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The Media's Influence On Public Opinion

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Humans are not born with fully formulated attitudes about politics, so where do they come from? The answer is political socialization, which is the way in which people learn about politics . There are a number of elements or agents involved in creating our political awareness, but this paper will focus on the mass mediaЎЇs role (particularly forms of news media) in constructing political reality in Western society.

One way that the media shapes our political reality is by mixing facts with opinions and in doing so manipulates messages. The amount of time and emphasis allocated to particular types of stories can also have an influence on what issues viewers perceive to be significant, over reporting some issues, while neglecting others, positions some issues at an unmerited advantage to others. The mass mediaЎЇs persuasive power over Western Democratic government is in its ability to spotlight issues and events labeling them as politically significant. The media also sets a pace for what topics need attention, and governments usually respond accordingly. News mediaЎЇs ability to persuade is changing with the Internet, now people no longer have to be content with spoon feedings of information they can easily investigate deeper if the wish to.

This paper will show the ways in which the media have an influence on peopleЎЇs political attitudes and the political the process itself, and also the changes that are occurring, in the mediaЎЇs influence, as the Internet gains popularity as a source of information.

To understand news mediaЎЇs influence it is important to understand how people use the media. On a basic level of analysis, communication media bridges the gap between us and the world outside of our isolated communities. A lot of people, also, count on news media to make sense of the world in an efficient way, as McCullagh contests that our world is becoming more complicated and people require more information. Most North Americans count on television newscasts as their primary source of information on politics, it is reported that 80 percent of the information that Americans receive about world issues comes from news media. Since most people do not have much first hand experience with the political process, they rely on the media for these experiences. For example most members of the public do not attend very many, if any, debates between politicians running for office, instead they use television or radio as a vehicle to gain access to such events.

Considering that the media helps us learn about the world, we must also consider that the path of information, provided by the media, connecting us to the world is not an unimpeded one; instead McCullagh proposes that the media work like a filter that picks and chooses what information get through to its audience . The commonly used term to describe the way the media decide what issues or events are considered significant is called agenda-setting. Bernard Cohen paints a clear picture of the mediaЎЇs role in setting the public agenda stating that ÐŽothe mass media may not be successful in telling people what to think, but the media are stunningly successful in telling their audience what to think about.ÐŽ±(Cohen). The theory of agenda setting does not try to suggest that the media has a complete stronghold over audiences thoughts and opinions, it merely illustrates the mediaЎЇs ability to direct public attention in particular directions.

The way that news communication covers elections is important in illustrating how journalist can manipulate the information audiences receive. Such manipulation can be observed when examining the way elections are covered by television media. McCullaugh notes a dramatic decrease in the amount of time allocated for the politicians, themselves, to speak about there platform and an increase in the amount of time used by journalist to speak about the election. In the 1992 and 1996 U.S. presidential election there was an imbalance in the amount of time allotted to the reporting journalists and the candidates by a ratio of 6 minutes to 1 minute . In other words, every minute of a politicianЎЇs direct speech was supplemented by six minutes of speech from the reporter. This trend has led to journalist becoming more like an ÐŽoarbiter, passing judgment on campaign events and strategies.ÐŽ± We see here that instead of allowing the audience to interpret or make sense of the election issues by themselves, journalist have stepped in to highlight and reinforce the part of the subject matter they find to be politically salient. This is a form of manipulation, as viewers associate a politicianЎЇs direct quote with the journalistЎЇs opinions.

One of the first things that I was taught when I started the broadcast journalism program at Mohawk College was ÐŽoif it bleeds, it leads,ÐŽ± meaning that the most sensational stories ÑŽuthat is the stories most likely to shock viewer ÑŽuis always given top priority. This key principle in the world of journalism is a guideline for journalist, editors, and producers to follow to prioritize stories. This popular selection practice may make people believe that the Top Stories, which are the most emphasized, are more important then other stories. For example, a story involving a violent crime is likely to lead a newscast and a story about a property crime is likely to be reported later in a newscast, if it gets reported at all. This can be misleading for viewers that could be lead to believe that violent crime is more prevalent than property crime, when the reverse is true; property crimes actually account for 95 percent of all crimes in industrialized countries. This is just one example of how over reporting and over emphasis on particular kinds of stories can shape misguided attitudes.

Some of the persuasive messages that come across in news media come across because of what is left out, through underreporting. Lewis notes experimental research done by Kulkinski and Quirk, about peopleЎЇs attitude regarding the welfare system, to show how underreporting can lead to misinformed opinions . One group of people were given a set of questions regarding the welfare system, in their responses, that group overestimated the amount of money welfare recipients received, the amount of people that received welfare benefits, and the percentage of tax dollars spent on the welfare system. The first group was inclined to see a reduction in the services provide by the welfare system. The second group was given the answers to the questions that were asked of the first group. Subsequently, the second group formulated an opinion that was more compassionate the idea of the government spending more money on welfare, than the first group that believed the government should decrease funds extended to the welfare

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