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Media and Politics (8160512) / 8
Mass Media Affects

  • Briefly explain how media mirrors society, while actively influencing it.

  • Why the governments are constitutionally barred from limiting freedom of expression in democratic countries?

  • Briefly explain how the democratic role of the mass media has been challenged.

  • How the view of the extent of media’s influence has changed overtime?

  • Briefly explain the media’s agenda setting power.

  • Briefly explain whether the world of media is real and factual.

  • Briefly define the term selective perception.

  • What is your opinion? Is media powerful or weak?

The mass media industries are key institutions in modern societies. The mass media affect so many aspects the way people live. One can hardly think of another phenomenon that has shaped contemporary societies so thoroughly and durably, so deeply and permanently. 1

Some form of mass media touches nearly everybody every day – politically, economically, socially and culturally. Most people get their views and understandings of the world around them from the media. In could be said that, contemporary societies have inherited the wisdom and mistakes of the people who work in the mass media and the society regulates and consumes what the mass media produce. 2
With mass media so influential, we need to know as much as we can about how they (media) work. Consider:

  • Through the mass media, we learn almost everything we know about the world beyond our immediate environs. For example, what we know about the Afghanistan War or the Turkcell Football League is all through the mass media.

  • An informed and involved citizenry is possible in modern democracy only when the mass media work well.

  • People need mass media to express their ideas widely. Without mass media, your expression would be limited to people within earshot and to whom you write letters.

  • Powerful forces use the mass media to influence us with their ideologies and for their commercial purposes. The mass media are the main tools of propagandists, advertisers and other persuaders. 3

The mass media can affect the way you vote and the way you spend your money. They sometimes influence the way you eat, talk, work, study and relax. This is the impact of mass media on the society. 4

Different Effects
How do the media affect what we do?
In 1994, when a retired American football player, football broadcaster, and actor O. J. Simpson was arrested and charged with murder, calls to domestic violence hotlines in Los Angeles jumped 80 percent. On November 7, 1991, within minutes after basketball star Earvin "Magic" Johnson announced on TV that he had tested positive for the HIV virus, callers flooded the San Francisco AIDS Foundation hotline at more than 15 times the normal rate.
These two examples of media effects are subjective evidence that mass media influence us. But how much, scholars are divided. Generalizations about the media's effects are easy to make but difficult to prove. We do not fully understand at present what the media system is doing to individual behavior, much less to culture.
Recent studies proved that individuals are not puppets of the mass media. People choose what they read, and they generally filter the information and images to conform to their fixed thinking and personal values. People tend to hear what they want or expect to hear.
Today, scholars understand that the media has differ­ent effects on different types of people with differing results. The effects are not the same for everyone. Different people process messages differently -a phenomenon described as selective perception. This occurs because everyone brings many variables - family background, interests and education, for example -to each message.
The fact is that individuals read, hear and see the same things differently. This is not to say, "You can't believe a thing you read in the paper, you watch on the television." People with different personality characteristics interpreted the media differently.
Media Effects
While media can actively influence society, they also mirror it. Media both reflect and affect political, social and cultural institutions. The media affect our culture, our buying habits, and our policies. They are affected in turn by changes in our beliefs, tastes, interests and behavior. 5
The media not only react to audience life-styles but also contribute to the patterns by which people live their lives, like going to bed after the late news. In short, the media have effects on individuals and on society, but it is a two-way street. Society is a shaper of media content, but individuals make the ultimate decisions about subscribing, lis­tening and watching.
The reasons that while media can actively influence society, they also reflect it, scholars constantly try hard to explain the differences. For instance, when the American advertising industry suddenly started using patriotic themes to market products after the U.S. military moved into Afghanistan in 2001 and into Iraq in 2003, was the industry provoking the public, or were advertisers proudly reflecting genuine American sentiment or both? Did the spread of patriotic advertising themes silence those who disagreed with the government? What role did the mass media play in setting the political agenda?
If you were a scholar studying the mass media, how would you view these developments? These questions are examples of the difficulty scholars face when analyzing the media's political, social and cultural effects.
Public Politics
The media affect public politics in several ways. The concepts of the fourth estate and freedom of information have underpinned (supported, strengthened) the development of democratic media systems. The press and broadcasters are meant to act as neutral observers of the political process. In this way, the organization of the print and electronic media also plays a vital role in furnishing (equipping, training) individuals with their rights.
To safe­guard this democratic role of the mass media, in democratic societies, the governments are constitutionally barred (banned) from limiting freedom of expression. Besides, governments have remained watchful (cautious) in evolving (developing) policy to regulate the ownership of media institutions and guarantee the flow of information.
Throughout the years the democratic role of the mass media has been challenged (questioned). The concept of a free press has been replaced by a more critical analysis.
There is a general desire to impose constraints (restriction) on the media. This desire derives from a general belief in media’s power to condition (form) people’s beliefs, attitudes, opinions, and values, worldwide.
If we did not believe the press was a potent (effective) force in the world, we would nor think curbing (cutting) its freedom worth the price. At the same time, ironically, if we did not believe the press was potent, we would not think protecting its freedom worth the price.
Principally, the media have been seen to perpetuate (carry on, be responsible for) the values of the political, social and economic elites. Effect­ively, the mass media reinforce (support) the dominant ideology over the mass of citizens.
On the other hand, as Judith Lichtenberg has commented, a doubt exists as the media not only act as onlookers affecting political actors and the balance of power, but are political actors themselves. Although media organizations claim to be critical outsiders, they are simultaneously (at the same instant/time) political participants who shape the public's world view: “The press today -the mass media in particular- is one of the primary actors on the political scene, capable of making or breaking political careers and issues”.
The Power of Media
The precise nature and extent of the media’s influence have been matters of dispute for as the field of mass communications research has existed –nearly a century. The dominant view has swung (move back and forth) widely from the belief that the media heavy-handedly (imperiously) shape human attitudes, to great skepticism about their effects, and back again to a belief in their power.
In 1910s and 1920s, the prevailing (current, popular) belief was that the media have powerful effects on the human mind. This view exemplified (show) a more general picture of society as a mass society, divided between a large populace and a small elite that was able to manipulate it.
The appeal of this view was rooted partly in external events: the rise of the mass press, radio, and moving pictures, on one hand, and the ways mass political movements, especially fascist movements, used these new tools as powerful instruments of propaganda, on the other.

The early belief that the media are powerful was based less on scholarly research than on anecdotal (subjective, unreliable) observations and common sense.

In the 1930s, social scientists began to study mass communications in a more systematic way. And so began the era of the “minimal effects” thesis: the view that by themselves the media were virtually powerless to change minds, that it was rather the context of family, friends, colleagues, and co-workers that was primarily responsible for people’s opinions and attitudes.
Perhaps this conclusion was due in part to the absence of deep social conflict, and the existence of a kind consensus during the main period of the late 1940s and 1950s. In any case, the intuitively (instinctively, spontaneously) powerful view of that the media do shape consciousness began to make itself felt again in the 1960s. Several explanations for its resurgence can be offered. One is the upheavals (disorder, confusion) of the 1960s themselves.
The presence of striking political events allows the media to exert more effectively any power they have. A related development is increased political skepticism and hostility (what we might call Vietnam, Watergate syndrome) and the related erosion of political loyalties.

Finally, there is the rise of television. Television, of course, dates from late 1940s. But early television newscasts barely realized the visual component (part) of their medium; they much more resembled theater. It took long time before television’s possibilities were fully realized and exploited.

In any case, during the third and current period, the predominant view is that the mass media exert great power: not simply economic or political power but the power to shape how we think about the world.
Predictably, perhaps, the current view does not simply rehash (repeat) the first wave of belief in media effects. The original view held that the media influence attitudes: what we like or dislike, favor or reject.
The contemporary version is more complex. First of all, it tends to emphasize cognition (insight, reasoning) rather than effect. The media provide not only information but also the conceptual frameworks within which information and opinions are ordered (controlled, planned) –not just facts, but a worldview.
Obviously the power of the media increases relatively as other forces lose strength.

Media’s agenda setting power

A lot of people think the news media are powerful and set the agenda of public discussion. It’s true. The media coverage helps define the things people think about and worry about. This is called agenda-setting function of the media.
Agenda setting occurs as the media create awareness of issues through their coverage, which lends importance to those issues. As political scientist Bernard Cohen puts it, “the media don’t tell just what to think but rather what to think about”. In short, the mass media “may not be successful much of the time in telling the people what to think, but are stunningly (really) successful in telling its readers what to think about”.

This impact of the mass media - the ability to effect keen (sensitive) change among individuals, to structure their thinking - has been labeled the agenda setting functions of mass communication. This sweeping (comprehensive, wide) political power of media determines what people will talk and think about – an authority that in totalitarian nations is reserved for tyrants, priests, parties and mandarins.

By and large, news coverage does not call for people to take positions, but based on what they learn from coverage, people do take positions. The coverage doesn't cause change directly, but serves rather as a channel (means). The agenda-setting asserts (supports) the priorities of the media to some degree become the priorities of the public. What the press emphasizes (underlines) is in turn emphasized privately and publicly by the audiences of the press.
In this way, media coverage not only creates public awareness but it also can trigger (cause, start) dramatic shifts in opinion. An example was the fate of George Bush. In 1991 his approval ratings were at record highs. In 1992 the people thumped him out of office.
What happened?
During the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the media put almost everything else on the back burner to cover the war. The president's role in the coverage was as commander-in-chief. Primed by the coverage, the public gave Bush exceptionally fa­vorable ratings.
When the war ended, media coverage shifted to the economy, which was ailing (ill, poor), and the president was hardly portrayed heroically. His ratings plummeted (fall), and in 1992 he lost a re-election bid. In 1991 the media coverage created an environment that primed the public to see the president positively, and in 1992 the environment changed.
It was a classic exam­ple of priming, the process in which the media affect the standard that people use to evaluate political figures and issues. This is hardly to say that the media manipulate the environments in which people see political figures and issues. No one, for exam­ple, would argue that the Persian Gulf War should not have been covered. The fact, however, is that it was through the media that people were aware of the war and concluded the president was doing a great job.
This means media are a powerful linkage between the government and how people view their government.
Finally, political actors are forced to shape their messages and their images to the contours (profiles, forms) of the contemporary press, and this affects the public’s perceptions and the political process.
The media don't set agendas unilaterally (on behalf of one side, party, or faction only; not mutual), but they look to their audiences in deciding their priorities for coverage.
Media Selection of Issues
When the New York police wanted more subway patrols, their union public rela­tions person, Morty Martz, asked officers to call him with every subway crime. Martz passed the accounts, all of them, on to newspapers and television and radio stations. Martz could not have been more pleased with his media bombardment. News coverage of sub­way crime, he later boasted, increased several thousand percent, although there had been no significant change in the crime rate itself. Suddenly, for no reason other than dramatically stepped-up coverage, people were alarmed. Their personal agendas of what to think about - and worry about - had changed. The sudden new concern, which made it easier for the union to argue for more subway patrols, was an example of media agenda-setting at work.
Martz lured (provoked) news media decision-makers into putting subway crime higher on their lists of issues to be covered, and individuals moved it up on their lists of personal concerns.
The agenda-setting phenomenon has been recognized for a long time. Sociologist Robert Park, writing in the 1920s, articulated the theory in rejecting the once-popular notions that the media tell people what to think. As Park saw it, the media create awareness of issues more than they create knowledge or attitudes.
Professors Maxwell McCombs and Don Shaw, describing the agenda-setting phenomenon in 1972, put it as Bernard Cohen stated: The media do not tell people what to think but tell them what to think about.
Agenda-setting occurs at several levels:
Creating Awareness - Only if individuals are aware of an issue can they be concerned about it.
Concern about parents who kill their children becomes a major issue with media coverage of spectacular cases. In 1994 Susan Smith, a South Carolina woman, attracted wide attention with her horrific report that her sons, ages 3 and 1, had been kidnapped. The story darkened later when the woman confessed to driving the family car into the lake and drowning the boys herself.
Over several days of intense media attention, the nation learned not only the dark details of what hap­pened but also became better informed about a wide range of parental, family and legal issues that the coverage brought to the fore.
Establishing Priorities - People trust the news media to sort (arrange) through the events of the day and make order of them. Lead-off stories on a newscast or on “page one” are expected to be the most significant.
Not only does how a story is played affect people's agendas, but so do the time and space afforded it. Abundant graphics can push an item higher.
Perpetuating Issues - Continuing coverage lends importance to an issue. A single story on a bribed senator might soon be forgotten, but day-after-day follow-ups can fuel ethics reforms. Conversely, if gatekeepers are diverted to other stories, a hot issue can cool overnight - out of sight, out of mind.
Intramedia Agenda-Setting
Agenda-setting also is a phenomenon that affects media people, who constantly monitor one another. Reporters and editors many times are concerned more with how their fellows are handling a story than with what their audience wants. Sometimes the media concentrate on one topic, making it seems more important than it really is, until it becomes boring.
The media's agenda-setting role extends beyond news.
Over time, life-styles and values portrayed in the media can influence not just what people think about but what they do. Even so, individuals exercise a high degree of control in their personal agendas. The fact is that jour­nalists and other creators of media messages cannot automatically impose their agendas on individuals. If people are not interested, an issue won't become part of their agendas. For a long time, Bekir Coşkun campaigned with editorials against using animals in research, but animal rights did not become a pressing public issue.
Even with the extensive media coverage of the overseas wars, polls found that many Americans still were unmoved.
Also, media agendas are not decided in a vacuum. Dependent as they are on hav­ing mass audiences, the media take signals for their coverage from their audiences. Penny press editors in the 1830s looked over the shoulders of newspaper readers on the street to see what stories attracted them and then shaped their coverage accord­ingly.
Today, news organizations tap the public pulse through scientific sampling to deliver what people want. The mass media both exert leadership in agenda-setting and mirror the agendas of their audiences.
The World of Media

Our knowledge of political affairs is based on a tiny sample (model) of the real political world. This is the world of the media. That real world shrinks (gets smaller) as the news media decide what to cover and which aspects to transmit (express) in their reports, and as audiences decide to which news messages they will attend (focus, concentrate) .

Our political responses are made to that tiny imitation (reproduction) of the real world, which we have fabricated (made-up) and assembled (collected) almost wholly from mass media materials.

Media shapes our feelings of being for or against a political position or figure. The way the stories are made shapes our knowledge and beliefs about political objects.

Perhaps more than any other aspect of our environment, the political arena –all those issues and persons about whom we hold opinions and knowledge– is a second hand reality. Especially in national politics, we have little personal and direct contact. Our knowledge comes primarily from the mass media.

Civil Rights - The civil rights of American blacks were horribly ignored for the century following the Civil War, then came news coverage of a growing reform movement in the 1960s. That coverage, of marches and demonstrations by Martin Luther King Jr. and others, got the public thinking about racial injustice.

In 1964, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act that explicitly forbids discrimination in hotels and eateries, government aid and employment practices.

Without media coverage, the public agenda would not have included civil rights at a high enough level to have precipitated change as early as 1964.

Watergate - Had the Washington Post not doggedly (with determination) followed up on a break-in at the Democratic Party's national headquarters in 1972, the public would never have learned that people around the Republican president, Richard Nixon, were behind it. The Post set the national agenda.

Lewinsky - Nobody would have spent much time pondering whether President
Bill Clinton engaged in sexual indiscretions if David Brock, writing in the American
Spectator in 1993, had not reported allegations (claims, accusations) by Paula Jones. Nor would the issue have reached an excited level of public attention without Matt Drudge's 1997 report in his online Drudge Report about Monica Lewinsky.


  1. Thomas Meyer and Lew Hinchman, Media Democracy: How the Media Colonize Democracy, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2002) p. vii

  2. Shirley Biagi, Media Impact, (Canada: Wadswort / Thomson Learning,2003) p. 20

  3. John Vivian, Media of Mass Communication, (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1999), p. 5

  4. Biagi, 19

  5. Vivian, p. 446

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