Media influence on Voting and policy marketing

Researchers have conducted numerous studies over the years to examine the extent to which the mass media affects the political process. While studies indicate that many voters get their information about upcoming elections and candidates from the media, research also indicate that the media may affect voter turnout as well. In addition, the media plays a tremendous role in the formation of public policy. Studies indicate that newspapers have a greater role in informing the electorate than do television news programs (Druckman 464).  Although voter turnout is also influenced by other factors, media projections continue to play a significant role in whether or not voters will go to the polls on Election Day (Crespin 1). Suggested solutions have been proposed to remedy the negative effect media projections tend to have on voter turnout; however, some of these solutions are criticized as potentially violating the First Amendment. Furthermore, media also has an important effect on policymaking because it serves as the primary conduit between those who wish to influence policy, and the policy-makers (Barker). In addition, the public receives much of its information about public policy through the media.

Many studies have been conducted to determine whether newspapers have a direct influence on elections. Surveys indicate that newspaper readers tend to know more about politics than do their counterparts who do not read newspapers. This finding is thought to be explained by the notion that newspapers generally offer qualitatively more and quantitatively better political coverage than one would find in television news. However, this notion has continually been met with research challenges. For example, in a well-known study on press coverage of Reagan, only small differences in the amount of policy coverage in newspapers and on television news shows were found. On the other hand, some scholars believe that though viewers may watch an increasing amount of television news, the increased viewing will not result in increased political knowledge. Others suggest that television news provides some political knowledge, but the knowledge conveyed is less than one would find in newspapers. Nevertheless, researchers conclude that regardless how small the differences in political coverage may be, the quantity, as well as the quality of newspaper coverage and readers’ ability to process the information will allow the reader to learn more about political issues the more he reads the newspaper (Druckman 464). It is important to note that the newspaper is one of the older mediums through when political knowledge was passed. Many people still rely on newspapers as their way remaining aware of domestic and international politics. Because the newspaper is so old, many people trust newspaper content much more than they would trust television news. The higher degree of trust can also be attributed to the lesser emphasis newspapers place on entertainment value when compared to television news networks.

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Another important effect the media has on the political process is its influence on voter turnout on Election Day. Throughout the day when elections are held, news networks display maps and charts which use exit polling to reflect direction in which the election is heading. Often times, television stations will use the results of the exit polls to call an election before the state polls have closed. In 1980, broadcasters declared that Ronald Reagan had won the election at approximately 8:15 pm EST. Although the polls in states along East Coast had already closed, polls in the West were open, and still had hours remaining before they would close. Early projections, like the one in the case of Reagan, sometimes rob late voters of the feeling of civic contribution. They are under the belief that the election has already been decided, and that their votes are no longer significant, therefore, casting the vote later in the day would be futile. Not only do early projections by the media have the effect of discouraging individual voters from casting ballots late on Election Day, but if enough voters are deterred by the projections, this effect could eliminate a group of voters which may have otherwise turned out to be critical to the outcome of the election if their ballots had been cast. It is important to note that while most studies involving the effect the media has on voter turnout fail to consider other factors, discouraged voter turnout may result from other factors as well. Voter-specific variables such as age, race, income, and education factor into voter turnout as well. For example, voters who have obtained at least a high school diploma are more likely to vote on Election Day. Voters who have a higher income are also more likely to participate in elections. Similarly, election-specific variables such as the bandwagon effect (in which voters do not initially intend to vote, but they cast their ballots for the leader at the last minute) and the underdog effect (which causes voters to decide at the last minute to vote for the candidate who is losing the election) also have significant effects on voter turnout. Crespin and Vander Wielen state that most prior studies on media projections and voter turnout omit voter-specific variables and election-specific variables and are consequently not as accurate as they could be (Crespin 5-9).

One approach to solving the problem caused by early projections is expressed in the call for Congress to prohibit the media from broadcasting the projections. This proposed solution, however, is extremely unlikely because election projections are considered to be protected under the free speech clause of the First Amendment. Although Congress likely has a compelling interest in preventing the media from interfering with election results by broadcasting their projections, the counterargument is that election projections should not be considered as an interference if they are understood by the public as mere projections which are not necessarily based on the actual ballots that are cast. If, however, voters are actually being misled to think that projections actually indicate that a candidate has officially won the election, Congress may require that broadcasting companies include disclosures along with their projections. Other proposed solutions include a Congressional restriction on exit polling, which would make it more difficult for media broadcasters to gain the information that is necessary for their projections, and banning media presence at the ballot count. These solutions are also challengeable on the grounds of constitutionality (Cohen 1-5).

One of the most important media roles in politics is its influence on policymaking. Viewers learn about political issues by reading newspapers, watching television, and reading news from the internet. The media’s influence if far-reaching, as it affects foreign and domestic policy. Ways in which the media can influence domestic policymaking are by filtering issues and forming relationships with the policy-makers themselves (Barker).

The media filters issues by determining which issues will be covered and which sources will be used, or by setting the policy agenda. For this reason, policy debates are usually confined to current issues which are set as topics by the major political parties. Information conveyed by the media is often concise. This is especially true of television news, which frequently uses sound bites to attract the attention of viewers and convey political messages. For this reason, outsider groups may find it difficult to voice their views in the media. These groups attempt to use the media to gain recognition as trusted policy actors, but they must often times use other resources due to the media’s reliance on long established sources for content.

In the past, it was believed that the media influenced policy by operating separately from policy actors and conducting investigations. The investigations would in return prompt the organization of citizens to create pressure on the government, which would eventually lead to political change. This model is referred to as the Mobilization Model. More recent studies examined the relationship between the media and policy actors. It was discovered that political change often occurs without regard to how the public reacts to investigative journalism. A study of the relationship between the media and political actors revealed that prepublication collaboration between the parties may be the actual cause of political change in some cases. In cases in which a politician had prior knowledge of negative press, he could use the negative press as an opportunity to promote new policy. In other words, politicians who were actually causing problems were learning about investigations before they were broadcast to the public. Once the politicians had knowledge of the investigation, they would propose a new policy and ensure that they would be portrayed as part of the solution for the problem which they had originally created. This style of journalism in which journalists and politicians collaborate is known as “coalition journalism.” Both parties benefit from this type of journalism because journalists obtain credentialed information and recognition for providing important stories. Politicians, on the other hand, benefit by obtaining publicity for their agendas. Recent trends indicate that the adversarial style of journalism, in which policy-makers and journalists are not working together, is being replaced by coalition journalism. Investigative journalism is becoming less visible to the public, and broadcasters are spending less time on producing long-term investigations that follow the policymaking process more closely. As a result, investigative journalism does not have the same degree of effect in bringing public awareness to policy issues as it has had in the past.

Media corporations, like traditional policy actors, may also set policy agendas. As the amount of attention the policy receives decreases over time, the public will have less influence on the policy outcome, and it will be left in the hands of the politicians. As coalition journalism increases, the public has less and less influence on policy outcomes and the outcomes are increasingly left to the influence of the media and policy actors. Furthermore, the media may manipulate policy outcomes by convincing the public to take a certain position on an issue, thereby pressuring politicians to act in favor of the outcome that is desired by the public, although the push to support position actually comes from the media (Barker). This continuing trend toward the media and policy actors working together to bring political issues to the forefront of public interest diminishes the public’s interest in having an independent body inform them about political issues and investigate policy actors.

Studies also indicate that the media has a role in shaping foreign policy. The process by which the media influences foreign policy is commonly referred to as the CNN effect. This effect occurs when global news networks determine political processes by selectively covering certain issues. An example of the power global news networks have in promoting foreign policy is evident in the case of U.S. intervention in Somalia. Before the media began to broadcast the case for humanitarian intervention, the U.S. government was trying to raise awareness for the issue through press releases. The press releases were ineffective, however, because the media paid little attention to them. Once the media heard through and information leak that the U.S. government was planning to send troops to assist with a UN intervention in Somalia, broadcasters immediately began to call the intervention. The media began to frame their reporting to support the president’s position, and they only highlighted the positive aspects of intervening. Furthermore, media coverage showed empathy for the people of Somalia. Despite the fact that the government has decided to intervene long before the issue received media coverage, the end result made it appear that the government had decided on the humanitarian intervention as a result of public outcry (Barker).

Another example of the strong effect of the media is evident in the U.S. intervention in Bosnia. Prior to Clinton’s inauguration, Bush (senior) has established that U.S. policy would focus on Somalia and the Gulf states, and that the U.S. would not be involved in the developments in Yugoslavia. However, during the Clinton presidential campaign, Clinton expressed greater interest in involvement with the Bosnian conflict. At the start of Clinton’s first term, the media had already begun to concentrate its coverage on the Balkans, and the media had already begun to address the issue of involvement in the Balkan war. Although the Clinton administration had begun to express uncertainty about the Balkans, the media increased public pressure to address the issue by focusing its content on the region (Barker).

Still other researchers claim that the media serves to stimulate political transparency. Otherwise stated, the media encourages openness and democratic accountability in the political process, thereby strengthening the connection between government and the people. Political transparency can be divided into three classifications. The first type is informational transparency, which is knowledge about government actors, government decisions, and government information. Informational transparency can be furthered by requiring disclosure of reasons for government actions and information the government has collected. The second type of transparency is participatory transparency, which is the ability to participate in political decisions either through fair representation or direct participation. The third type of transparency is accountability transparency, which is the ability to hold government actors accountable when they break the law or do something that affects the interests of the public. Mass media can enhance all three types of transparency by helping people understand government, participate in the political process, and hold government actors accountable (Balkin). Although political transparency is often assisted by the media, the media can also be used to decrease political transparency when policy actors and media companies shape and influence the information the public receives from media outlets.

 

The dominant medium of political communication is television. This can potentially be dangerous for the political process because entertainment is greatly valued in this medium. Because entertainment is so greatly valued, coverage of politics, law, and related events are pressured to conform to the standards of “good television,” which means that the coverage must primarily grab the viewer’s attention. Television coverage tends to focus less on substantive policy issues and more on the means by which political advantage and viability are secured. Coverage that focuses on the celebrity of political participants and the sporting element of politics is greatly encouraged (Balkin). As previously discussed, the great emphasis television broadcasters place on entertainment value leads many people to believe that television news is a less reliable medium. Often times, stories are sensationalized, flashy graphics are added, and sound bites are generated. Television news networks often place less value on providing a large variety of through information, while they focus more on gaining the attention of potential viewers.

Media events are also ways by which political transparency is manipulated. Politicians stage events, such as press conferences and political rallies to be covered by the media. Some media events are designed to look governmental, as they show leaders engaged in carrying out the business of governing. Others are designed to show candid, personal moments of the politician’s life. These may include coverage of the candidate interacting with his family, or other moments of intimacy. While the purpose of media events is to aid in achieving the goal of transparency by encouraging the public to watch and witness effective governance and candor, staged media events frustrate this objective. Instead of offering the viewers candor and a look into effective governance, media events often offer a view of a constructed political image and showmanship (Balkin).

In general, ways in which the media influences voting are by affecting voter turnout through early election projections and by informing voters about upcoming elections and candidates. It is important to note that while media projections have an important effect on voter turnout, other voter-specific and election-specific determinants factor into whether or not certain voters will report to the polls. While some studies indicate that newspapers provide more political content—both qualitatively and quantitatively—other studies disagree with this finding. Nevertheless, most studies agree that the degree to which newspaper and television news programs provide viewers and readers with political knowledge is significant. International news networks have a dramatic effect on foreign policy in the U.S., as illustrated by the case of the humanitarian intervention in Somalia. Once the larger news networks like CNN focus on an issue, the increased media focus usually results in increased public awareness and sometimes serves to rally citizens in favor taking a certain stance. The media also has an influence on policymaking because it in many cases serves as a vehicle by which policy actors and members of the mass media work together to present policy issues to the public. At one point, the media and policy actors were adversarial, and journalists brought public attention to issues through investigative journalism. Now, there is a continuing trend toward a more symbiotic relationship between the media and policy actors. The media also has an influence on policymaking by simulating transparency. Through various media outlets, constituents are able to become informed about politics, participate in political processes, and hold politicians accountable for their actions. Although the media serves to enhance transparency in some cases, transparency may be inhibited by practices, such as staging media events which merely portray the image that politicians want the public to see. This practice is in direct opposition to the notion of using the media to give the public a view of governance and the political character of the leaders they elect.
Works Cited

Balkin, J. “How Mass Media Simulate Political Transparency.” Retrieved March 29,

2007, from http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/jbalkin/articles/media01.htm.

 

Barker, M. “Manufacturing policies: the media’s role in the policy making

Process.” Retrieved March 29, 2007, from

http://live-wirez.gu.edu.au/jea.papers/Barker.doc.

 

Cohen, H. “Election Projections: First Amendment Issues.” CRS Report for Congress.

23 January 2001.

 

Crespin, M; Vander Wielen, R. “The Influence of Media Projections on Voter Turnout In Presidential

Elections From 1980-2000.” Retrieved March 29, 2007, from

http://www.msu.edu/~pipc/mediaturnout(revised).pdf.

 

Druckman, J. “Media Matters: How Newspapers and Television News Cover Campaigns

And Influence Voters.” Political Communication, vol. 21:463-481. Taylor &

Francis 2005, Inc.

 

 

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