Does the media have too much power in modern democratic societies?
In modern day, there have grown to be many sources of power but one that can be found in nearly every state in this world is the power of media. In the last century, humankind has witnessed a revolution in society’s means of communication and the birth of electronic media has changed the game of politics, in more ways than one.
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“The way people act is conditioned by what they think and feel, and that what is thought and felt is affected by the picture of the world conveyed by the mass media,” (Street, 2017) Manuel Castells (2009) shared his working hypothesis, stating that ‘the most fundamental form of power lies in the ability to shape a human mind’ and although this power may not be translated directly, we have yet seen anything influence thought the way media does.
Although one might question, is the power of media coming to a decline?
It is said that with the establishment of democracy comes the decline of the media. As of today, media distrust is at it’s all time high, credibility has been reaped and reputation tarnishing. The global audience is no longer as impressionable as they might have been in the past.
This essay will argue that the media does carry a lot of power within modern democratic societies but not to the point it is harmful to the public, as of current day, people are more aware and well educated, not quick to believe what is said by the media and are more cautious into not allowing themselves into being manipulated.
The media is often regarded as the fourth branch in the government and that without it, the government or any political party would not be able to act effectively. It was built with the original purpose to inform the public on current events and global affairs and ultimately, the media has the power of information. Retrospectively they get to decide what we see, what we hear and what we know and often times the information released to the public may be distorted or manipulated.
The most evident time to witness when and how power is exercised over a democracy is during the elections, the media’s busiest season. During elections, the government and political parties would use multiple media sources to introduce their candidates and persuade potential voters, who happen to be the most principal group the media seeks to influence. Democratic elections are impossible to conduct without the media, to have a fair election is furthermore than just having the freedom to vote but also about guaranteeing the people’s fundamental freedom of information, the crucial process where voters receive adequate information about the parties, policies, candidates and engage in public debate in order to make well-informed choices.
“This large-scale individualized collective action is often coordinated through digital media technologies, sometimes with political organizations playing an enabling role, and sometimes with crowds using layers of social media to coordinate action,” (Bennett, 2012) once upon a time the traditional role of the media during the elections was that of a watchdog, to protect the public against the deceitful, corrupt and incompetent but today, their role is conflicted with meeting the new demands of having to act as the middle man who brings candidates and voters together.
The media is no longer only asked to keep an eye out for wrongdoings, today they are expected to guide the voters’ decisions by screening the potential nominees for presidency and deciding which campaigns are worthy of attention (Graber, 2011).
But the question arises, why does the government care so much about what the people think if they’re in control anyways? It is simply because a democracy is by definition, a government by, for and of the people. Within a democracy, people are the main political force, examining their power through their ability to vote officials in and out of offices, policies and engage in debates about relevant issues. So in having the power to influence the thought of the people would actually mean the media has the power to affect or even decide the results of an election.
The media tells people what’s important, the more significant the information the more media coverage is placed and namely in a news story there are many angles that can be found within the story, which angle the media chooses to frame the story in is important. It then decides how the story is told, how it is painted and how significant the story will be to the public.
The media possesses the ability to provoke people or interest groups into mobilizing just by highlighting a specific issue. It could direct potential voters to turn against an electoral candidate just by releasing sensitive information that defames the candidate.
McCombs and Shaw (1972) recognised that the mass media carried a significant influence over what voters considered to be the major issues of a campaign. They were the first to suggest that the media sets the public agenda, in a manner where they aren’t out rightly telling you what to think but they may tell you what to think about.
This is better referred to as agenda-setting, the ability of the mass media to bring information to the attention of the public. The more attention the media places on an issue, the more the public will perceive the issue as important.
The first level of agenda-setting is the media telling us “what to think about” but the second level of agenda-setting is the media telling us “how to think about it”, this is done through framing. How a story is presented, or “framed” to the public greatly affects the way the public feels about it.
The September 11 attacks to some were an act of crime and to others an act of war, and in a paper by Edy and Meirick (2007), the effects of framing a news story was measured. Whether news sources used a ‘crime frame’ versus a ‘war frame’ to address the attack, influenced how the public identified the act and what they believed was the appropriate solution. It seemed that the consistent adoption of a war frame would be closely associated with support for military action in Afghanistan.
This is more or less, what the public would label as propaganda. The actual definition of propaganda is still up for debate but to cite the Cambridge dictionary, it is defined as, “information, ideas, opinions, or images, often only giving one part of an argument, that are broadcast, published, or in some other way spread with the intention of influencing people’s opinions.”
This often comes in to play when covering up conflict, negative advertising in elections or selling a story during wartime coverage. Propaganda is not always false, if it serves their purpose a propagandists would happily tell you the truth but what truly matters to them is to promote the message they are trying to sell. It is a powerful tool to rally people behind a cause but it comes with the costs of exaggeration and manipulation.
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In electoral campaigns, propaganda can be found when the media tells you only the good in a candidate, leaving out otherwise important information, which would cause the public to believe that the candidate can only do good things and during an election, a candidate’s ability to frame a story more successfully than his competitor is what would almost guarantee to put him in the lead, doing so by working to frame the story for their own gain or to minimise their own damages.
War and propaganda are inseparable, to garner the support of their people, statesmen will reinforce the negative image of the “enemy” and persuade their nation that the act they aim to do is for the greater interest of everyone. Often this means demonising the country being attacked and praising their own to convince themselves that the war is just, framing it to be just another story of “good guy” versus “bad guy.”
The media has shown how capable they are of exercising power over a democracy but in present day, it seems that the media’s audience is no longer responding the way they used to. Back in the 1970’s, it was noted that not only were the media favorably perceived but the level of public confidence was quite possibly higher than that of any other political institutions at the time. The people were satisfied with the overall performance of the news outlets and public criticism of the news media remained fairly limited but in the 1990’s, the media were no longer so favourably viewed. By examining the yearly General Social Survey (GSS), out of all institutions, the press had suffered the steepest decline (Gronke and Cook, 2007).
The decline came accompanied with criticism of governmental intervention, favouritism and political bias within the media.
The public started recognising the media was not reflecting reality but rather reproducing the views from their primary sources, and these tend to be high government officials. In order for the media to fully fulfill their roles, they would have to offer a great variety of opinions and viewpoints, encouraging citizens to choose among them but in allowing politicians to set the agenda they have narrowed the public discussion and ultimately diminishing democracy (Schudson, 2008).
Last year it was reported that, with the aim to help Donald Trump win the presidency, fabricated stories were spread online. The research and data company, Kantar, conducted a survey in the United States, Brazil, Britain and France and out of those 8,000 people surveyed, 58% said that as a result of becoming aware of fake news they had less trust in social media news stories about politics or elections and for mainstream media, the figure was 24% (Shirbon and King, 2018).
Fake news was damaging the credibility of the press and what the media is to fear is not that the public will believe those lies but rather when the public stops believing in anything at all the media says.
Transparency and trust were no longer associated with the media, as it is no longer seen as a neutral party whose purpose is to inform and edify – it is seen as a controlled weapon. Although the power of the media may not be very well respected, there seems little threat to the continuation of that power. The audience is definitely not as impressionable as it once was but it will be a long time till the people stop listening.
To concatenate my thoughts, the media does exercise a lot of power over a democratic society but not to the extent that it is harmful or damaging to the freedom of the people.
The media carries the power of information, as they are the number one source for current news and global affairs for the people and in today’s modern democracy, the media also has to play the role of the middleman who brings the government and it’s citizens together. The media also has the power to mobilize interest groups and provoke people, having the capabilities to incite negative reactions by releasing the kind of information needed to do so. One of the most powerful tools in media is setting the agenda, aimed to tell the people what to think about by putting more attention and emphasis on a specific issue, doing so will make the issue seem important and significant. Second to that, is the media’s ability to frame a story, deciding how a story should be perceived and received would ultimately influence how the people would feel about it.
Since the 1970’s, the media has lost a lot of respect and credibility yet the audience still remains. The public has grown to be more aware and educated now, in comparison to nearly five decades ago, so the media does have the power to inform but they do not have the overt power to decide what the people think anymore instead the public takes in what the media says and decides for themselves what they think and how they feel about it.
- Castells, M. (2009). Communication power. Oxford [u.a.]: Oxford University Press.
- STREET, J. (2017). MASS MEDIA, POLITICS AND DEMOCRACY. [S.l.]: PALGRAVE.
- Meyer, T. and Hinchman, L. (2010). Media democracy. Cambridge: Polity.
- Bennett, W. (2012). The Personalization of Politics. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 644(1), pp.20-39.
- Graber, D. (2011). Media power in politics. Washington, DC: CQ Press.
- McCombs, M. (2014). Setting the agenda. Cambridge: Polity.
- Edy, J. and Meirick, P. (2007). Wanted, Dead or Alive: Media Frames, Frame Adoption, and Support for the War in Afghanistan. Journal of Communication, 57(1), pp.119-141.
- C Gronke, P. and Cook, T. (2007). Disdaining the Media: The American Public’s Changing Attitudes Toward the News. Political Communication, 24(3), pp.259-281.
- Schudson, M. (2008). Why democracies need an unlovable press. Cambridge: Polity Press.
- Shirbon, E. and King, L. (2018). Fake news hurts trust in media, mainstream outlets fare better – poll. [online] U.K. Available at: //uk.reuters.com/article/uk-media-fakenews/fake-news-hurts-trust-in-media-mainstream-outlets-fare-better-poll-idUKKBN1D002O [Accessed 24 Feb. 2018].