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Influence Of Mass Communication On Public Opinion Media Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Media
Wordcount: 4284 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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When taking an overall look at communication studies, one would be hard pressed to dismiss the influence that mainstream media has had on the financial, ideological, and cultural aspects of our country. How the public receives its information about current events is critical to their view and understanding of our society and of each other. How the media shapes news stories has a direct impact on the views and opinions of the people. Through the shaping of opinion the media, inadvertently, has the power to shape government policy and what legislation is passed into law. This can have a broad range of consequences upon the American people should the influence be misleading or possibly even corrupt. The power and influence that is inherent in mass media and news journalism should not be considered lightly.

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Scholars of the critical tradition of media theory not only realize the importance of recognizing the role that the media plays in shaping public opinion, but they attempt to measure the direct impact that it has on our lives. Media influence has the power to heighten cultural awareness, or suppress it; wage wars, or pacify them; dictate policies, or overturn them; it even has the power to give freedom, or take it away. Dennis McQuail discusses the possible impacts of the media on society in his text Mass Communication Theory: An Introduction. McQuail (1983) states that:

The central issue has to do with whether the media act[s] as a centralizing and unifying force or a decentralizing and fragmenting one. Beyond that, the question arises as to whether the given tendency has negative or positive aspects. Thus ‘unifying’ can denote nation-building, modernization, progress and political strength and a capacity for mobilization for common ends. Or it can be associated with homogenization, manipulation and suppression. (p. 217)

There is little doubt that a leader or dictator that has control of the media in his country has direct control over what the people see, and to a certain degree, how they will act. Effectively, the media is the bridge between the government and the people it governs. How that bridge is used, is a great factor in determining the direction the people will take on almost any issue that pertains to society.

Older scholars of media theory felt that it wasn’t the content of the media coverage that was the influential factor, the medium itself held the most influence. The more formalized theories of Walter Ong and Marshall Mcluhan focus their attention of media theory upon the form of media, rather than its content. In Digital Media Revisited, Liestol, Morrison, and Rasmussen (2003) summarized Mcluhan’s theory that “the medium was the message…[and] that formal properties of media determined their use and significance” (p. 18). They agree with Mcluhan that some influence of the media does lie within the way in which it is transmitted, but they are not sold on this idea exclusively. In fact, they claim that many theorists find many problems in Mcluhan’s theory. Liestol, Morrison, and Rasmussen feel that there is value in the idea that the more interactive the medium, the more sway it will have upon public opinion, but they do not rely on it exclusively. Walter Ong is also discussed briefly in the Digital Media Revisited. It states that Ong “occupied a similar position [to Mcluhan] by suggesting that writing restructures consciousness” (Liestol, Morrison, and Rasmussen, 2003, p. 18). While Ong may have agreed with Mcluhan in regards to media theory, Digital Media Revisited claims that the study of media theory involves more than the study of the medium itself, content is a major factor as well.

The study of media theory touches all forms and traditions of communication. Looking at the media with an eye toward what it represents symbolically and who it impacts is typically regarded as a study in “Critical Media Theory”. Critical analysis of media coverage is as old as the medium itself. Many scholars see the media as a starting point for public opinion. In fact, some suggest that the media, itself, is the creator of public opinion altogether. Other scholars, such as Noelle-Neumann, see that there is a “spiral of silence” (Littlejohn and Foss, 2005, p. 303) in regards to public opinion and how it is shaped or created. Noelle-Neumann suggests that “the spiral of silence occurs when individuals who perceive that their opinions are popular express them, whereas those who do not think their opinions are popular remain quiet” (Littlejohn and Foss, 2005, p. 303). This theory seems to suggest that both the media and the public itself is responsible for the shaping of public opinion. One can also conclude from her study that the opinions the media reinforces to the public may very well become the popular opinion of the public, possibly drowning out or silencing the voices of opposing groups. Noelle-Neumann suggests that the bandwagon effect is in full force when it comes to public opinion.

The impact of the mass media can be found just about everywhere, from the decision making process of the products we choose to purchase and use, to the selection of government officials and court judges. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the campaigns of political candidates themselves. Political nominees put together a task-force of people to handle press events and campaign appearances of candidates, but also to attempt to shape the coverage of their campaign in the mainstream media. In New Media and American Politics, Richard Davis and Diane Owen (1998) discuss the struggle of political campaigns to control the media. While media forms and political campaigns are ever changing to suit technological advances, “each election contest can be viewed as a struggle between journalists and candidates to be the masters of the medium” (p. 211). The outcome of an election can rest solely on how the media portrays the candidate and its campaign. Further, “with each campaign, new strategies are devised by journalists to manage candidates and by candidates to handle the media” (Davis and Owen, 1998, p. 211). From the view of a political campaign, controlling the media can be the key to victory. In fact, in The Public Relations Handbook, Allison Theaker (2001) suggested that the connections of political campaigns to media outlets can be measured according to how they control the stories being reported (p. 35). The ties to the media that political outfits have are extensive and considerable influential. How a campaign or administration “handles” the media directly effects how they are perceived by the public.

While the impact of traditional media sources such as broadcast news, newspaper reports, and radio broadcasts still has a great hold on public opinion. New types of media are paving the way for political candidates and campaigns to get their messages across. Candidates increasingly seek to get an exclusive and more personal audience with the public so that their message is more influential. Candidates increasingly seek spots on television talk shows, such as The O’Reilly Factor and Hardball with Chris Matthews. They seek out discussion on popular internet blogs and chat rooms. Many campaigns are also willing to get outside organizations to spread negative rumors and chatter about opposing candidates to the media and on the internet to sway public opinion in their favor. These newer types of outlets are considered the “New media” (David and Owen, 1998, p. 210). New media amounts for an ever increasing influence upon the public, one in which candidates have much more control over what is reported and how it is being reported. As recently as the latest presidential election, candidates used various types of new media outlets to get their messages across. It is widely discussed among professional journalists that Barack Obama received a substantial lead over John McCain in the 2008 presidential election due to his campaign’s usage of the internet and the possibilities it presented in gaining a wider audience. In 2008, we effectively saw an international campaign as the internet allowed much more widespread coverage of the election. The public had an open forum to listen to all different types of views and opinions about the candidates. Usage of the internet has quickly become the most effective means for the public to get varying opinion on just about any topic. As new media and traditional media techniques merge, it becomes increasingly more difficult for the public to discern fact about candidates from opinion.

Traditional media sources, such as local broadcast news and newspapers tend to have tighter rules in regards to the media they cover. These traditional sources make every attempt to eliminate bias and report events as factually and informatively as possible. However, staying true to this “professional ideal” (Bennett, 1997, p. 108) has become increasingly difficult as public opinion programs draw more viewers than traditional outlets. In the early days of broadcasting, the news department of most any network was typically considered a necessary financial loss as the focus was not on advertising revenue. As networks saw that news broadcasts could be profitable, the focus turned from strictly reporting plain facts, to reporting news with a touch of drama to increase viewership. W. Lance Bennett, 1997) suggests that “the news is pressed to become more commercial and more spiced with the drama and entertainment values that draw audiences. This is called the ‘economic reality’ of journalism” (Bennett, 1997, p. 109). Network news departments are under increasing pressure to compete with vying networks and secure higher ratings and advertising dollars. As the news outlets are continually pressured by networks to pull in ratings, the coverage of their stories becomes sensationalized. Bennett (1997) suggests that “as these twin gods of professionalism and economics become increasingly hard to reconcile, the news becomes transformed into a hybrid of information entertainment-‘infotainment’ by scholars and critics ” (p. 109). The rules to which reporters and journalists are generally guided are quickly becoming extinct.

Advertising has become a main source of revenue for media outlets and its influence upon the coverage of news and news related events is overwhelming. While politicians and government officials use various techniques to influence and control the media, advertisers do so as well. The article, “Power Shapes the News”, found in the Multinational Monitor, discusses just to what extent advertisers influence news coverage. The article points to an example from 2001 in which CNN’s general manager instructed staffers that the opening and closing of the NASDAQ stock exchange was to be covered on a daily basis (2002, p. 4). The reason for this was because “the NASDAQ is a major CNN advertiser, and CNN chair Walter Isaacson and head of ad sales Larry Goodman had an upcoming meeting with NASDAQ representatives” (Power Shapes, 2002, p. 4). Because NASDAQ was a major advertiser and source of funds for CNN, management felt obligated to routinely cover them in the news.

Advertisers themselves are also sometimes used in order to influence media coverage. Another example of how advertising can affect media coverage was during the 2004 presidential election. In this instance, a liberal coalition petitioned Sinclair to have negative political coverage of John Kerry taken off the air by threatening to picket the networks advertisers. The article, “Staples Removes Ads From Network Owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group”, found in the January 5, 2005 edition of the Chicago Tribune, states that:

A coalition led by liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America launched a campaign charging Sinclair with harboring a conservative bias and encouraged members to complain to Sinclair’s advertisers, including Target Corp., McDonald’s Corp., Northfield-based Kraft Foods Inc. and Staples. Media Matters’ campaign targets “The Point,” a nightly commentary by Sinclair executive Mark Hyman during newscasts on most of Sinclair’s stations that often supports Republican policies. (Cook, 2005)

Media Matters for America effectively tried to use Sinclair’s advertising support as a wedge to get negative political coverage of their candidate removed from programming. Once news outlets capitulate to their advertisers or other outside groups, all bets are off as to what news coverage is biased and what coverage is not.

While increasing ratings and advertising dollars has become the main interest of many media outlets which then affects how news stories are reported, a bigger threat to professional journalism is corporate ownership. Smaller media outlets are routinely bought out by the larger conglomerates as they simply cannot compete in today’s “media market”. Newspapers and local news agencies have been continually bought up by major media outlets such as Time Warner, Fox News Corporation, and other big players. Effectively, these corporations own several different types of media in the same market which strengthens their grip on public opinion. Laura Peterson (2004), author of “The Moguls are the Medium” states that “fears over ownership still resonate for today’s media reformers, who see access to information suppressed by what media critic Ben Bagdikian calls the ‘Big Five’ media companies: Time Warner, Disney, News Corporation, Viacom, and Bertelsmann” (p. 86). These conglomerates have the heaviest influence on what is seen on television and read in newspapers as they have swallowed up the media market as a whole. These organizations effectively dictate what is issued through their media channels to the public. Peterson (2004) goes on to state that “the media barons of the 19th century wielded political power by controlling the means of transmitting information-and that’s about it. Today’s media behemoths control the distribution and content for global news operations their predecessors could never have imagined (p. 86). The more media outlets that a single entity owns, the more power and influence that they have over public opinion.

Many critics feel that corporate ownership of the media has a direct impact on what information is reported to the public and what is not. They feel that corporate ownership stifles competition in the industry and keeps upstarts from being created. Ted Turner, founder of CNN, is an extensive critic of the monopolistic practices of the major media outlets and from experience, has found that the government tends to support the “big business” ideology of mass media. In “My Beef With Big Media: How Government Protects Big Media and Shuts Out Upstarts Like Me”, Turner (2005) suggested that:

Today, media companies are more concentrated than at any time over the past 40 years, thanks to a continual loosening of ownership rules by Washington. The media giants now own not only broadcast networks and local stations; they also own the cable companies that pipe in the signals of their competitors and the studios that produce most of the programming. (p. 224).

Similar to the stifling of innovation in other industries run by only a few major players, like the car industry, innovation and competition is stifled to the detriment of the consumer. In this case, independent media outlets, like those found on the UHF bandwidth in the 70’s and 80’s, have been completely squeezed out of the market place. Independent networks simply cannot compete with the big behemoths. When only a few entities own all of the major media outlets, variety of reporting and opinion suffers.

When looking at the antitrust laws that prohibit the monopolistic practices of the media industry, many feel that any type of continued deregulation, such as the opinion of the FCC over the last 10 years, would be harmful. Monopolistic behavior in any industry would be subversive to the public’s interest, in the media industry however, scholars feel that the public’s interest is completely dismissed or unachievable according to current laws by the FCC. In his article, “Antitrust Law as Mass Media Regulation: Can Merger Standards Protect the Public Interest?”, Howard Shelanski (2006) has concluded that the FCC’s antitrust laws “face serious obstacles to protecting even the economic, efficiency-oriented public interest objectives that are much closer to [their] core purpose” (p. 371). Like the deregulation of the stock markets and the financial sector in the last decade, public interests have been sidestepped in lieu of government and corporate motives.

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Other critics feel that corporate ownership is not really the main issue when it comes to bias in the media. While owners may feel the need to use the resources they have available to them to influence public opinion in a way that benefits them, critics argue that the profit motive of the industry outweighs an organizations political ambitions. Daniel Sutter (2001) has the opinion that “most close observers of the media report a growing emphasis on the bottom line. And surveys of journalists report a perceived increase in emphasis on profit margins by management” (p. 438). News is business, and the bottom line revolves around the creation of profit and revenue. Newspapers must have readers in order to stay in business. Likewise, television networks must have viewers and advertising revenue to stay competitive with other networks. Ultimately, many scholars believe that the capitalist nature of news organizations will keep media outlets in check. In other words, the public will not digest what it does not like.

While major media corporations can influence the opinion that is presented through their programming, some scholars feel that this influence is minimal. They argue that the internet and other new forms of media create a considerable amount of leverage against the commercial interests of major media outlets. In “Patterns and Theories of Media Ownership”, David Perry (2002) suggests that “the Internet may help counter present tendencies toward concentration. It provides a channel for a virtually unlimited number of journalists” (p. 99). Perry is suggesting that the internet is consistently used to keep a check on the mainstream media as bloggers and website owners verify that news coverage is accurate. Internet blogging has become such an important influence on public opinion that it has taken much power away from traditional media outlets to control public discourse. Traditional outlets are consistently fact checked as to their accuracy and the open nature of the internet allows for these errors to be brought to the attention of the public in a relatively short amount of time. The article, “Who Speaks for the People? The President, the Press, and Public Opinion in the United States” , suggests that:

The conventional wisdom that used to be propagated by the mainstream media has come under increasing challenge from alternate political voices and differing constructions of social knowledge as a result of the burgeoning number of political Web sites, blogs, and Internet discussion forums. The history of the 2008 electoral campaign is again suggestive of how the mainstream media’s agenda setting and news framing in their news coverage and political commentary appear to have become less determinative of public conversations and voters’ commitments. (Sparrow, 2008)

Journalists and reporters are kept on their toes in regards to accuracy. The internet has opened up the public view to experts in many fields that may not have a voice any other way. At the very least, their fact checking forces mainstream journalists to do homework before presenting questionable reporting.

While many mainstream media outlets do influence political discussion and opinion, the mainstream media can also have a strong influence upon our cultural understanding as a whole. The spread of oppressive ideologies and the suppression of minorities through communication is an issue that is at the heart of many scholars work in the field of media theory. In McQuail’s theory on mass communication, he considers the ability of the media to suppress, and even oppress, certain segments of the population (1983, p. 217). Many scholars continue his research in this aspect of media theory. In the anthology, Battleground: The Media, Robin Anderson and Jonathan Gray (2008) present numerous scholars views of the media on the topic of individual minority groups. The conclude form their study on media theory that:

the media perform a key ideological function in helping to define the ways a

society understands the world, and therefore have a significant political impact.

This works in large part through the development of stereotypes, which simplify

complex situations into routine ways of thinking that come to seem natural or

common sense. (p. 460)

The manner in which media outlets handle minority issues has a direct impact on the way the public sees the world. The way in which these issues are handled by the media can have a direct impact on the lives of minorities. News and media outlets can be indirectly responsible for perpetuating the discriminatory attitudes of the public.

Even today, many minority groups continually struggle to have their voices heard due to the conservative nature of media outlets. Gay and lesbian groups, women’s rights activists, African American organizations, and other minority groups fight to have their people represented in the mainstream media. When looking at coverage throughout the history of television, it is evident that minority groups have a stronger voice in the media, but they still have an uphill climb to have an equal voice.

While the study and application of media theory has opened the doors to a limitless amount of information on how the media affects the social aspects of public opinion and the effects that it has on governmental policy, one glaring weakness of the theory is that aside from polling and public surveying, there is not a concrete way of directly measuring the impact of the media on the public. Polls can and do provide trends, but as we have seen in the polling done during elections, the data is not always reliable. Media theory brings attention to the necessity of professionalism and objectivity in news reporting and the media in general, but it is much harder to pinpoint any one source as being wholly biased for any one particular reason. Even if a source could be isolated, measuring its impact is uncertain at best. It has also been suggested that the media can never truly be completely objective toward public opinion as its very nature is to effect opinion and to inform. However, any communication outlet that has such a large impact upon shared beliefs needs to be handled with sensitivity as to what ideologies or trends it may be setting or reinforcing.

While other communication theories, such as those relating to network theory and other systems oriented theories of the cybernetic tradition, can detail a more accurate picture of how the message is sent and received through connections of various channels, media theory attempts to measure the impact of those connections. Network theory allows for the analysis of how media organizations are connected and how they relate to one another. An example of this might be how the reporting of one news network is reflected upon competing networks. Network theory would allow for the analysis of connections among receivers of information. Network theory can assist in the measure of reliability of information and sources, but its main focus is not on the opinion of receivers like that of media theory in general.

When considering media theory, mainstream media has a substantial influence upon the ideological views of the population. The information that the public receives from the mass media about current events is critical to their view and understanding of our society. Media effects how we feel, how we understand, and how we live out our lives. It affects us on both a personal and a social level. Mass media shapes our views and opinions on just about everything. The study of media theory allows us the opportunity to more accurately understand these influences and helps us to take further control over our opinions and our outlook toward life. While some say that mass media only reinforces ideologies that are already held by the people, media theory allows us to examine how those ideologies may have entered into public opinion to begin with. At the very least, media theory can help us to identify and shed biases and prejudices that may be outdated and unwanted. At its best, media theory can help to shape a greater attitude toward humanity and make people much more aware of the world around them.


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