Do Mass Media Influence the Political Behavior of Citizens
Outside of the academic environment, a harsh and seemingly ever-growing debate has appeared, concerning how mass media distorts the political agenda. Few would argue with the notion that the institutions of the mass media are important to contemporary politics. In the transition to liberal democratic politics in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe the media was a key battleground. In the West, elections increasingly focus around television, with the emphasis on spin and marketing. Democratic politics places emphasis on the mass media as a site for democratic demand and the formation of “public opinion”. The media are seen to empower citizens, and subject government to restraint and redress. Yet the media are not just neutral observers but are political actors themselves. The interaction of mass communication and political actors — politicians, interest groups, strategists, and others who play important roles — in the political process is apparent. Under this framework, the American political arena can be characterized as a dynamic environment in which communication, particularly journalism in all its forms, substantially influences and is influenced by it.
According to the theory of democracy, people rule. The pluralism of different political parties provides the people with “alternatives,” and if and when one party loses their confidence, they can support another. The democratic principle of “government of the people, by the people, and for the people” would be nice if it were all so simple. But in a medium-to-large modern state things are not quite like that. Today, several elements contribute to the shaping of the public’s political discourse, including the goals and success of public relations and advertising strategies used by politically engaged individuals and the rising influence of new media technologies such as the Internet.
A naive assumption of liberal democracy is that citizens have adequate knowledge of political events. But how do citizens acquire the information and knowledge necessary for them to use their votes other than by blind guesswork? They cannot possibly witness everything that is happening on the national scene, still less at the level of world events. The vast majority are not students of politics. They don’t really know what is happening, and even if they did they would need guidance as to how to interpret what they knew. Since the early twentieth century this has been fulfilled through the mass media. Few today in United States can say that they do not have access to at least one form of the mass media, yet political knowledge is remarkably low. Although political information is available through the proliferation of mass media, different critics support that events are shaped and packaged, frames are constructed by politicians and news casters, and ownership influences between political actors and the media provide important short hand cues to how to interpret and understand the news.
One must not forget another interesting fact about the media. Their political influence extends far beyond newspaper reports and articles of a direct political nature, or television programs connected with current affairs that bear upon politics. In a much more subtle way, they can influence people’s thought patterns by other means, like “goodwill” stories, pages dealing with entertainment and popular culture, movies, TV “soaps”, “educational” programs. All these types of information form human values, concepts of good and evil, right and wrong, sense and nonsense, what is “fashionable” and “unfashionable,” and what is “acceptable” and “unacceptable”. These human value systems, in turn, shape people’s attitude to political issues, influence how they vote and therefore determine who holds political power.