it on the media.” Columbia Journalism Review. Available here. [Accessed 23 Oct. 2019].

 

The Manifold (2019). “In Greece, the line between conservative journalism and political campaigns blurs.” Columbia Journalism Review. Available here. https://www.cjr.org/watchdog/greece-media-campaign.php [Accessed 23 Oct. 2019].

 

Dreher, J.. (2019). “The Social Construction of Power: Reflections Beyond Berger/Luckmann and Bourdieu”, SAGE Journals. Available here. [Accessed 23 Oct. 2019].

 

Druckman J., (2006). Media Matter: How Newspapers and Television News Cover Campaigns and Influence Voters. Pages 463-481.Available here. [Accessed 23 Oct. 2019].

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