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1.15: Media

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    In 1787, the year of the Constitutional Convention, an Irish member of the British Parliament named Edmund Burke described reporters as a “fourth estate,” equal or superior to the three estates (the church, the nobles, and the commoners) that traditionally determined the course of European politics. Over a century later, American journalist Douglass Cater updated the concept for a democratic age when he deemed the press “the fourth branch of government.” News media have long been recognized as a formidable political force, albeit one that (in the United States at least) operates largely outside of formal government institutions.

    Photograph of New York Times headquarters in New York City
    The New York Times, one of the world’s most influential news organizations, is headquartered in a skyscraper bearing its name in downtown Manhattan.

    Despite its powerful reputation, though, Americans pay surprisingly little attention to the media. We consume media, of course — staggering amounts of them, in fact. But when we read, listen to, or watch the news, we almost never look at the media themselves. Instead, we look through them at the events on the other side — the president giving a speech, the senators bickering in Congress, the candidates campaigning, the natural disasters or terrorist attacks whose images captivate us. Intellectually, we know the media are there, with their journalists and anchors and cameras and graphics, yet they become for all practical purposes invisible to us, just like the glass pane separating us from what we’re seeing when we look through a window.

    But neglecting the glass between us and what we see can be dangerous (as any pigeon will tell you). If we forget about it, we won’t notice the ways it magnifies, minifies, blurs, obscures, or otherwise distorts our vision, and we might mistakenly attribute those qualities to something other than the window itself. Similarly, what we observe through media is not reality itself but one particular version of reality, filtered through a lens that, whether by accident or intention, does not always faithfully render the world as it truly is.

    A media environment completely free of these distortions and limitations is impossible. Nor can we do away with media entirely and perceive the world directly: the world is far too big, and we are far to small, to personally encounter everything important to us. What we can do is will ourselves to think about media themselves — what they are, how they work, how they shape democratic politics — as a means of better understanding these windows to the world on which we rely.

    Mass Media

    We experience almost none of what counts as “the news” firsthand. Occasionally we are in the right place at the right time — or, perhaps more accurately, the wrong place at the wrong time — to witness news happening with our own eyes and ears. The soldier in a war zone knows the outcome of the battle from having personally fought it; the congressional intern hears the roll call of votes leading up to the passage of a major bill; the victim of a tornado emerges from a basement to find what was once a house reduced to rubble. Each of these stories might appear in the same nightly news broadcast, but it would be extremely rare (and unlucky) for anyone to have personally lived through more than one of them that day, and most of us will have had direct experience with none.

    Instead, we encounter most news through the prism of the media. The word medium can refer to anything that exists between two other things, such as a size of clothing between small and large. In the realm of communication, a medium is something — a newspaper, a radio show, a television program, a website — that passes on information about the world to us. In other words, a news medium exists in the space between us and the world about which we might like to know but which we cannot experience directly.

    Almost anything can function as a medium. When your friends tell you about a party you didn’t attend, they are acting as media, placing themselves between you and the events on which they are reporting. Most of the time, however, we use the term media to refer to mass media, modes of communication that can reach large audiences relatively quickly. Your friends can only tell so many people about the party by themselves, but if they post about it on a mass medium like Twitter, millions of people might find out about it (for better or worse).

    Recognizing the role of media in telling us about the world is essential to understanding its power. Because we experience nearly all news through media, we react not to the world as it is but rather to the world as our media present it. American journalist Walter Lippmann referred to this presentation as a pseudo-environment, the “picture in our heads” that is partly based on the real world but distorted by assumptions, misinterpretations, and stereotypes — both our own and those of our media. (Lippmann was the first to use the word stereotype to refer to prejudices about people or places.)

    The concept of pseudo-environments can help explain why people frequently react to the same news in drastically different ways. Our own reactions to news seem perfectly natural and reasonable to us, and we are often baffled when others’ reactions seem wholly unnatural and unreasonable. We forget that what we are reacting to is not the world itself but rather a pseudo-environment shaped partly by the media we consume and partly by our own prejudices and preconceptions, most of which are not shared by all. Even if our own pseudo-environment happens to be the most accurate one — and we seem to always to be confident that it is, whether or not we should be — it’s entirely possible and even likely that the seemingly inexplicable behavior of other people is in fact an entirely sensible response to their pseudoenvironments.

    The Evolution of News

    Something like news reporting has existed since at least 59 B.C., when Julius Caesar ordered that government deeds and other important events be publicized in the Acta Diurna (“Daily Acts”), stone carvings displayed on regularly-updated public message boards. Though technological advances dramatically improved the efficiency of the publishing industry over the centuries, by the time of the American Revolutionary War information still traveled at a rate that was extremely slow by today’s standards. Printed pamphlets that could be passed from reader to reader were popular in the colonies, but it might take two months for news from Boston to travel down to Savannah this way. When Paul Revere famously rode from town to town in 1775 to alert colonists of approaching British regulars, the speed of breaking news was literally a horse’s gallop.

    Early American pamphlets and newspapers were manufactured using hand-operated printing presses to stamp ink onto paper. The use of the term press to refer collectively to all news media — as in “freedom of the press,” “press conference,” or “press release” — is a holdover from the days when newspapers were essentially the only game in town. This and many other journalistic terms derived from the newspaper industry (such as headline and column) are still commonly used today, even for nonprint media.

    For the first century-and-a-half of the United States’ independence, the printed word was its dominant news source. Newspapers remained unchallenged until the arrival of commercial radio in 1920. Radio did not completely displace print publications, but it did offer the option to listen to the news rather than read it. During the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “fireside chats” brought the voice of the president into Americans’ homes in a way that was impossible in the days before radio. When Roosevelt addressed Congress in 1941 to call for a declaration of war with Japan in the aftermath of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, almost four out of every five American households were tuned in to hear what he had to say.

    On the heels of radio came television, which also dramatically changed mass media, this time by enabling Americans to not only listen to but also watch the news from the comfort of their living rooms. Television ownership in the United States exploded in the 1950s: fewer than 10% of households owned a television set at the start of the decade, but over 85% did by the end of it. By the 1960s, television had dethroned newspapers as Americans’ number one source for news. (Around the same time, total newspaper circulation began to plateau and then decline.)

    When television took over as the top news medium in the United States, the menu of televised news was extremely limited. The “Big Three” networks — ABC, CBS, and NBC — each offered only a few hours of news per day at most, using the rest of their airtime for entertainment programming unless there was a big event to cover, such as election results or a major party’s national convention. The popularization of cable television greatly increased the number of channels from which viewers could choose and enabled the establishment of 24-hour news networks, beginning with CNN in 1980. (CNN’s acronym stands for “Cable News Network,” because at the time it was the only one of its kind.) Unlike network news, cable news was available anytime Americans wanted to watch it, although much of the 24-hour news cycle consisted of repeat broadcasts.

    Television remains a major source of news in the United States, but the emergence of the Internet kick-started yet another upheaval in the news ecosystem. What was once the domain of only the most tech-savvy became commonplace as more and more American households gained broadband Internet access (as Figure 15.1 below demonstrates). Much of the news consumed on the Internet was — and still is — produced by “legacy” media (like the New York Times, National Public Radio, or CNN), which now publish online content in addition to their print, radio, and television offerings. However, the relatively low cost of setting up a website compared to starting a newspaper or television network also paved the way for “digitally native” news organizations (such as Breitbart News, HuffPost, or Politico) to become influential producers and disseminators of news.

    Line chart showing the percentage of Americans using the Internet from 1990 to 2023, according to DataReportal and the International Telecommunication Union
    Figure 15.1: Percentage of Americans using the Internet, 1990–2023 (Sources: DataReportal, International Telecommunication Union)

    Widespread Internet access paved the way for another revolution in news consumption in the form of social media. Although the meteoric rise of social networks such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter was not primarily motivated by a desire for news consumption, these platforms proved to be powerful conduits for information about current events. Social media offer unprecedented levels of news interactivity: users can instantaneously comment on and share stories with friends, relatives, and total strangers. They can also spread uncorroborated falsehoods this way, which for a number of reasons have a much easier time going viral on social media than being disseminated through other media. Concerns about so-called “fake news” have not dimmed social media’s popularity: today, half of all Americans say they sometimes or often get news from social media.

    Media Effects

    Americans have long been suspicious of the influence news media have on the political attitudes and opinions of their audiences. Early scholars of political communication shared these suspicions. When the horrors the Holocaust came to light in the aftermath of World War II, many feared that the extent to which the German people seemed to have condoned the atrocities committed by their government proved the almighty power of propaganda to manipulate public opinion, and worried that similar messages could warp America’s democracy into a totalitarian regime like Nazi Germany.

    This theory of media effects, that people would blindly adopt whatever viewpoints the media projected onto them, was not supported by scientific evidence. Media experiments repeatedly failed to alter political attitudes, and the minor opinion changes they did manage to produce were generally short-lived. These studies quelled academics’ fears of a propaganda-driven descent into dictatorship, but they also raised another question: if Americans were so impervious to media effects, how could the media ever hope to inform them about the issues they were expected to understand as informed voters?

    Modern assessments of media effects have concluded that media do influence the attitudes and opinions of their audiences, primarily through a process called agenda setting. Covering a topic in the news increases its perceived importance, especially when the coverage is particularly prominent, lengthy, or repeated. The media-consuming public, in turn, become more likely to think about the topic in question, and to evaluate other political objects — such as the president’s job performance — with that topic in mind. One explanation for this effect is priming: seeing or hearing something in the news can increase its salience, just as seeing or hearing it from any other source would. Another explanation is that people are taking cues from their news media: if a topic is discussed on the news, someone must have thought it was important enough to discuss.

    The Adversarial Press

    Exchanges between the news media and the government are often contentious and occasionally outright hostile. Reporters aggressively interrogate politicians in an attempt to trap them in contradictions, and politicians brusquely refuse to comment or question reporters’ professionalism or integrity. Journalists seem to delight in pouncing on scandals and exposing the details for the world to see, and politicians relish when their journalistic foes get caught making embarrassing factual errors and are forced to eat crow. (Sometimes this animosity gets physical: the current Governor of Montana, Greg Gianforte, once body-slammed a reporter the day before an election.)

    Photograph of White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki holding a daily press briefing in the White House
    White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki takes questions from reporters during a White House daily briefing.

    It can be challenging to interpret the way politicians and journalists get along — or fail to get along — as anything resembling a healthy relationship. But this tension, like many other seemingly dysfunctional aspects of American politics, is mostly by design. The freedom of the press enshrined in the First Amendment was put there because the Founders recognized the need for media to be a formidable adversary to government, capable of holding it accountable by asking tough questions and getting on politicians’ nerves (though they probably weren’t thinking of body slams at the time). Thomas Jefferson underscored the importance of the media when he wrote, “[W]ere it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

    The United States has long been one of world’s strongest bastions of press freedoms. With very few exceptions (such as military secrets which could endanger the lives of Americans if published), information is not subject to prior restraint, meaning the government cannot prevent its publication. News organizations may face lawsuits if they publish false information that damages someone’s reputation (which is called libel when published in print and slander otherwise). However, slander and libel laws are notoriously loose in the United States, particularly when public figures are involved, giving American media considerable leeway to report what they want, how they want.

    Americans have a long history of not taking kindly to attempts by the government to limit freedom of the press. The Sedition Act of 1798, which restricted the ability of newspapers to criticize the government, was so widely reviled by the public that it contributed to President John Adams’s failed reelection bid and the collapse of his Federalist Party, which had supported the law.

    A crucial component of the American news media’s ability to check the government is its private nature. Though some news organizations, including NPR and the Voice of America, are wholly or partly dependent on government funding, most are owned and operated by private individuals or corporations. This privatization contrasts starkly with many other countries, particularly in Europe, where publicly-owned news organizations make up a much larger share of the media environment. Proponents of private media argue that public ownership and oversight make media less of a “watchdog,” capable of alerting the public to government corruption and misdeeds, and more of a “lapdog,” beholden to the government’s whims. Although some countries (such as Denmark, South Korea, and the United Kingdom) do a decent job of holding politicians accountable while relying heavily on public media, others (such as Hungary, Iran, and North Korea) clearly suffer from a lack of privatization and media independence.

    Media privatization, however, is not a panacea. Privately owned news organizations may be better equipped to criticize government due to their lack of dependence on public funding, but this also means they must rely on other sources of revenue to stay in operation. This revenue often takes the form of advertising and subscriptions, which can make private media less willing to cover stories in ways that might displease their advertisers or subscribers.

    The extent to which private media are influenced by their owners’ predilections also raises concerns. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post for $250 million in 2013 led to speculation that his ownership might dissuade the Post from reporting negative information about Amazon’s business practices. When former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched his presidential campaign in 2019, the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News — a company founded and still owned by its namesake — instructed his reporters not to investigate Bloomberg or any of his Democratic opponents (but to continue investigating President Donald Trump). Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter in 2022 brought major and controversial changes to the platform’s policies for content moderation and account verification, prompting questions about whether Musk was saving Twitter or sabotaging it. These and other incidents demonstrate the potential for conflicts of interest to influence private as well as public reportage.

    Media Bias

    One of the central tenets of journalism is that of objectivity. A reporter’s first loyalty, according to this ideal, should always be to the truth, warts and all. An objective news organization is a fair one, covering both sides of every story — or, if there are more than two, as many sides as there are — without favoring any side in particular, except insofar as the facts themselves clearly favor one side. Cherry-picking facts to promote a particular viewpoint or injecting one’s own opinion into reporting runs counter to this standard.

    Objectivity has not always been the norm for media in the United States. Early American newspapers gave little thought to projecting an aura of fairness and impartiality, openly advocating for and against parties, candidates, and policies with little concern for factual accuracy. In the late 1800s, publishers began attempting to cultivate reputations for objectivity as a way to attract wider audiences, even though their actual reporting didn’t always live up to those reputations.

    Technological changes created new reasons for news organizations to strive for objectivity. To prevent competing signals from crowding the airwaves and rendering them unusable, Congress established the Federal Communications Commission in 1934 to issue radio (and, later, television) broadcasting licenses and regulate frequencies. Radio and television stations were required to dedicate a portion of their broadcasting time to “public interest” programming such as news reports, and were initially required to remain neutral in their reporting. The adoption of the fairness doctrine in 1949 removed the neutrality stipulation but required radio and television broadcasters to present opposing political views in their reporting, a requirement which remained in force until 1987. These regulations bolstered Americans’ faith in their news: Walter Cronkite, who anchored the CBS Evening News for almost two decades, was crowned “the most trusted man in America” by a national poll in 1972.

    The arrival of cable television and the Internet brought new business models to the media industry. Whereas newspapers and television networks had in the past promoted their objectivity to appeal to as many people as possible, it was now possible to build a profitable news organization while catering to a smaller segment of the population. Moreover, many Americans actually preferred news coverage that was tilted toward their side of the issues. The Fox News Channel, launched in 1996, quickly became recognized as a conservative alternative to other network and cable channels, allowing it to lead all cable news networks in viewership for over two decades beginning in 2002. Other channels such as MSNBC followed Fox News’s lead but in the opposite direction, taking a more openly liberal stance.

    Most discussions of media bias center on partisan bias, which favors or opposes a particular party. (Ideological bias is also often mentioned, but because party and ideology overlap so closely in today’s America the difference between it and partisan bias is slight.) Left-leaning media organizations produce news that makes Democrats look good and Republicans look bad, and right-leaning media organizations do the opposite. This bias needn’t involve outright lying: news stories can be framed to make one side seem more noble or sympathetic than the other, or certain facts can be omitted while others are promulgated, or information can be interpreted in favorable or unfavorable terms. (Figure 15.2 below lists several dozen online news providers according to their reputations for partisan or ideological bias.)

    Chart showing selected online news sources by bias in 2023, according to AllSides
    Figure 15.2: Selected online news sources by bias, 2023 (Source: AllSides. Note: Ratings apply to news only, not opinion pieces.)

    A less commonly discussed but equally (if not more) important form of media bias is newsworthy bias. Whether a news organization leans to the left, right, or center, it must regularly draw enough readers, listeners, or viewers to remain attractive to advertisers or subscribers (if it is privately owned) or justify continued government spending on it (if it is publicly owned). The drive to increase and maintain an audience causes media to prioritize sensational, attention-grabbing stories at the expense of dull or boring ones, and to present the stories they cover in appealing ways. Another round of congressional haggling over the budget might have a greater impact on Americans’ lives than the latest celebrity divorce, but the latter will sell far more magazines and get far more clicks than the former. Bad news holds the public’s attention better than good news, and violence is especially irresistible — hence the old reporter’s adage: “If it bleeds, it leads.” And, of course, all of the foregoing will captivate news consumers more if accompanied by slick graphics packages and dramatic musical motifs. (Check YouTube for a stale Walter Cronkite broadcast from the 1970s and compare it to a flashy modern broadcast to see how much this presentation can add to — or subtract from — the news.)

    Americans’ trust in news media has eroded since its peak in the mid 20th century, in part because of concerns about media bias. Ultimately, though, it is impossible to report the news without bias. Every news organization has a finite “news hole” — pages in a newspaper, minutes or hours of broadcast time, space on a website’s homepage — that it can fill with news, yet every day there are far more events than any one of them could possibly cover. Which events become “the news,” how much coverage each one gets, and the order in which they are prioritized are all choices that reporters, editors, and media executives have to make on a daily or even hourly basis. There is no objective answer to the question of which stories “deserve” to be covered, nor to the question of how much more coverage any one story merits relative to any other. Whatever choices news media make will inevitably reflect their preferences, prejudices, and biases, no matter how hard they strive to avoid them.

    Politics, Filtered

    Our ability to assess how well our government is working depends on our ability to see it in action, and the only way for us to do so beyond the limitations of our personal experience is through media. In that sense, media function somewhat like a control panel or dashboard for the American political machine. We tend to instinctively trust the indicators and gauges on machines to alert us when an issue requires our attention. We usually don’t consider the possibility that a blinking light or beeping noise might be a false alarm — or, worse, that a serious problem might be present even though no warnings are announcing it.

    The nature of news is such that any image of the world it can provide us will necessarily be incomplete, simplified, and warped to a certain degree by a combination of partisan, ideological, governmental, and commercial influences. The end result might be a faithful account of what actually happened, or it might bear little to no resemblance to reality. Occasionally, these distortions are so blatant that we almost can’t ignore them, but the vast majority slip past our radars without us noticing.

    Yet as powerful as the media are, they do not determine what the news is and how it will be covered entirely on their own. The private, commercialdriven media environment in the United States ensures that news organizations are constantly trying to guess what their audiences want so that they can give it to them and keep them tuned in. This compulsion creates a chicken-and-egg scenario: the media’s agenda-setting capacity causes the public to believe that the stories they cover are important, but the media’s choice of which stories to cover is guided largely by what they think the public wants them to cover.

    The relationship between news media and their audiences demonstrates that we the people have some of the power to define the news. If we demand coverage that is accurate, unbiased, nuanced, and relevant to our role as democratic citizens (and choose our media based on these criteria), news organizations will offer it to us in order to keep us reading, listening, and watching. If instead we are content with dubious, one-sided, shallow, and trivial news stories — the media equivalent of junk food that satisfies without nourishing — news organizations have already proven they are more than willing to give it to us.

    This page titled 1.15: Media is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Benjamin R. Kantack (Tekakwitha Press) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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