The News Media: Communicating Political Images
I. Historical Development: From the Nation’s Founding to Today
A. The Objective-Journalism Era
B. The Rise of the “New” News
II. The Politics of News
A. The Signaling Function
1. A Common Version of Reality
2. Informing the Public, or Attracting an Audience?
B. The Common-Carrier Function
C. The Watchdog Function
D. The Partisan Function
1. Traditional Media: Mostly Neutral
2. Talk Shows: Mostly Conservative
3. The Internet: Mostly Liberal
III. Attention to News
A. The Shrinking Audience for News
B. Age and Attention to News
IV. Media and Public in the Internet Age
Having read the chapter, you should be able to do each of the following:
Trace the development of the news media from the establishment of the first American newspapers to the modern system of broadcast networks, chain papers, and news services.
Describe how the newspapers of the different historical periods have dealt with the issue of political partisanship.
Give reasons for the high degree of uniformity characterizing the news coverage offered by the American media and how the rise of new media has begun to erode some of that uniformity.
Define the four roles of the media (signaler, common-carrier, watchdog, and partisan); assess the importance of the various roles to a democratic society; and identify the roles most or least suitable for the press and the extent to which media officials perform the various roles.
Discuss the changing trends in the consumption of news, including differing consumption rates by age.
Explain what the Internet has contributed to the role of the media and how it may change news consumption or news delivery in the future.
In the nation’s first century, the press was allied closely with the political parties and helped the parties mobilize public opinion. Gradually, the press freed itself from this partisan relationship and developed a form of reporting, known as objective journalism, that emphasizes fair and accurate accounts of newsworthy developments. That model still governs the news reporting of the traditional media—daily newspapers and broadcasters—but does not hold for the newer media—radio talk shows, cable TV talk shows, and Internet blogs. Although some of them cover politics in the traditional way, many of them transmit news through a partisan lens.
The press performs four basic functions. First, in their signaling function, journalists communicate information to the public about breaking events and new developments. This information makes citizens aware of developments that impact their lives. However, because of the media’s need to attract an audience, breaking news stories often focus on developments, such as celebrity scandals, that have little to do with issues of politics and government. In a second function, that of watchdog, the press acts to protect the public by exposing deceitful, careless, or corrupt officials. Third, the press functions as a common carrier in that it provides political leaders with a channel for addressing the public. Increasingly, however, the news has centered nearly as much on the journalists themselves as the newsmakers they cover. Finally, the press functions as a partisan advocate. Although the traditional media perform this function to a degree, the newer media—the talk shows and blogs—specialize in it. Their influence has contributed to a rising level of political polarization in the United States.
The news audience has changed substantially in the past few decades. Daily newspapers and broadcast news have lost audience to cable television and the Internet. At the same time, the emergence of cable television and the Internet has made it easier for citizens to avoid news when using the media. Although some citizens today consume more news than was possible at an earlier time, other citizens—young adults in particular—consume less news than was typical at an earlier time. A consequence is that young adults are less informed politically, relative to both older adults and to earlier generations of young adults.
Focus and Main Points
The focus of this chapter is on the role of the media in politics. The chapter begins with a review of the news media’s historical development and the current trends in reporting. The author chronicles the switch from a partisan to an objective press, and examines issues of press freedom and conformity. In addition, the roles the news media perform in the American political system are assessed. The author concludes with a discussion of the relationship between the media and the public in the modern era, highlighting the changes in consumption of news and the effects of new media forms like the Internet. The main points made by the author in this chapter are as follows:
The American press was initially tied to the nation’s political party system (the partisan press) but gradually developed an independent position (the objective press). In the process, the news shifted from a political orientation, which emphasizes political values and ideas, to a journalistic orientation, which stresses newsworthy information and events.
In recent years, traditional news organizations have faced increased competition for people’s attention from cable and the Internet, which has contributed to audience fragmentation and an increase in opinionated and entertainment-laced journalism.
The news media have several functions—signaling (the press brings relevant events and problems into public view), common-carrier (the press serves as a channel through which leaders and citizens can communicate), watchdog (the press scrutinizes official behavior for evidence of deceitful, careless, or corrupt acts), and partisan (the press promotes particular interests and values). The traditional media contribute mainly to the first three functions while the “new” news media contribute mainly to the last one.
The news audience has been shrinking and fragmenting, partly as a result of new technology and partly because young adults are less likely than older ones to pay attention to news. One consequence has been a widening gap in the information levels of America’s more-attentive and less-attentive citizens.
The news media’s version of reality, usually with an emphasis on timely, dramatic, and compelling events and developments.
press (news media)
Those print and broadcast organizations that are in the news-reporting business.
Newspapers and other communication media that openly support a political party and whose news in significant part follows the party line.
A model of news reporting that is based on the communication of “facts” rather than opinions and that is “fair” in that it presents all sides of partisan debate.
signaling (signaler) function
The accepted responsibility of the media to alert the public to important developments as soon as possible after they happen or are discovered.
The power of the media through news coverage to focus the public’s attention and concern on particular events, problems, issues, personalities, and so on.
The accepted responsibility of the media to protect the public from incompetent or corrupt officials by standing ready to expose any official who violates accepted legal, ethical, or performance standards.
The media’s function as an open channel through which political leaders can communicate with the public.
The process by which the media play up certain aspects of a situation while downplaying other aspects, thereby providing a particular interpretation of the situation.
The process by which a communicated message, because of its content, activates certain opinions but not others.
Efforts by media actors to influence public response to a particular party, leader, issue, or viewpoint.
(Answers appear at the end of this chapter.)
1. Which of the following is true of the nation’s early newspapers?
a. They were committed to objective news reporting.
b. They were independent of the new political parties.
c. They were too expensive for the average citizen and they contained a lot of propaganda.
d. They were read by mass audiences.
e. None of these answers is correct.
2. ________ enhanced public support for a war in Cuba against Spain in 1898.
a. William Randolph Hearst
b. William McKinley
c. Theodore Roosevelt
d. Adolph Ochs
e. Franklin D. Roosevelt
3. Yellow journalism was replaced by
b. orange journalism.
c. biased reporting.
d. objective journalism.
e. None of these answers is correct.
4. ________ was the chief advocate of objective journalism.
a. William Randolph Hearst
b. Walter Cronkite
c. Frederic Remington
d. Theodore Roosevelt
e. Adolph Ochs
5. The Communications Act
a. deregulated radio broadcasting.
b. regulated television broadcasting.
c. provided subsidies for the development of television broadcasting.
d. brought an end to yellow journalism.
e. created the Federal Communications Commission.
6. ________ is responsible for the regulation of broadcasting.
b. The Securities and Exchange Commission
c. The Federal Communications Commission
d. The Department of Justice
e. The U.S. Attorney General
7. What is the “equal time” provision of the Communications Act?
a. It is a law that requires broadcasters to afford all political candidates the same opportunity to advertise at the same cost.
b. It is a law that requires presidential candidates to debate on television.
c. It is a law that requires broadcasters to afford all candidates the same opportunity to advertise at the same cost and requires presidential candidates to debate on television.
d. It is a law that requires that all presidential candidates get free air time before the election.
e. It is a decency standard created by the Supreme Court in 1938.
8. During the era of objective journalism,
a. newspapers were prohibited by law from editorializing.
b. broadcasters were prohibited by law from editorializing.
c. there were no official laws prohibiting editorializing in any media form.
d. both newspapers and broadcasters were prohibited from editorializing.
e. editorial bias was common in official news reporting.
9. Until the 1980s, broadcasters were bound by the ________, which required their news programming to treat fairly all sides of the debate on controversial issues.
a. Equal Time Doctrine
b. Fairness Doctrine
c. Clear and Present Danger Doctrine
d. Watchdog Doctrine
e. Common-Carrier Doctrine
10. The media’s ability to influence what is on people’s minds is referred to as
a. agenda setting.
b. the Fairness Doctrine.
c. yellow journalism.
d. objective journalism.
e. issue targeting.
11. More than 95 percent of the nation’s daily newspapers are serviced by
a. the New York Times.
d. the Associated Press.
e. Fox News.
12. The combined audience of the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening newscasts is now ________ that of the early 1980s.
13. Which of the following news media sources studiously avoids partisanship as part of its business model?
c. the Associated Press
e. the Huffington Post
14. Which of the following is true of the findings of political scientist Martin Wattenberg about the differences in news consumption and news awareness between older and younger adults?
a. The greater knowledge of current events possessed by young adults in the 1980s can be attributed to better education.
b. The rise of Internet news readership has contributed to a dramatic closing of the information gap.
c. Until the early 1970s, young adults were more knowledgeable about current events and leaders than senior citizens.
d. The information gap between younger and older adults was never greater than during the 1970s.
e. There was wide variation in news viewing habits by age in the 1950s.
15. Rupert Murdoch launched which news organization in 1996?
e. FOX News
16. Of the following nations, journalists in ________ are more likely to believe in partisan neutrality.
c. Great Britain
d. the United States
17. During the 2004 presidential election, it was revealed that documents presented by CBS news anchor Dan Rather as evidence that George W. Bush had shirked his national guard duties were forgeries. This represented
a. the media performing its common-carrier role.
b. the conservative bias of a major news network.
c. the origin of a major news story through radio.
d. the continued viability of the major news networks.
e. the origin of a major news story on the Internet.
18. The press was acting in its ________ role when the New York Times published the so-called “Pentagon Papers.”
d. public representative
19. As political scientist Markus Prior shows in Post-Broadcast Democracy, today’s media system contributes to
a. a reduction in the information gap.
b. partisan polarization.
c. an increase in political understanding by younger citizens.
d. an increased ability for government officials to control public interception of their message.
e. All these answers are correct.
20. Which role of the press provides leaders a channel through which to communicate with the public?
1. Over the course of American history, newspapers have become increasingly more partisan in their political coverage.
2. The New York Times embraced objective journalism in the late 1800s.
3. Both newspaper publishers and broadcasters have been equally subjected to regulation by the federal government to assign service areas for coverage.
4. The term “agenda setter” is used to describe the news media’s ability to influence what is on people’s minds.
5. In general, the press is less interested in reporting on institutions such as Congress or the courts than on people.
6. The American media often offer the American people widely different versions of the news.
7. The U.S. media are poorly equipped to play a signaling role.
8. Newer media rely on partisanship to build their audience to a greater degree than do traditional media.
9. Objective journalism is based on reporting “facts” rather than relating the opinions of the writer.
10. The media differ from interest groups and political parties in that the media are more inclined to promote and defend particular specific interests.
When was the height of journalistic power in the United States? What happened as a result?
How did the rise of cable television bring about an end to the Fairness Doctrine?
Do Americans experience a lot of diversity in the news they receive? Why or why not?
What are the four roles the media plays in contemporary society?
What strategies did newspaper owners employ to reduce the influence of yellow journalism and improve news standards?
Answers to the Practice Exam
Multiple Choice Answers
c 11. d
a 12. e
d 13. c
e 14. c
e 15. e
c 16. d
a 17. e
b 18. c
b 19. b
a 20. a
Multiple Choice Explanations
In the early years of the republic, in the days of flat presses, the cost of newspapers was beyond the reach of most American citizens. Most were illiterate anyway. In addition, due to low circulations, newspaper producers relied on parties financially, so they were compelled to print party propaganda. Thus, (c) is the correct answer.
By utilizing yellow journalism, William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal (a) drummed up public support for this endeavor.
The excesses of yellow journalism prompted some publishers to adopt a more responsible way of reporting the news. Objective journalism (d) ensued, based on the facts rather than opinions.
Adolph Ochs (e) bought the New York Times in 1896 and used objective journalism, which resulted in a sharp increase in daily circulation.
The Communications Act created the Federal Communications Commission (e) to oversee the process of regulating broadcasting.
The Federal Communications Commission (c), created in 1934, requires broadcasters to be licensed and meet certain performance standards.
Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1934 imposes the equal time restriction, which prohibits broadcasters from selling or giving airtime to a political candidate without offering to sell or give an equal amount of airtime to other candidates for the same office (a).
During the era of objective journalism, broadcasters were (b) prohibited by law from editorializing.
Today, broadcasters are no longer constrained by the Fairness Doctrine (b).
In their capacity as signalers, the media have the power to focus the public’s attention. The term agenda setting (a) has been used to describe the media’s ability to influence what is on people’s minds.
The Associated Press (AP) (d) is the major producer of the news in the United States.
The combined audience of the ABC, CBS, and NBC evening newscasts is now half that of the early 1980s (e).
The Associated Press (c) studiously avoids partisanship in preparing its stories because it serves the full range of American news outlets.
Wattenberg found that, until the early 1970s, young adults were actually more knowledgeable about current events and leaders than senior citizens, which he attributed largely to differences in education. Thus, the correct answer is (c).
Rupert Murdoch founded FOX News (e), which especially appeals to a conservative audience.
Partisan neutrality is endorsed at a higher rate among American (d) journalists than the others listed.
Bloggers were the first to identify as forgeries the government documents that Dan Rather, CBS news anchor, presented during the 2004 campaign as proof that President George W. Bush had shirked his National Guard duties in the early 1970s. Thus, the answer is (e).
The correct answer is (c); the documents revealed that the government had deceived the public by claiming that the war in Vietnam was going well when in fact it was going badly.
Political scientist Markus Prior shows in Post-Broadcast Democracy that today’s media system contributes to partisan polarization, so (b) is the correct response.
20. The common-carrier role (a) is a traditional role of the press and one for which it is relatively well-suited.
1. b 6. b
2. a 7. b
3. b 8. a
4. a 9. a
5. a 10. b
The height of journalistic power in the United States was the late nineteenth century. With the invention of newsprint and power-driven presses, many American newspapers were printing in excess of 50,000 copies a day. Large circulations enabled newspaper owners to charge high prices for advertising. While this was the zenith of journalistic power in the United States, it was also a low point in terms of responsibility to the public. Yellow journalism emerged during this era, as it enhanced circulation. The excesses of yellow journalism later prompted some publishers to consider ways of reporting the news more responsibly. As a result, objective journalism replaced yellow journalism, which emphasized reporting the facts rather than opinions.
Cable television was not required to adhere to the restrictions of the Fairness Doctrine because it is transmitted by privately-owned wire rather than broadcast over the public airways. The Fairness Doctrine remained in place initially for radio broadcasts because cable television reached only a limited number of homes. However, the explosive growth of cable television ultimately led the FCC to believe the Fairness Doctrine unnecessary. When more than 50 percent of homes had cable television, the FCC eliminated the Fairness Doctrine for any form of broadcast.
Americans do not experience a lot of diversity in the reporting of the news. Newspapers and broadcast stations tend to highlight the same national news stories and to interpret them in similar ways. Objective journalism is one reason the national news throughout the United States is pretty much the same. Unlike some European news systems, where journalism norms allow and even encourage reporters to present the news through a partisan lens, American reporters are expected to treat the political parties and their leaders in a balanced way. Another major reason for the homogeneity in news reporting is that news outlets depend on the wire services for most of their national coverage, which means that many news stories around the country are being reprinted from a single source. Most news producers lack the resources to cover all the major stories and rely on organizations like the Associated Press, to which 95 percent of the nation’s dailies subscribe.
Journalists fulfill four roles in contemporary society: the signaling role, the common-carrier role, the watchdog role, and the partisan representative role. The signaling role of journalists involves their accepted responsibility of alerting the public to important developments as soon as possible after they are discovered. In their common-carrier role, journalists provide political leaders with a channel through which to communicate with the public. This is very important, as it provides citizens with crucial information about their government and public policy. In the watchdog role, journalists accept the responsibility of protecting the public from deceitful and corrupt officials by exposing those who violate accepted standards of legal, ethical, or performance standards. Finally, the press has a partisan function. Although the traditional media perform this function to a degree, the newer media—the talk shows and blogs—specialize in it.
One strategy was economic—they separated their advertising divisions from their news reporting divisions, thus reducing the power of advertisers on news content. The major strategy was simply to adopt the policy of objective journalism—which is based on the reporting of “facts” rather than opinions and is “fair” in that it presents both sides of partisan debate. Objective reporting was also promoted through newly formed journalism schools so that newsmakers were directly trained in the new discipline.
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