The media has immense power within the American democracy because just about all Americans get their news from the media rather than from other people or other sources. Media coverage shapes how Americans perceive the world and what they consider to be important. Voters and politicians alike must pay attention to the media. In the American political system, the media perform a number of functions important to the democratic process. The media reports the news, serves as an intermediary between the government and the people, helps determine which issues should be discussed, and keeps people actively involved in society and politics.
Perhaps the most important role of the media in politics is to report the news. As noted above, the vast majority of people must trust the media to provide them with information. Democracy requires that citizens be informed because they must be able to make educated voting choices.
For much of American history (until the early twentieth century), most news media were clearly and openly biased. Many newspapers, for example, were simply the voices of the political parties. This type of journalism is called partisan journalism. Other newspapers practiced yellow journalism, reporting shocking and sordid stories in order to attract readers and sell more papers. Objective reporting (also called descriptive reporting) did not appear until the early twentieth century. Newspaper publishers such as Adolph Ochs of the New York Times championed objective journalism and praised reporters for simply reporting the facts. Although most journalists today still practice objective journalism, more and more are beginning to analyze and interpret the material they present, a practice called interpretive reporting.
The media plays a common-carrier role by providing a line of communication between the government and the people. This communication goes both ways: The people learn about what the government is doing, and the government learns from the media what the public is thinking.
Journalists cannot report on an infinite number of stories, so they must choose which are the most newsworthy. By choosing which stories to present to the public, the news media helps determine the most important issues; in other words, the journalists set the agenda. Agenda-setting is crucial because it shapes which issues will be debated in public. Sometimes political scientists refer to agenda-setting as signaling because the media signals which stories are the most important when they decide what to report.
Critics allege that journalists often copy one another without doing their own investigating. When one newspaper runs a story, for example, many others will run similar stories soon afterward. Critics refer to this tendency as pack journalism.
The media sometimes acts as a public representative by holding government officials accountable on behalf of the people. Many people argue that the media is ill equipped to play this role because the media does not face the same type of accountability that politicians face. Serving as the representative of the public, moreover, could undermine the media’s objectivity because the act of representing the people might require reporters to take a position on an issue.
Example: The classic example of watchdog journalism, or activist reporting that attempts to hold government officials and institutions accountable for their actions, is the Watergate investigations of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The Washington Post reporters doggedly pursued allegations of campaign misdeeds and presidential crimes despite the fact that many Americans did not care. Journalists have exposed many other government scandals and misdeeds, including the Iran-Contra affair and the Lewinsky scandal.
Since the Watergate scandal brought down a president, investigative journalism has become more prestigious, and many reporters try to make a career around uncovering scandals. Some people complain, though, that all reporters want to be the new Woodward or Bernstein, interested only in breaking the next big story. These critics say that investigative journalism has become attack journalism: Journalists only care about bringing down a prominent person, not about the truth or the common good. Critics of attack journalism believe that President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 was the result of attack journalism and partisan politics. The rise of attack journalism has brought to light questions about the proper role of journalism.
In the United States, the media plays a big role in socializing people to American society, culture, and politics. Much of what young people and immigrants learn about American culture and politics comes from magazines, radio shows, and television. Many people worry that young people are exposed to too much violence and sex in the media, knowing the effect it will have on children’s views and development.
The media also provides a public forum for debates between political leaders. During campaigns, opposing candidates often broadcast advertisements and debate with each other on television. Many voters learn a great deal about the candidates and the issues by watching these ads and debates. Even during years without elections, though, the news media allows elected official to explain their actions via news stories and interviews.