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.